Bridging the Lifestyle Gap

All things new start with a need. Me starting a clothing line was no exception. Like a new addiction, Bali and Saint James had me looking for more in the US. The fact that everything I bought seemed to fall apart soon after and being an industry insider certainly helped push me further and faster.

Like never before, I was reading content and country of origin labels on everything from food and clothes to shampoo and cleaning products. This as you can predict, left me frustrated, confused and opened the door to doing way more research about materials and ingredients than I ever imagined. But for the purpose of this post, I'll stick to fashion.

So there I was, I knew what I needed, what I wanted, what I could actually afford and how much over my budget I was willing to go. Yet I was having a very hard time finding clothing that fit my criteria. I wanted something made in the US, because local production decreases the carbon foot print. I wanted something made from natural fibers that had minimal negative impact on the environment even if it did end up in a landfill at some point. I wanted something well made, that wouldn't fall apart after one season. If all that meant spending more, it had to fit well and aesthetically represent me as a woman. This is wear I hit a road block.

As a fashion designer in New York city, I spend the majority of my day in an office, dealing with deadlines and colorful personalities that don't make much of anything easy. The environment is mentally, emotionally and physically demanding in it's own unique way. The perfect uniform would be sweat pants and a t-shirt, but if you actually show up like that, you will be pulled to the side for a friendly chat. 

The truth is that, perhaps aside from the  factory workers forced to work 16 hr days, everyone one in fashion, loves, or at the very least, likes fashion. I am no different. I love fashion! Sadly when I started my search for clothing that met my above criteria, all I seemed to find was t-shirts, hoodies, and some boxy dresses that I might wear on the weekend after I roll out of bed...or to the beach. But, it wasn't anything I could wear to work, or a wedding, or a fancy date. A night out on the town with friends, and clubbing? Forget about it!  I love being a woman...on most days....and I wanted to dress like one without exploiting anyone, or decimating the local economy and who knows how many Eco-systems.  

I can't remember exactly where I was, but it was a store in Manhattan, and I was leaning over a handful of organic cotton styles, all priced over $100 and all pretty much variations of a t-shirt. Not the greenest fiber on the planet, they were cozy and comfy looking, but again nothing I could wear to work. Now I love weekends, but they are much shorter than the workweek. I commented on the design, or lack there of, to my friend, who was busy rolling her eyes at the price tag. A woman, who either worked there or was a customer, responded with a particular tone that was, well off putting. Her point was that it was about making a statement and standing up to the establishment, and that if the environment was really a priority, I would vote with my dollars. I had heard that point made before, and I have heard it quite a few times after. Here is where I have a problem, and I know I'm not alone.

Just how many t-shirts do I need? And hoodies? Never liked those! Sweat pants? I haven't owned a pair since I became financially independent. My disposable income, unlike that of the super wealthy, has always had a beginning and an end. So if I'm asked to vote with my dollars and spend more of them than in the past, why is it so wrong for me to want to, at the very least, like what I buy?     

If we as brands, are truly serious about the environment and changing what is wrong with the fashion industry, we must bridge the lifestyle gap and include everyone! However you like to present yourself to the world, you have a right to be who you are. Sustainable fashion, and it's supporters, must be judgmental of content not design. If this is a train headed someplace better, as manufacturers and designer, it is our job to invite everyone on board. 

 

How Did I Get Here

Every fashion design student has one of two dreams...or both, to work for a big name designer they admire, or have their own clothing line. No matter how talented you may be, those jobs are few and very hard to come by, unless you are exceptionally lucky or happen to be well connected.  If you are lucky enough to get one, and manage to keep it for a year, it can open many doors thereafter. If you are a member of the working class however, you will need to continue living with mom and dad, or find a second job that actually pays something you can survive on. 

Coming out of college my priority was to get a job period. And I did. No big fancy fashion names here. Financial independence and growing my savings was my top priority. After all you can't start your own business with just a portfolio and a confident smile.  After five years in the mass market sector that changed. Unless I won the lottery, I would never be able to save enough to start something without a massive loan. Being young and female also doesn't help when talking to the bank.

So there I was, entering my late twenties,  and bored at my day job. A handful of friends were getting married, so I decided, if I couldn't get the cash for a ready to wear line, I would start a custom bridal and evening wear collection. Almost as quickly as I made that decision, I discovered that custom bridal was not for me, or more accurately, I was not for it. I left the wedding gowns behind along with my full time job to chase more prestigious career opportunities.

