Wearing Your Values

Eco-Fashions are on Today’s Runways

During New York’s famed Fashion Week last February, there was one show that drew environmentalists along with the trendy regulars and entertainment celebrities. Such well-known designers as Diane von Furstenberg, Halston and Oscar de la Renta participated in FutureFashion, a show featuring outfits made from eco-friendly fabrics and materials. It was an unusual marriage of upscale elegance with sustainability.

Linda Loudermilk"s fall collection includes a bamboo jersey jacket, tank top made with reclaimed French lace and pants made of the leaf fiber sasawashi.

The New York-based Earth Pledge sponsored FutureFashion with some fashion muscle provided by Barneys New York, the clothing store that epitomizes what’s in style. Although it may take some time for eco-friendly couture to go mainstream, FutureFashion may have been a watershed moment.

Barneys was very involved in FutureFashion and helped convince the top designers to participate. The store featured the eco-outfits in its windows for several weeks after the show was over. How far Barneys will go with eco-fashion is unclear, but Barneys" vice president and fashion director Julie Gilhart has an open mind. "We’re a high-end specialty store but it’s starting," she says. "I was quite surprised that the designs were so sophisticated for using sustainable fabrics, because usually we associate that with not-so-stylish clothing. This FutureFashion show proves that there’s definitely a future for environmentally friendly fashion."

Richie Rich, a co-designer at Heatherette, one of the hottest labels in the fashion world, created a silver recycled polyester bustier and a pink-and-yellow skirt out of corn fiber, and was exuberant after the show about the experience with eco-materials.

"It’s definitely something that we’re going to continue toying with," Rich said. "People often perceive the fashion world as superficial, so it’s great to work with materials that are actually good for the environment—it makes sense. I had my doubts and preconceived notions, but when we actually saw the fabric swatches we were blown away. They were gorgeous, and it wasn’t hard to design with them."

Eco-Fashion Moves Up

The new movement is responding to a serious environmental concern about conventionally grown cotton and wool, among others. But, you may ask, isn’t cotton the "fabric of our lives?" Actually, according to the Sustainable Cotton Project, a third of a pound of pesticides, which contain known and suspected carcinogens, are used to make a simple cotton t-shirt. And a disproportionate 25 percent of all pesticides and fertilizers are used on cotton. Conventional wool comes from sheep that are plunged into a pool of pesticides, often containing organophosphates to kill lice and parasites. After the wool is sheared and scoured, pesticide residue in the sludge is prone to pollute waterways downstream from the farms and processing plants.

Bono-backed Edun has burst onto the fashion scene with organic cotton clothes and a determination to pay fair wages to foreign garment workers.©Jean-Francois Carly

Launched to provide an alternative to chemically treated clothing, the eco-fashion business has been slow to catch on, and was for years linked to potato sacks and oddly styled t-shirts. These days, fine natural fabrics made from organic cotton, wool and linen, tencel (made from wood pulp), hemp, bamboo, Ingeo (made from corn) and silk are used to create sharp, stylish outfits. After much experimentation with these materials over the past 15 years, even such household names as Patagonia, Nike and Timberland have embraced the concept.

Lynda Grose, a former designer with eco-pioneer clothier Esprit, now works with the nonprofit Sustainable Cotton Project and teaches green fashion at California College of the Arts. She acknowledges that things weren’t always up to speed with organic cotton, which is the most widely used eco-fabric.

"It’s a much more stable business than it was before," Grose explains. "There’s more quantity and consistency, and many more mills are involved. There are finer counts of yarn, so garments are less inclined to pill. Now there are wovens too, which greatly opens up the design possibilities. It’s not all t-shirts and knits."

The key is enticing people with green clothing that is also attractive. Los Angeles-based designer Linda Loudermilk is taking eco-fashion to the next level, and is in her fourth season of creating what she calls "luxury eco." Prices range from $350 to $1,700 on garments that, in her words, "are about connecting bling with the environment."

