In 1989 when Esprit's owner Doug Tompkins directed his employees to research ways to produce clothes that would reduce environmental impacts, he was envisioning a future in which ecology played an integral part in the business world. The result, called the Ecollection, was a line of organic cotton, wool and linen, and tencel clothing. Low impact dyes reduced water and energy inputs and local co-ops handled production. The Ecollection only went international after it started working with Aid to Artisans, a nonprofit that acts as a catalyst to encourage artisan commerce, supporting self-sufficiency, jobs, and incomes while preserving cultural traditions around the world.
The Ecollection soon inspired other apparel manufacturers, such as Patagonia's Common Threads Recycling Program and Nike's Nike Considered and Reuse-A-Shoe. Mass-market companies such as Marks and Spencer have subsequently been influenced by these programs to make responsible choices at the corporate level in terms of materials and sourcing, and Levi's and The Gap are rumored to be on the road to lower-impact ecological and social practices as well.
Also energizing the eco-fashion and luxury eco-trend are emerging and recently established companies that are taking the sector beyond niche classification and thrusting it into the mainstream. Project Alabama is a fashion house of 150 artisans who recycle t-shirt fabric and hand sew it into women's apparel. American Apparel produces sweatshop free apparel out of its Los Angeles factory; its Sustainable Edition boasts 100% organic cotton for men, women and children. Ecoganik is an eco and organic boutique carrying hemp, organic cotton and recycled materials. Harricana, the creation of a Quebecois designer, recycles fur. Gaelyn & Cianfarari use recycled bicycle tires to create high-end apparel that often takes on the appearance of leather.
These companies are championing a more responsible process of design and production. Their products require less raw material, energy, and volatile chemicals, making these clothes healthier than conventional clothing both for the earth and on the body. Here's a line-up of who's doing what in eco-fashion and where to shop for clothes that are good for you.
The Axis of Eco
Loomstate uses 100% organic cotton, free of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers and is a creation of Rogan, which produces organic, stylish denim. Together, these three companies promote organic cultivation over industrial farming, supporting the shift away from pesticide-intensive practices.
The Luxury Environmentalist
Showcasing a spring 2006 line under the same white tents as Valentino, Calvin Klein and L.A.M.B at New York's fashion week was someone just as exciting, glamorous and a whole lot more ethical—luxury eco-fashionista Linda Loudermilk. The LA designer uses unconventional materials like bamboo for cotton, seacell poplin as a woven, a Japanese plant called sasawashi for linen, along with other textiles like lenpur, soya, sustainable cotton mesh, and sustainable silk chiffon to create her couture camis, blazers, gowns, and pant suits.
“We're aspiring to environmental goods the way people aspire to a Fendi or a Gucci purse. If you buy a Fendi purse, you are going to keep it forever, and luxury eco is that same market," says Loudermilk. "These fabrics feed your skin. These materials feel good.”
The Renegade Recycler
With a growing desire to shop and dress responsibly, what's to be done with decades of fashion created under suspect conditions, and with environmentally unfriendly materials? Throwing them away is by no means sustainable. That pleather trench coat certainly isn't biodegradable. Enter Deborah Lindquist, a California-based designer who for the last twenty years has been repurposing old and vintage clothing and accessories and recycling them into reconstructed pieces. Using recycled cashmere, vintage kimonos, saris and scarves to design corsets and bustiers, she is turning old environmental mistakes into long-lasting, thoughtful, wearable art. Recently, she added soya, organic cotton, and silken bamboo to her knits.
“I've always liked old things. A lot of recycled stuff may be from an original source that was not great. But my line keeps it from being thrown away. I don't like to waste things,” says Lindquist.
By Shira Levine