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Moral Values Have Become Fashionable
Until now "politically correct" clothing was considered boring. Labels with names like Edun, American Apparel and Kuyichi have changed this perception. Eco-fashion has finally become chic.Frakfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung
August 29, 2005
For the longest time, the concept of eco-fashion used to be associated with baggy sweaters, wide-soled shoes, colorful scarves and dungarees. It also meant that clothes were comfortable, that they were not dictated by the latest fashion but were more in line with nature; and that they were not produced by children in Third World countries who earned a pittance. The ecological seal of approval was almost looked upon as an award, representing anti-fashion, as clothing that was far removed from the hysterical, superficial and profit-oriented textile industry. Fashion and moral values was a combination as ill-fitted as a hemp bag with a fur coat. This perception may now change. Eco-fashion is in the process of shedding the mustiness of previous years to accomplish what had until now seemed impossible — to look cool and to create desires in the young trend setters.
American Apparel's store in Frankfurt is located in the shadow of the Commerz Bank tower. Hip-hop music is playing softly from the loud- speakers. The walls are adorned with old Penthouse magazines. Young sales clerks give the appearance of not really working here, rather that they are attending some sort of club party in the middle of the day. They look relaxed and cool — that is part of the concept. Last year, Dov Charney , founder of American Apparel, was voted "entrepreneur of the year" in the United States, although his resemblance is more that of an actor from a TV series of the seventies. Six years ago, he founded the company that was to combine economic success with social success. Rather than saving money by outsourcing, his production, sales and marketing are taking place under one roof in Los Angeles. His employees are paid fair wages, intended to make them feel happy and appreciated. "Sweatshop-free" is the message on the labels; a guarantee that the T-shirts are not manufactured in Third World countries.
In the repeatedly criticized fashion industry, whose manufacturers keep their cost down by paying low-wages and using child labor in Third World countries, American Apparel is one of a few representative labels that has chosen to walk a different path. The product, nevertheless, must be fashionable and at the same time make money. Indeed, this T-shirt company form Los Angeles is proof that money can be made with fashion that is politically correct. Now with four thousand employees, the company has doubled its sales to thirty five million dollars within four years, and is presently the largest T-shirt manufacturer in America. Ridiculed and scraping out a meager existence in stores outside of pedestrian zones while selling merchandise from Third World countries, eco-fashion has now the potential to develop into a serious market sector in the industry, similar to what has happened in the food and cosmetics industry under the bio-seal.
Nevertheless, the people who are suffering from a bad conscience are usually not those working in the fashion industry. The new labels are created by outsiders almost without exception. The best example is the label Edun, which was founded a little more than six months ago by the Irish singer Bono Vox of the band U2. Together with his wife, he hired the American designer Rogan Gregory to create a line of clothing based on ecological and ethical principles. "We flew personally to Africa and Peru to inspect the factories where our merchandise is produced and to check on the working conditions there", says the designer who is creating his own collection under the label "Rogan" . "It is obviously impossible to know for certain if each individual worker in each factory is content with his working conditions, but we try, nevertheless, to be as conscientious as possible about this." His design concept conforms to his line made of 100 percent pesticides-free cotton: "Nature and organic forms are my inspiration." So is poetry. Poems by Rilke are inscribed in the lining of his trouser pockets. Edun — which stands for nude, read backwards — is not sold in eco-stores, but in the posh New York department store of Saks Fifth Avenue and at Selfridges in London, among others. One of the main reasons for this was to set an example for the well-known designers, who have not devoted themselves, so far, to the subject of "ecology". "They really have no excuse at all. Their merchandise is so expensive that they could easily afford to use organic cotton," says Rogan Gregory.
One of the first jeans labels to produce according to ecological guide lines is the label Kuyichi, which was founded four years ago by two Dutchmen. The two were in the fruit and potato trade before having the idea to try their hand at textiles. They set one condition, however, for their line of jeans, manufactured according to eco-fashion principles, namely they should not look like "eco"-pants. They were supposed to look essentially like any other jeans. For that reason they work together with designers and deliver advertising campaigns that appear urban and cool. "The product must be in the forefront, it has to be youth-oriented , we want to sell it to young people after all, " says Christoph Dahn, who is in charge of sales in Germany. Kuyichi works with production sites in Turkey, Tunisia and India, where many have agreed to submit themselves to independent controls to assure certain standards at the work place, like minimum wages and humane working conditions. Sixty to seventy per cent of the garments are manufactured from cotton that has not been treated with pesticides and which is therefore not damaging to the health of the workers in the cotton fields.
Most producers of the new eco-fashion make every attempt not to be perceived as characters who run around constantly preaching to one and all — in part maybe because that could have a negative effect on sales. "We don't make this our dogma," says Dahn, "we tell our customers, if you like an item, buy it. And if they learn about the background of the production from the folded flyers in their pant pockets, then that is okay." A pair of jeans by Kuyichi costs between Euro 109.- and Euro 129.-. That is not cheap, but corresponds to the price of pants made by labels like Replay or Diesel.
This new awareness is in touch with the times. Concerns about the welfare of people in Third World countries were long reserved for opponents of globalization. But since bands like U2 and Coldplay got involved in this topic and since Live-8 concerts created mass hysteria among the many fans, even the broad masses of people are paying attention to this subject. You demonstrate your solidarity with Africa by wearing, of all things, a fashionable accessory, a plastic wrist band inscribed with the message "Make Poverty History". That is all it takes to improve the world.
The same principle works for Misericordia. Behind the name hides an orphanage with adjoining school in a Peruvian village, where in the beginning only school uniforms were sewn. Then, two Frenchmen had the idea to have designers like Bernhard Willhelm create collections which are also produced there. The proceeds from sales are put back directly into the project. The sewers are paid wages like skilled workers; earn fourteen monthly salaries per year and are eligible for health insurance and social security, something of a rarity in Peru. Presumably, the workers have no inkling that they and their products have become some sort of a cult in Europe ever since they have been sold in trendy stores — such as Colette in Paris, among others.
Translation: Eva Sokolow
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