Green Fashion Meets Trashion

July 22, 2008

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Most of us believe recycling our garbage or buying organic foods can have an impact on the environment. What about clothes? How does what we wear affect the planet? The Environmental Protection Agency says in 2006 Americans threw out more than seven million tons of clothes. That's a lot of jeans and dresses going into the trash. Two Chicago women are on very different missions to help lower that figure. As part of Chicago Matters Growing Forward, Alexandra Salomon reports.

With law school loans still outstanding, Lauri Apple doesn't have a lot of money. But she still wants to look good while doing her part for the planet.  So when it comes to her wardrobe, Apple goes way beyond thrift stores and consignment shops. She's developed a really good eye, for finding discarded clothes, on the street.

It's her version of no-impact, her personal battle against the landfill. Her passion for reducing waste started early. It runs in the family.

APPLE: My grandparents grew up in the Depression era and saved everything. So I was brought up to save and my dad belonged to the Audobon Society so he was always educated about environmental issues before they became trendy and in the news all the time so I have to thank him for that and I just think people waste way too much. We're stuck in the mindset of convenience where people need things now and then you decide I don't want it anymore and we just end up throwing it away.

It's what Steven Fischer, who teaches fashion design Northwestern University's business school, calls fast fashion.

FISCHER: Consumers going into the store every week, buy something new, wear it three or four times and then dispose of it. Ostensibly, fashion has always been about showing one's wealth and showing one's ability to waste and conspicuous consumption.

Apple's fighting against that throw away culture and the toll it takes on the environment.

ambi: closet door opening, hangers moving.

At her studio apartment in Lakeview her closets are so full of stuff, the doors won't close all the way.

APPLE: Everything you see is trash clothes. Here's a sweater on a stretch gap jean jacket that was found so a nice woolen sweater, very heavy. This was downstairs in my lobby. Here's a leather jacket that I found while walking home from downtown one evening. This was on North Broadway and I have found that North Broadway is something of a thoroughfare of discarded clothes.

Apple wants to share this idea with other people. She wants other people to fill their closets in the same way. It's part of the reason she lists clothes finding under professional skills on her resume. It's also why she started a website where she posts images of what she finds.

APPLE: I try to get people to think of what I'm doing. That's why I emphasize the designer clothes because if people see that they could really find nice things instead of just rags than they may be inspired to do it.

But not everyone who cares about the environment is willing to wear castoffs.  That's why Jessa Brinkmeyer opened Pivot, a high end clothing boutique in the trendy meatpacking district in the West Loop.

ambi: Pivot boutique, what do you think?

It's a real neighborhood shop and Brinkmeyer knows many of her clients by name.

ambi:  Ron, the whole men's rack is 40 percent off.

At Pivot, all the clothes are made with what Brinkmeyer describes as environmentally friendly fabrics- organic cotton, bamboo, soy- materials that last for more than a season.  Brinkmeyer's trying to help consumers move away from the world of fast fashion. 

BRINKMEYER: Wearing only second hand clothes, repurposing things, wearing things for as long as you can is a great way to have an eco conscious wardrobe. It's probably the best way. What I'm doing here at Pivot, though, is allowing the consumer who wants to have a more eco conscious wardrobe but who is going to buy new fashion. I am here to give those people an outlet for building a more conscious wardrobe.

 

Pivot carries items from more than 40 different designers. One of them is Annie Novotny, founder of Frei Designs. She works out of her studio in Pilsen.

ambi: Novotny studio, dyeing clothes

Novotny does much of her own production, including dyeing her own fabrics with natural dyes she often invents herself.  She recently tried pomegranate juice.

NOVOTNY: It ended up dying really lovely. It kind of gives this like really ethereal look to it.

Novotny has been drawing pictures of girls in dresses since she was a kid and always knew she wanted to make clothes.

She calls herself a scavenger because she often uses other designer's leftover fabric. She also uses materials like wool hemp, which she says is very durable and doesn't require a lot of pesticide use. The key, she says, is taking the materials and turning them into fashion forward, edgy designs.

It's clothing for a customer who's willing to spend and can't give up her fashion fix.

NOVOTNY: Someone said this to me recently, actually it was if you want to be green that don't consume, than don't buy things. I wish it were that easy. I don't think American people are ready to just stop buying things and then if they did we'd be in a lot of trouble I think. I guess I just wanted to put the option out there. If you are going to consume do so responsibly. Think about where things come from. Who touched it before you got it and what kind of conditions are they working under and what kind of quality of life do they have?

Novotny sells her line at 15 boutiques and she's optimistic that the market for the kind of clothes she designs is growing.

Northwestern's Steven Fischer thinks it is. Fischer says the fashion industry has definitely caught the green wave, at least when it comes to marketing. Even Levis has a line of organic cotton jeans. Fischer's just not sure if it's a fad or a permanent shift. But he says there are a growing number of consumers who want the kind of clothes Novotny designs.

FISCHER: Those local designers fit a particular niche. It's a growing niche though. There is incredible demand for an opportunity to express one's individuality and that's through buying from a local boutique that sources from local designers, one can do that.

There's a growing sense that what we wear and how are clothes are made is having as much of an impact on the environment as the cars we drive or the food we buy.

Novotny and Apple might have very different approaches for solving that problem. But their goal is the same, keeping a sense of style.