My next job was for a Calvin Klein licensee. My boss, was and I'm sure still is, a great designer, but had always worked solo. He was forced by his superior to hire an assistant. My new boss was a uniquely particular personality with no experience delegating and very poor communication skills.  He seemed to think every department was supposed to cater to him. After asking me to secretly overstep the head of another department and change the info on some files around to better suit him, I decided it was time to talk to HR about it. To my surprise, the two options I was given, were to get over it or to quit.  I took a moment to digest. If I stayed and got ordered to secretly alter info on files I don't fully understand and made a mistake that costs the company thousands of dollars, the paper trail would lead directly back to me. So right before my second week anniversary at the new job, I quit.  While packing the few personal belongings I had at my desk and feeling extremely frustrated, a coworker who managed another department approached me with a revelation that made me feel somewhat proud of myself. It turned out that I was the only assistant hired in the last four months that lasted longer than two or three days. 

I took a breath and got on an airplane headed for France. One of my oldest friends' wedding was held at a chateau in idyllic Normandy.  I was the maid of honor and made her wedding dress a few short months earlier. I can't say for sure if it was the wine, the food or France in general, but I felt this odd calmness take over. Forty eight hours later with no sleep, I was on an airplane bound for Bali. Not sleeping for three days and going through at least three time zones can be grueling, but Bali has a way of putting you back together in no time. By day two, with the jet lag gone and a belly full of the most flavorful food I have ever tasted,  I didn't just start to see Bali, I was feeling it. It has this presence about it that sweeps you up into this inner peace and tranquility.

Some of the locals were dressed in western clothes, others in the traditional costume. This got me curious about the fabrics so I started walking into as many shops as I could in between my nature hikes and museum visits. I was pleasantly surprised to find that every piece of clothing I looked at was made on Bali, but even more so the styling was as varied as the colors. On my last day, I bought a handful of styles all as different as can be, enjoyed my last out of this world amazing meal and as I walked to my taxi,  felt this unbelievably strong urge to slam the door shut, rip up my ticket, learn the language, find a job and never leave. All the way to my gate, I felt that I should just turn around now and walk back. Back to the mountain town where artist and craftsmen and tailors worked on their craft and stayed true to it and still made a living for themselves and their family.  I felt that Bali was the place where my soul belonged, in every way it possibly could.  But I didn't turn around, and a few too many hours later I was back in New York.

I started interning at a high end bridal atelier while I interviewed. My friend, who's wedding dress I made, told me that the company her husband worked for needed help putting a fashion show together. That was my first introduction to Saint James. Some months and a freelance project later, I found myself employed as a full time designer. The next two years were spent jetting back and forth between New York and Normandy. Never before had I thought that the plane, train, automobile combination would be part of my regular commute. Bali was the first step, but Saint James is where everything changed for me. I learned more than I could fit into any post about the day to day of my industry. More importantly, I learned that there are other ways to do this, than what had become the norm in New York and the states. 

A company can be well known, and financially profitable while providing good, well paid jobs for the local community, and good product for consumers. Having seen this in action, the next few jobs I took back in New York (combined with years of outsourcing production jobs and income to Asia) made the companies look like they were doomed to fail. Four of them did. The world like never before has grown both larger and smaller. There are more of us now then there ever were, and we are more directly connected to each other than ever before, whether you realize it, don't or don't want to. We are all standing together on ground that is shifting and quacking to find it's new rhythm, it's new equilibrium. Some of us will be more affected than others, but it is this lack of balance that had me looking for something new and different, especially when it came to employment. 

 

Color, Color, Color

We are visual creatures. When we look at an object, color is usually the first thing we take note of. The lady in the green dress, the red shoes to the left, the blue car across the street. When it comes to textiles and clothing, be it synthetics like polyester and viscose, or silk, linen and even  organic cotton and recycled polyester, if it has color, more than 90% of the time, it is not eco-friendly.

Historically all dyes had natural sources; plants, insects and sea life. But that all changed in 1856 when 18 year old William Henry Perkin, accidentally discovered the first chemical dye. The color, purple mauveine, known today as mauve. Perkin's goal was to find a new treatment for malaria, but his discovery led him to create the start of the synthetic dye industry. According to local lore, the waters of the Grand Union Canal, located near Perkin's Greenford dye works, changed color from week to week with his experiments.

