3 Ways New York Designers Are Making Strides Toward Sustainability

Yesterday, the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative hosted an afternoon of presentations and open discussions on sustainability and innovation within the fashion industry. On hand to share their goals (and take questions from a panel of consultants, activists, and eco-minded business owners) were Tome’s Ramon Martin and Ryan Lobo, Dezso’s Sara Beltran, Prabal Gurung, and Brother Vellies’s Aurora James. Each designer addresses sustainability in a different way for their business, whether it’s socially—i.e., creating jobs in underdeveloped countries—or environmentally, as in cleaner production practices, the use of recycled and reclaimed goods, and the preservation of oceans and forests. But there were points of similarity, too, which other designers—and editors, buyers, entrepreneurs, and fashion fans—would be wise to consider. Below, see three major ways these designers are working toward a more thoughtful and balanced industry.

All of the designers from the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative open idea exchange.

Going beyond organic fabrics and using reclaimed, recycled, and reworked fabrics and goods instead.
Organic cotton, Tencel, and natural silk are great, but reusing fabrics can be even better—and they make for a cool story. At Tome, for instance, Ryan Lobo and Ramon Martin source upcycled denim from stockpiles at factories to make their pieced-together jeans. They also dig through Tome’s archives to rework old shirting into new styles (like that open-back shirt so many editors have purchased). Prabal Gurung is introducing cupro, a cellulose fiber made from reclaimed cotton waste, for his Spring ’17 show in September, as well as a small jewelry collection handmade with recycled metals by Tibetan artisans. Sara Beltran incorporates found shark teeth and coral into her handmade jewelry collections at Dezso, and is working on reproducing the teeth with ceramics and carving wood to mimic coral in order to conserve the oceans. And at Brother Vellies, Aurora James sources her leather, fur, and bone from animal by-product (animals that have already been farmed for food). One problem with reclaimed and upcycled goods? “The lead times can be much longer,” according to Martin. “We’ve had to change our cash flow and our supply chain, and we’ve had to make huge investments in the development process by buying dead stock. But we also have to educate retailers that these types of products need to work on their own calendar.”

Bringing glamour and luxury into the sustainability conversation.
Prabal Gurung is one of the biggest names on the New York show schedule and frequently dresses celebrities for the red carpet—remember that backless number he designed for Emily Ratajkowski at this year’s Met Gala? Gurung is so well known for luxury, in fact, that plenty of customers probably don’t know sustainability is at the heart of his label. “We have a luxury price point, so the product has to be the hero,” he said. “The women who buy my clothes want the dream, so we can’t compromise [quality] just to say it’s environmentally friendly. It needs to feel luxurious. Glamour is part of our DNA, so it’s important that it’s part of the conversation here, too.” Nearly 85 percent of Gurung’s collections are produced sustainably in his native Nepal, and he is constantly researching eco-friendly fabrics and details, like biodegradable buttons and Himalayan wild nettle fiber. “While learning about the impact cashmere has on the climate and the world, I [became interested in] this nettle fiber. It grows in abundance in the fields and forests, and workers out there have been trying to create clothing out of it, but the finish hasn’t been great,” he said. “But now they’ve created something [with a fine finish] that’s really incredibly amazing. It helps the local workers, helps the environment, and it grows nonstop, so it doesn’t cause deforestation.”

 

For Brother Vellies’s Aurora James, whose African-made shoes and bags have redefined luxury in their own way, there have been considerable challenges. “I have a whole folder in my inbox of emails where people have asked if Brother Vellies was an African scam,” she said. “I was up against that perception for a while. And people don’t understand why the shoes don’t cost $100, or they assume that I’m not paying my artisans well.” To remedy that, James has made it a priority to tell the story of her shoes and bags in every single interview she conducts, whether it’s on Vogue Runway or a beauty or lifestyle publication. “It’s not about just buying one sustainable shoe or bag. It’s about making changes to every aspect of your life.”

 

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