March 31, 2011

Sustainable Fashion Reborn

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Last Wednesday Cornell hosted one of its more unusual alums, one Summer Rayne Oakes ’04, in a talk sponsored by the Sustainability Hub and Greeks Go Green. Oakes graduated with degrees in Environmental Science and Entomology, and has since become a public advocate of sustainable fashion design as a consultant and cause-driven fashion model.

While Oakes has garnered media attention and made strides in her research efforts to help designers become sustainable, she could do nothing to prevent the downturn of green fashion in these years of recession. Although “green design” quickly became an industry buzzword, it just as quickly fizzed out as a viable marketing technique. Customers proved unwilling to pay premiums for organic threads, and weren’t drawn in to stores by this enticement alone. In short, no one knows you are wearing organic cotton, and in most instances it isn’t more stylish than a normal cotton blouse, so why bother?

In addition to lack of consumer appeal, sourcing and production issues are also a problem around “green fashion”. For example, when The Gap set about creating an organic cotton line, they soon found out there is actually not enough organic cotton available in the world to satisfy their production quantities. As for creating products like shoes out of leather alternatives, designers have to turn to plastics, which are petroleum-based and therefore unsustainable. And while reuse and recycle of fabric is an appealing idea, it is an unreliable business model.

These limitations have choked the green fashion movement in retail circles of late. But the good news is that sustainable design needn’t only address “green” design. While green fashion has been fading, there has been another trend afoot in the fashion world.

While the recession was sobering for designers who had to lower their price points and therefore their quality, it was an opportunity for some designers to go in the opposite direction: up, not down.

One such company that has proven surprisingly successful is “The Row,” an American women’s luxury wear firm run by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. The Row began in 2006 with the simple idea of perfecting basic garments like the t-shirt in the most exquisite fabrics. It has continued on this trajectory to the point where it is now showing the most basic coat in printed goatskin, the perfect blazer in burgundy astrakhan fur, and as always, t-shirts in cashmere knits.

This is a quiet company. The products are quietly perfect and thoughtfully designed to elevate a woman’s wardrobe and be worn for a long time. The collections can be mixed and worn like uniforms, over and over again. In this sense, it is one of the more “sustainable” design firms in the United States. They do not purport to be “green,” but they are indeed responsible. All of their production occurs in New York City. The prices are very high, but the quality corresponds.

In addition to The Row, the two most “green” companies in fashion are Timberland and Patagonia, although they are both pretty quiet about it. Those products are not in the same sector as The Row, but they are equally exemplary for the attention to end use and life span that they are imbued with.

So, while “sustainable design” may be fading to black, the buzzwords of craft and responsibility may be the new green.

Original Author: Amelia Brown