The Latest Looks In 'Green Wear' Blend Sophistication With Conscience

July 31, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

With the opening of American Apparel in Federal Hill this month, Baltimore has entered the age of mainstream eco-fashion. The chain, which sells trendy casual clothes for both sexes, has been phenomenally successful in its eight years of existence. Hailed by some as a new Gap, it has 56 hipper-than-hip stores and a young, controversial CEO.

But American Apparel is most noteworthy because its clothes are "sweatshop free," and it uses that fact as a selling point. Besides paying its workers decent wages and offering good benefits (including massage therapy), the chain has jumped on the environment-friendly bandwagon with its Sustainable Edition line.

"It's our 10 most popular styles in the highest-quality organic cotton," says spokesman Roian Atwood, who also cites various eco-improvements the company has made at its downtown Los Angeles manufacturing plant.

Not to mention the million pounds of fiber and material scraps it recycles each year.

Most important, though, American Apparel's clothes are stylish and inexpensive. This is the reality: People are willing to protect the environment and help the underprivileged if they can look good and not pay too much doing it.

The fast-growing organic food movement has raised interest in all things "green," but fashion is different, says Suzanne Murray, beauty and fashion editor of Organic Style magazine. "There's no real health benefit from buying organic. Green fashion used to not be attractive. Now it is. The aside is, by the way, it uses less pesticides."

According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic fiber products, most notably women's clothing, increased almost 23 percent in 2003, the last year for which figures are available. Most of that is organic cotton, which is grown without chemicals. Its farming depends on crop rotation and natural fertilizers.

But beyond organic, some surprising things come under the eco-fashion umbrella. You could say -- and Murray does -- that vintage wear is part of the green trend because it involves recycling old clothes.

And although this may seem like a stretch, well-made, classic clothes that you don't replace every year are preferable to more ephemeral styles, say eco-manufacturers.

Anything artisanal, such as hand-knit sweaters and hand-sewn clothes, is eco-fashionable because it doesn't involve machines. As is anything manufactured with a social consciousness under safe conditions for fair wages.

Most of us, though, think of green wear as clothing made from material grown or produced without harmful chemicals. Or made from plants that it's almost impossible not to grow, like bamboo and hemp. Or from materials that are biodegradable. That includes both natural fibers and low-impact dyes. Of course, it's more complicated than that. Environmentalists, for instance, aren't happy that fabric made from genetically engineered corn is being touted as an eco-solution.

Needless to say, nylon, polyester and other petroleum-based synthetics coated with formaldehyde are not considered environmentally friendly.

But give yourself green points if you own a trendy handbag made from recycled Coca-Cola cans.

Why the interest now in green wear? After all, it first made its appearance in the early '90s, and shoppers have gradually had more choices with advances in the eco-fabric industry. Credit the current buzz to the trickle-down theory of fashion. Top designers have gotten interested in eco-style, and the end result may be organic knockoffs at your favorite discount store.

When 28 designers including Oscar de la Renta and Halston took part in a runway show called FutureFashion during New York's Fashion Week earlier this year, their stunning, one-of-a-kind designs were made from bamboo threads, fibers spun from corn, organically grown cotton and recycled metal. Buyers were surprised by how good they looked.

"We're more and more seeing openness to this in the highest level of fashion," says Isaac Nichelson, head of Livity Outernational. The company's high-end clothing and accessories are made from hemp, bamboo, recycled bottles and pesticide-free organic cottons, combined with Earth-friendly methods of manufacturing. Nichelson's collection is now available at Bloomingdale's, Urban Outfitters, boutiques and specialty shops.

"[This acceptance is] so clearly the future," he says.

It may be the future, but the future is now. Too bad many Americans haven't noticed.

Timberlake and Patagonia, the outdoor-clothing manufacturer, have for years been producing clothes with a conscience. Patagonia, for instance, doesn't use finishes like formaldehyde on its products. In 1993, it started using fleece made from recycled plastic soda bottles. The company converted its entire line of sportswear to organically grown cotton in 1996.

But people buy Patagonia's products primarily because they like their looks and fit.

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