Loudermilk didn’t have much of an environmental sense when she started out designing and it struck her at an unlikely time—shortly after being honored as the only American invited to show her line at a 2002 Paris fashion show. "All of the sudden, it hit me that I wasn’t fulfilling my soul," she says.

She is now, using such materials as organic cotton, reclaimed antique lace, lenpur (wood pulp), soy, bamboo, recycled bottles and what seems to be her favorite, sasawashi, a linen-like fabric made from a Japanese leaf that contains anti-allergen and anti-bacterial properties. Loudermilk has also incorporated natural themes in each season’s line—her recent one has an oceanic motif.

Of the Earth and Edun

It’s hard to make it in the fashion world, even without adhering to strong environmental standards, but Héléne Bisnaire and Richard Ziff’s company Of the Earth is the exception. The pair first sold their wares in 1992 at music and craft festivals. Now, Of the Earth clothing can be found at stores as diverse as City Sports and Whole Foods. According to Ziff, Of the Earth sells millions of dollars worth of merchandise each year (with prices ranging from $14 for a grocery bag to $80 for a hemp/silk dress) and has been growing at an annual rate of 40 percent.

"Although we’ve been doing this for years, it seems that organic apparel has quickly become accepted in the last 18 months," Ziff says. "It’s exciting to know that it’s finally here and here to stay. There’s improvement in every aspect in production and the organic thing is hip now. But it’s something that’s beyond a trend. It’s a lifestyle decision. People who eat organic food taste the difference, and they like the way these clothes feel. It becomes a lifelong commitment."

Eco-fashion recently got a big boost in exposure when the singer Bono, his wife Ali Hewson and designer Rogan Gregory (of the all-organic Loomstate clothing line), joined forces to develop the Edun brand (Edun is "nude" spelled backwards, as well as a play on the biblical reference). Edun’s organic cotton t-shirts ($55 to $58) and sweatshirts ($163) made in Tunisia and Peru constitute 20 percent of the line, and are selling at such high-end stores as Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue. Not surprisingly given Bono’s second job campaigning for economic justice, Edun has a firm commitment to a fair and humane workplace.

Eco-friendly fashions are new to the store, says Saks" senior fashion director Michael Fink. "Edun’s had a great reception and it’s selling quite amazingly," says Fink. "It could inspire a major movement."

Although budget-conscious shoppers may be shocked by Loudermilk and Edun’s high sticker prices, New York City-based fashion model Summer Rayne Oakes, a coordinator for the Organic Portraits project (www

.organic portraits.org) and a designer of an eco-fashion curriculum in conjunction with Recyclebank (www. ecofashion101.com) puts it in perspective: "Implementing "eco" in mainstream high-fashion labels is a necessary step for inspiring celebrities, consumers and design chains."

According to Oakes, "Lower-end and lifestyle brand lines will be quick to emulate their fashion-forward predecessors with more affordable garments." Oakes points to ecologically conscious (and affordable) lines already underway by American Apparel, Timberland, Whole Foods, Nike and Eddie Bauer.

Oakes adds, "There are a number of roads that need to be crossed before major labels begin embracing environmentally and socially conscious fabrics." She says more groundwork needs to be done on the supply-side of organic fibers and she says there also needs to be more investment in partnerships to build the sustainability movement in the fashion industry.

Bono modestly admits his role has more to do with his celebrity status than his style ("I"m the man who brought you the mullet," he joked). "Look, the world doesn’t need another fashion brand; we understand that. But we don’t think that this is just another one," Bono explained at the Edun launch. "It’s different. At the very heart of it is the idea of four respects: respect for what your clothes are made of, respect for who is making them, respect for where they are made and respect for the people who are going to put them on."

Not a bad endorsement of eco-fashion from one of the world’s biggest stars, who has inspired legions of fans to wear wrap-around sunglasses (and the aforementioned mullet), and who is also a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Edun will, in fact, be making the concert t-shirts for U2’s next tour, which should put organic, fair-traded cotton on many, many backs.

JOEL GERSHON is a New York-based freelance writer.