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Green is the theme
The catch phrase eco-fashion is becoming increasingly popular. What some like to dismiss as a not so cheap marketing gag, could in reality have far reaching implications. Imagine what would happen if environmental awareness and social responsibility really come into fashion.
Michael Ginthoer
January 2007

The fashion industry has earned itself a bad name in recent years with cutthroat wages and inhumane working conditions in the Far East to fuel an increasingly obsessive consumer society. Sweat shops that would be more suited to 19th century Manchester Liberalism England than to the globalised market economy of the 21st century. It would appear that it is not only beauty that suffers, but all in its service. Not least the planet itself: 2.5 million kilos of pesticides are sprayed on US cotton fields each year. Add to that more than a billion kilos of chemical fertilisers. Each t-shirt consumes almost a third of a pound of chemicals before it reaches the retailer and end customer. Many if not all the materials used are at least suspected of causing cancer. Up until recently the alternatives to H&M, C&A and Co. were not so promising: Hemp three pieces and Birkenstock stilettos are perhaps politically correct, but they are not really an aesthetic alternative. Some rethinking had to be done and one of the pioneers of this rethinking was, as is often the case, California, one of the cultural epicentres of the western World. Leo di Caprio climbing into a Toyota Prius and even the Governor converting his Hummer to run on hydrogen certainly pointed the way to the future, perhaps even speeding things up: the unremitting esoteric Californian saw the signs as did the local fashion industry. Since then the demand for organic materials has grown each year by 22 percent. Concepts like "fair wages", "fair trade" and "social responsibility" are on everyone's lips. Meanwhile Nike is the biggest buyer of organic cotton in the world and the biggest fashion magazines Elle, Vogue and Vanity Fair brought out their respective special green issues in 2006.

Eco-Basics. More than ten years ago the California outdoor specialist Patagonia went green: since then 88 million plastic soda bottles have been recycled to produce polyester fleeces, since 1995 only organic cotton has been used in production.

In 1997, Canadian born Dov Charney set up one of the most sensational companies of recent American fashion history. He conceived a "vertically integrated" business model, in which each individual production step was kept in-house, from tailoring to advertising. American Apparel has always paid the highest wages in the business and provides its staff with health insurance and other perks such as training programmes etc. That may not seem so exceedingly generous by current European standards but masseurs assigned to relieve those minor physical tensions of the workforce would be quite unusual too in the old world. Yet his success says it all: last year American Apparel earned 250 million dollars, the factory in Downtown L.A. is the biggest in the entire country. In 2002 American Apparel introduced an organic collection. "We are not only concerned with the environment inside the company, but also outside" says AA press officer Cynthia Semon. She swears by the concept of "vertical integration". The magic word is flexibility: when we have an idea, in theory we can turn it around in four days and produce 210,000 copies of it. And that obviously has not only logistic advantages but, more importantly, psychological ones." When all work is done under one roof then we are all pulling the same rope. That the marketing mantra of social responsibility of global co-operation bears fruit is patent: "In L.A. today 140 different languages are spoken, more than anywhere else in the world. It is self-explanatory that the immense diversity of perspectives finds expression in the producer and the consumer. People here care about the world as a whole." American Apparel staff has access to health insurance, further education etc. This is rare in the US and in the fashion industry too. The company has even employed masseurs to ensure the wellbeing of its staff.

The flower power legacy. A few blocks on Crystal Butler and her partner Michael Baffico sort through the new deliveries from second hand shops and so-called rag houses, depots for remnants and relics. Within a few years their punk Far East-style recycling clothing range has even found its way onto the shelves of Norstrom and Urban. Lines of between 60 and 1200 items are manufactured, ultimately though each garment is unique and individually made. Tailoring work is carried out in-house; sewing is outsourced, for fair wages of course. "We are not do-gooders" says Crystal Butler, "quite the contrary. But social responsibility starts with nobody working themselves to death". The fact that Super Lucky Cat pieces are recycled and thus eco-friendly "influences the consumer behaviour of customers". There are still no industry standards in place that recognise eco-friendly, organic or socially responsible produced clothing but that is only a question of time. "First you had the organic food boom, then natural cosmetics and now clothing". It makes sense. "In recent times the demand is even bigger", she says, "One should not forget that half of California today belongs to the hippies of yesterday. They may have reconciled themselves with capitalism since then but the awareness is still there." Crystal Butler and Michael Buffico wholeheartedly follow this form of dogmatic pragmatism: "Nevertheless we are the children of the revolution." Because the elements have little or no impact on the clothing the people of Los Angeles wear and because there are no earthquake-proof shirts anyhow, a lot more value is placed on where your clothes come from and how they have been manufactured. "That comes from sitting 300 days a year on the beach meditating", remarks Baffico.

Naturally well dressed. Fashion designers Carol Young and Linda Loudermilk who concentrate more on high fashion, wanted to move away from these flower power associations. "After Uni I stopped experimenting with hemp. Too much associations with the pot-smoking culture", says Carol Young. In her geometric creations inspired by Issey Miyake however aesthetics has precedence over ethics. "My contribution is clothing in which clients feel good", she says. Yet a good part of her collection is manufactured from organic cotton. In recent times she has been particularly drawn to bamboo fibres: "Bamboo has a very soft and silky quality which really suits my style" she says. Around half of my clientele come to the shop looking for organic materials. "There are hardly any products available on the market particularly for men". Still wealthy clients in the Los Feliz district place their trust in her stylistically confident hands just as they do in the underlying eco-friendly trend. Yet: The impression remains that organic fashion is something for the elite not representing a true awareness of the problem or wide availability. In turn, most people could not afford the majority of Linda Loudermilk's creations anyway. Loudermilk fits out, amongst others, eco-aware Hollywood grand dames like Jane Fonda and Jennifer Beals with their eco haute couture. Her creations undoubtedly represent the spearhead of contemporary eco-fashion design. She is inspired amongst other things by coral reefs, waterfalls and seaweed. The choice of material sounds even more adventurous: sawasashi is a fibre mix of Japanese paper, herbs, vitamins and amino-acids. It is thought to have antibacterial properties. She also uses soya and bamboo fibres and eco-spun, a recycled product made from empty plastic bottles, which she prefers to mix with organic cotton. This does not sound out of the ordinary to her: "If we knew more about how everything is connected, we could make better decisions". Loudermilk fashion is considered radical from both the point of view of style and the materials used. In the field she is known as an eco-warrior. Loudermilk's Luxury Eco Collection is an impressive statement. "The materials show our universal connectedness and remind us that we have to look after ourselves and the planet. This collection is about hope in the world and the fact that we are all one" she says. Kelly Witmer, the proprietor of the small boutique Regeneration in Eagle Rock agrees wholeheartedly with this: "I think that the eco-trend will be the next big thing" she says, "this has to be the case, because everything has become so cheap it has become almost worthless". Witmer, a skilled photographer, filled a niche in the market opening a shop for pure organic clothing and fair trade goods with brands like Living Planet, Of the Earth, Sworn Virgins and Twice Shy. "The feedback is totally positive" she says, "but the whole thing hasn't really taken off yet". Postscript: The Americans are shopping addicts and when they buy organic they don't have to feel bad about it".

Read the German version here