Forget Birkenstocks. The new generation of ecofashion even works with Blahniks
By Sarah Childress and Ginanne Brownell
Newsweek, March 14, 2005
Here's a peek into your closet of the future. That sleek bodysuit? Woven from bamboo threads. The orange sheath? Corn fiber. The sequins on that red bolero jacket? Recycled Coke cans. All of these one-of-a-kind creations made their debut during the recent New York Fashion Week, where designers like Oscar de la Renta and Diane von Furstenberg demonstrated their newly green cred in a show of environmentally friendly fashion. Expect more styles like them at a store near you very soon. This week, Bono and his wife, longtime anti-nuke activist Ali Hewson, will launch their own ecofashion line, Edun (nude spelled backwards), which is produced in family-run factories in Africa and South America, not sweatshops. They'll join designers like Katharine Hamnett in Britain and Los Angeles-based Linda Loudermilk, who have helped pioneer the concept of "conscious commerce," encouraging consumers to make decisions based on their convictions as well as esthetics. "You can make a healthy profit," says Hewson, "and at the end of the day, people know that the clothes they are wearing have a good story behind them."
It's not enough to just look good anymore. These designers believe you have to do good as well by using only Earth-friendly fabrics manufactured under humane working conditions. When ecofashion was born in the early '90s, most of the clothes seemed inspired by "granola and brown rice," says Florida designer Marci Zaroff, who has been championing organic fabrics for nearly two decades. "I certainly was not interested in wearing a paper bag." Most consumers agreed, refusing to sacrifice style in order to save the planet. But in the past few years, new technology has led to softer, more versatile fabrics that inspired designers: gossamer silk blended with hemp, lush taffeta made from corn. What could be more perfect for hopping in your new hybrid car to pick up veggies at the local organic market? According to the Organic Trade Association's 2004 manufacturer survey, sales of organic fiber products jumped 22.7 percent in 2003, with women's clothing the fastest-growing category.
That boom comes from buyers like Roberta Gray, who threw away most of her old clothes to make room for a new wardrobe from Greenloop, a boutique in Portland, Ore. A newly converted vegetarian and yogi, Gray, 43, wanted clothes that matched her healthier lifestyle. "When I buy things there, they last," she says. "They're of good quality, and I feel good about that."
Some designers are reaching for consumers like Gray in novel ways. Zaroff unveiled her newest collection at the Whole Foods megastore in Austin, Texas, last week. Others, like Bono and Hewson, stick to the traditional venues. Edun launches this week at 46 Saks stores across the United States and will also be on sale at Barneys New York. But no matter what the surroundings, Hewson says the message will still resonate with buyers who are troubled by reports of forced labor and physical abuse in clothing factories. "Shopping has become politics," Hewson says. She and Bono specifically chose factories with reputations for fair labor practices. Saks vice chairman Ronald Frasch thinks buyers will respond. "I do believe Edun will open some eyes and will be more than a trend," he says.
If that happens, perhaps no one will be more pleased than designer Lynda Grose. She spearheaded Esprit's Ecollection line in the early '90s; it was discontinued after just a few years. Grose now teaches an ecofashion course at the California College of the Arts and she's had to cap enrollment, turning away many young designers who want to combine style and substance. She and other pioneers planted the seeds. Now they get to see their gardens grow.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.