Changing the color of a river is a sad reality for modern day China. If one set eyes on any body of water that was a neon green or bloody red, our instinct for self preservation will start setting off alarms. This is not natural, therefore it must be dangerous and must be avoided.     

pollution-china.jpg

Up to 50% , an estimated 200,000 tons of the dyes used in the dyeing process are lost or allowed to enter the environment. 

There are over 10,000 dyes and pigments used industrially today. Over the years synthetic dyes have been formulated to be highly resistant to fading by light, laundry detergents, heat from dryers, and just about any other day to day abuse our clothes take. In other words, these dyes are formulated to be fairly indestructible and require a very long time to break down and biodegrade. Azo dyes are the most widely used world wide and not just for textiles. They are used in cosmetics, household paint, food and even pharmaceuticals. What's most alarming is that these dyes are highly carcinogenic and mutagenic, and are capable of damaging DNA. They are ingested by wildlife in and near the polluted waters and also harm workers by entering their blood stream through the pores on their skin.  The half life of Reactive Blue 19 is 46 years. 

There are now over 7 billion people on the planet, each in need of clothing just as food and shelter. That number will raise. The dyeing process uses the largest amount of fresh water in the creation of textiles. Combined these too often unadvertised or mentioned facts classify waste water from textile dye plants  into  the most polluting of all industrial sectors. 

Now there's been a lot of talk about us consumers becoming better educated and voting with our dollars. This has placed a lot of responsibility on us to do the right thing and help save the world. Unfortunately it has removed a lot, the majority to be frank, of the responsibility of the manufacturer to deliver better healthier product. But how can we as consumers even begin to make better purchasing choices if we are kept in the dark. When we buy clothes the content label doesn't even begin to tell the story of what the garment contains. Are the dyes natural or synthetic? If synthetic are they the less or more harmful kind? What other chemicals were used to bond the dye to the fabric, how harmful are they? And those anti-wrinkle and wicking properties that are so attractive to us as buyers, they too are chemicals sprayed onto fibers that over time wash off and get into our bodies through our skin's pores. What are their effects on our health? How long do they live in the environment before breaking down and biodegrading?

If a consumer product like cigarettes, containing harmful chemicals, carry a label that informs a buyer, shouldn't every other consumer product, especially those we come into contact with the most?

Doing the right and healthy thing, including educating consumers, is, always was, and always will be the responsibility of the manufacturers, inventors and designers of any and all consumer products.      

And Then There Was Light

From the time we are born, to the time we die, we are part of cultures and societies, which all have one undisputed thing in common... they and we reside on the same planet. Regardless of weather you as an individual choose to embrace or challenge the culture you were born into, no one person, can claim not to have been in some way affected or influenced by their birth culture and other cultures they may have come in contact with through their life. 

As humans, our most developed sense is sight.  Every culture is most vividly identified and defined by its costume, architecture, cuisine, language, and religion. Throughout history, it was most easy to identify where an individual was from by looking at their costume. Within a culture, costume identified where an individual fit into society.  

For centuries, costume within a culture was separated into two subdivisions, utilitarian and fashion. Utilitarian comprised of clothing that mostly served a specific function, in addition to protecting from the elements. A monk needed something minimal and basic, a soldier needed armor and protection, a peasant needed clothing that was durable and unrestrictive so they could perform manual labor.  Fashion, thought it too served the purpose of protecting against the elements, was mostly about social status and standing. It was reserved for the ruling classes, the aristocracy, the religious elite and the merchant class. 

This remained unchanged for centuries until the Industrial Revolution and advances in science and technology that led to man made fibers during the 20th century. Historically, and to some extent even today, fashion is not taken seriously. Yet it is one of the biggest global industries, as it affects every person on the planet. With modern-day knowledge, research and growing awareness, fashion is finally starting to get the attention it deserves, though rarely positive these days.  The textile and apparel industry is the worlds second largest polluter. A close second to the  oil industry. In light of this information, the word and concept of sustainability has become a fixture in the world of fashion.

From my wide eyed, nature and animal loving, nine year old self,  my college days at FIT, my early twenties in the industry pre 2008, to present day, my perspective of fashion and the industry has been reshaped countless times. With every new purchase I need, I strive and struggle to invest in clothing that is ethical, eco-friendly and sustainable. The more I looked and researched, the more questions I had. Sustainable, for some companies and brands, has become a mission, while for others a simple marketing ploy. 

So began my odyssey to sustainable fashion. In the posts to follow, I've committed my OCD self to objectively, and with brutal honesty, chronicle my findings on the topic of sustainable and ethical fashion.