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Sex, Drugs and Bio-Slips
Movies stars, celebrities and people with alternative lifestyles are becoming aware of their fondness for eco(-logy) friendly clothing. We are not talking about clothes made from batik - to be sure - but about cool shirts, scanty shorts and hip jeans produced under politically correct conditions. The designers of such garments are very successful.
Anne Seith
November 15, 2006

Hamburg: Designer Dov Charney likes to play the daredevil. He is romantically involved with some of his employees, likes to convey the appearance of being washed up. For an interview with the German magazine "Textilwirtschaft", he presented himself with a red and black knitted scarf, a hooded vest, with his curly hair slightly oily. Most of the advertising posters for his company, American Apparel, are supposedly put together from snapshots taken from his private life: young men and women usually pose in these posters, lolling about somewhere, lasciviously.

Yet, Charney is not selling merely sex and coolness but moral values, as well. His garments are manufactured "sweatshop-free", he declares proudly. This means, they are not being produced in low-wage countries under inhuman conditions, but rather in the USA.

Hip, eco-friendly fashion: Cool (looking) sweatshirts instead of baggy looking linen clothes.

More and more designers and fashion manufacturers are betting on a mix of coolness and moral values. They either create an eco-friendly collection or introduce a bona fide "ethical" label, such as Edun, Stewart & Brown, Kuyichi, Katherine E. Hamnet, and Misericordia. You can find these "moral" labels already in trendy boutiques in New York, Paris, and Berlin.

Even the Internet is conquering such "ethical" fashion. Visit the sites or, where you can order smart caps and jeans made from bio-cotton. Big concerns, too, are getting on the band wagon of doing business with a clear conscience. The mail order company Otto offers the eco-line Pure Wear in its collections. H&M just introduced a line of bio baby clothes. Jeans manufacturer Levi's announced Levi's Eco line, which is made from biologically grown cotton. Obviously, designers prefer to talk of "organic cotton" rather than of "eco material".

Dov Charney

Sales volume doubled in one year.

Sometimes, a little note tucked into a pant's pocket is all that points to the garment's claim to social responsibility; a small but important reference, says Peter Wippermann of Trendbuero in Hamburg. "The customer not only buys the garment, but the story that comes with it, too."

A good example is: the sweatshirts of the Peruvian label Misericordia. Originally, those garments were fashioned as uniforms for the students of a school and orphanage in the small village of Ventanilla, named Nuestra Senora de la Misericordia. Two Frenchmen brought some of the garments to Europe, just at a time when the alternative lifestyle crowd was rummaging through second-hand clothing stores for similar casual shirts in the style of the eighties. Since then, the proceeds of the Misericordia sweatshirt version enabled the financing of a new Peruvian tailoring workshop. Its employees have a steady job, including medical and social security benefits and poor children are given a professional education after they finish school. Such a success story is pure gold for the marketing specialist.

As was to be expected, the manufacturers of "ethical" fashion achieved fantastic growth rates with the sale of their products. Dov Charney, founder of American Apparel, for example, opened his first store in 2003. Today, there are 138 company owned stores worldwide. Mr. Charney expects to have 150 American Apparel stores by the end of 2006. Last year, this company with its 5000 employees had a sales volume of approximately 250 million dollars.

Kuyichi, founded by Solidaridad, the Dutch Fair Trade Organization, had a similar development manufacturing jeans and sweatshirts. From 2004 to 2005, this label almost doubled its sales volume from 3.4 to 6.1 million euros. Kuyichi expects to make sales of twelve to fourteen million euros annually during the next two years.

Julia Roberts buys only eco-friendly diapers.

Chic design and moral values alone, however, do not suffice as sales argument - you also need a trend that makes eco-fashion hip. Fashion designer Britta Steilmann learned this the hard way in the nineties. Although she was the recipient of the Order of the Federal Republic Of Germany for her "It's One World" collection (made from handpicked cotton), no one wanted to wear her outfits. As to why "green" fashion makers of the 21st century are faring better, there is a simple explanation, according to trend researcher Wippermann: "Social engagement and environmental protection have become trendy and glamorous."

There are few Hollywood personalities who do not engage in some development aid or environmental protection project. Julia Roberts wraps her off-spring in eco-friendly cloth diapers. Cameron Diaz and Cate Blanchette wear (according to "Gala") bio-cotton outfits by Stewart & Brown, fair-trade jeans by Edun or garments free of toxic substances by Ciel. The "green" spring edition of Vanity Fair amounted to something like a written testimonial for the new eco-movement. Julia Roberts, dressed up as Mother Nature, adorned the cover together with George Clooney and former vice-president Al Gore.

Well-paid young urbanites in America like to copy the lifestyle of prominent people just as their counterparts do in Europe. This is due, in part, to the fact that it seems not the least immodest these days (contrary to the eighties) to promote oneself. "In the past, the protectors of the environment were required to hold themselves back in favor of the project they supported," says Wippermann. It was all about the "cause". Nowadays, the fight for justice has produced its own stars - like designer Dov Charney and U2-singer Bono, who created a new image for himself with the help of social commitments (he seldom forgets his sunglasses when he is jetting around the globe for his development aid projects).

The supporters of the new eco-movement have already their own name: they are called "neo greens" or "LOHAS", the acronym for "Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability".

Bio-cotton is difficult to obtain.

So far, the percentage of "ethical" fashion, compared to the market as a whole, is still small. And more than one German boutique owner is skeptical that the new "doing good" movement will catch on among the broad masses. Andreas Feldkirchen from Hamburg: "So far, it has not been successful." Especially, when people shop in big department stores "they tend to forget quickly their good intentions in favor of the price," says fashion designer Anna Fuchs from Hamburg. A pair of eco-jeans easily cost 120 euros or more. The plain sweatshirts made by Misericordia are around 100 euros.

Additionally, Mother Nature substantially limits the creativity of the eco-designer. "Much of the paraphernalia popular among the fashion slaves cannot be produced environmentally correct," says designer Fuchs. "If you want to bleach jeans, you can hardly succeed without any chemicals," she claims. Kirsten Brodde, too, editor at Greenpeace Magazine and author of an eco-textile primer, declares: "A sequin shirt can hardly be made according to environmental guidelines." In addition, it is extremely difficult to even find bio-cotton. Just 0.1 per cent of the world production is grown bio-friendly, the rest is nourished from the very beginning with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and is made pest resistant. Nevertheless, the supply of raw materials and environmentally friendly dyes compared to the past is infinitely better, says Brodde.

The representatives of the "neo-greens" in Germany are not deterred by the scarce supply. They are convinced they are setting a trend: "This fashion is definitely on its way in," says Andrea Seeger, manager of "desaster", which is the business operator of Wippermann, too, believes that this trend is here to stay. "More and more big companies will adopt the subject of sustainability in their production." Soon, eco-fashion will grace the shelves of boutiques and will be taken for granted the same way as bio-produce on supermarket shelves.

Translation by Eva Sokolow

Read the German version here
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