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Green Jeans

Sustainable style sticks to the standbys while becoming chic

By PAMELA DITMER MCKUEN
    Not long ago the concept of “sustainable style” was largely oxymoronic. The sustainable part was rescuing throwaways from trash heaps and turning them into t-shirts and tote bags.
   Not anymore. Today there’s a wealth of sartorial offerings that are kind to earth and its creatures. And they look great. Many of the emerging designers have been green from the get-go, and some of the established ones are nodding in that direction. Celebrities are launching fashion lines with environmental consciousness in mind. Actor Natalie Portman is doing vegan shoes, and Lauren Bush, niece of former President George W., has an apparel line.
   “Eco-chic has grown by leaps and bounds in the past five years,” says Constance White, style director for the online auctioneer eBay. “We’re seeing more designers and more creativity. The bar has definitely been raised.”
   Pivot is Chicago’s first eco-boutique, opened in 2007 in the West Loop. Purveyor Jessa Brinkmeyer calls it “design that meets the needs of now, but doesn’t prohibit us from meeting the needs of the future.” Pivot carries a round-the-clock wardrobe of apparel and accessories by more than 40 international designers. The goods are made from renewable materials and without chemicals or harm to living beings. On the A-list are: organic cotton, which isn’t sprayed with pesticides; bamboo, a rapidly growing grass; hemp, a water conservationist; and hemsa silk, which doesn’t kill silkworms.
   Ethical business practices matter, too. Brinkmeyer advocates fair trade and likes buying locally to reduce transport and to support the home economy. As for style, “People are surprised to find cute dresses and tops and denim that look very similar [to those they find in] stores they already shop in, but they feel better,” she says.
   Lara Miller is a Chicago designer and Pivot mainstay who has used sustainable knits and wovens since her first collection five years ago. Her dresses and separates flow and drape, often performing double duty, like the halter dress that can be worn as a skirt.
   “The fabrics have always been amazing—it’s just that the cuts weren’t always the most fashion-forward,” Miller says of the sustainable movement. “I remember when a hemp clothing store opened on Wells Street, and there wasn’t a single dart in the entire place.”
   The creators of Ignes handbags, Maria Estrada and her brother Ignacio, didn’t start out aiming for sustainability. She had been working in London’s art world, and he was in finance in the United States. In 2005, they decided to start a business that would benefit their native Uruguay. The result fuses sophisticated European design with high quality South American leathers.
   The Ignes collection, sold online (ignesbags.com), consists of about two dozen handmade styles and sizes, including clutches, totes and hobos. The leathers come from animals raised on free-range farms and are processed using eco-friendly tannery methods. Craftsmen are paid above-average wages and a portion of the profits supports local children’s charities.
   “It wasn’t until later that I realized this is what people call being socially responsible,” says Maria Estrada. “For us it is not an angle. This is the way we do business. This is the way everybody should do business.”
   Other clothiers to watch: Luva Huva is an elegant collection of knickers and camisoles handmade from fast-growing, chemical-free bamboo fibers and sold online (luvahuva.co.uk). For menswear, Indie Peace uses sustainable fabrics, natural dyes and water-based prints. Hoodies, henleys and other shirts can be found at Nordstrom and Mark Shale.
   On eBay, the millions of listed items fall into three categories: new, pre-owned and vintage. Many pre-owned goods are new, offered because sellers changed their minds or have too much. “Instead of dumping those things and creating more waste which [goes] into landfills, you’re recycling,” says White.
   Another re-seller is White Chicago. The three-year-old store in River North sells new, sample and once-worn bridal gowns at 30 percent to 70 percent below their original prices. Co-owners Ursula Guyer and Stacy Senechalle scour the country and beyond to find discontinued styles, store close-outs, color mistakes and runway samples. They take consignments that are three years old or newer and retailed for $1,500 or more. Consignors get 50 percent of the proceeds. The inventory keeps changing, but typically includes the likes of Vera Wang, Badgley Mischka and Monique Lhuillier.
   “Women spend a lot of money on their dresses, and they don’t want to throw them away and they don’t have the space to keep them,” said Guyer. “We help them pass on the love and be green at the same time.”
    Sustainable style, however it is practiced, is becoming increasingly mainstream, but it has a long way to go. Organic food didn’t become widely accepted overnight, says Brinkmeyer—it took time for people to understand why it might be better for them and the environment. “Once people understand how their choices in clothing can make a difference, it’s going to take the industry much further.”

Published: April 04, 2009
Issue: 2009 Spring Green Issue