A handful of top Los Angeles fashion designers and increasingly eco-conscious consumers are taking recycled clothing uptown.
We're not talking faded jeans here. Reused cashmere is one material of choice, and shoppers find the clothes at trendy boutiques like Planet Blue and Fred Segal, as well as high-end department stores like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. They're not cheap,
either; sweaters sell for between $200 and $500.
Nearly all involved agree that while high-style designs are driving the phenomenon more than buyers' desire to save the planet, being green doesn't hurt.
"I think it's more like it's an added fortune," said Karyn Craven, a designer and the founder of Burning Torch Inc. She and other recycling designers hand-pick vintage items from warehouses or flea markets, hand wash them, hand cut them and then add their own signature beading, embroidery or appliqu & #233;s.
"You like it and you think, 'Oh, it's recycled, too.' I don't think people set off to buy something cute for Saturday night and it has to be recycled."
Retail trade associations and research groups don't keep statistics on recycled clothing, and it's still too small to compose a sizable percentage of the market.
What's more, some industry experts say that "ecofashion" does not comprise only recycled garments but includes items composed of organic materials that are colored with vegetable dyes that won't harm the environment.
Ecofashion whether recycled or organic has been growing in popularity for six years and began to spike about two years ago.
"I do think high fashion is becoming more environmentally conscious," said local designer Deborah Lindquist. She began showing recycled cashmere in 2003 and says it's now what she's best known for. She also recycles kimonos from Japan and saris from India.
This year, she's skipping Mercedes-Benz fashion week, part of L.A. Fashion Week, in favor of an environmentally focused show in Paris.
Lindquist has been very successful in peddling her wares. Her items are in Planet Blue, Fred Segal, and Horn on Robertson Boulevard and 150 stores worldwide. They retail between $100 and $350.
"Recycled clothing has been happening for awhile," said Roseanne Morrison, fashion director at the Doneger Group, a merchandising and fashion consulting organization. "I think it's more about going eco-friendly and raising awareness of the environment, and people are really buying into that."
While Morrison doesn't think ecofashion will become a major segment of the retail industry, it will become a more significant niche.
"I think people feel better about themselves when they buy into it, but I don't think it will change their buying of things that are fashionable that they truly desire."
It's easier for small, upscale designers to go green. Larger operations, with thinner margins, have a harder time accepting the higher manufacturing costs that come with being environmentally friendly, but they can't ignore the trend.
"Everybody's starting a green division," said Rosemary Brantley, founder and chair of the fashion department at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. "They feel like they have to, and they're right."
Ventura-based Patagonia is taking an incremental approach to going green. The first step was a life-cycle analysis of the fabrics the company used back in 1991, said the firm's Jen Rapp. Cotton was the most polluting fabric, so the company went to less-harmful organic cotton. With the development of recycled fleece and polyester, Patagonia integrated the materials into their products and now offers an entire line of recyclable clothing. The company is also working to recycle organic cotton tees.
"By starting a green division, the companies say, 'We know we can't be completely green, because we do have to use some dyes and we do have to use some things that aren't good for the environment, but if we can clean ourselves up 30 percent in one new division, then we're moving in the right direction,'" Brantley said.
Green begets green
The success of Craven's Burning Torch has been on a parallel track with the growth of ecologically conscious fashion.
Craven was born and raised in Los Angeles, the second of six children. She graduated from UCLA with a fine arts degree and a specialty in painting, and worked for several apparel companies before striking out on her own as a consultant.
To attract more clients, Craven developed a line of vintage army pants with hand beading and vintage kimono trim and Burning Torch was born. She had no employees and used her own money, but when she received an order for Barney's New York Inc., things took off.
In 2002, Craven bought her 5,000-square-foot studio just west of downtown with her earnings from the first three years of business.
Today, the $6 million company has posted 25 percent to 30 percent revenue gains every year. Craven has 20 employees and her designs are in 200 retail outlets. A key to her success has been an appreciation of and a willingness to put in the extra work recycling clothing requires.
"It starts with the hunt to collect all the vintage pieces," she said. "Then we wash everything by hand. Everything is then hand cut and sewn together. Some other styles have beading or embroidery by hand."
Recycled cashmere can't be dyed, so Craven works in "classic colors," such as ivory, black, heather grey, camel, navy or burgundy. If she wants to add another splash of color or a stripe, that fabric must be taken from another vintage piece and sewn in separately.
It's this painstaking process, along with the intrinsic reality of the garment's previous life, that makes her items uniquely appealing to shoppers.
"You have the patina of time and the energy of all the hands it's been through and all the places it's been," she said. "No matter how much you try to create that sort of thing, you just can't."
Another local designer, Linda Loudermilk, will open the first sustainable, fashion retail store on Melrose Avenue in November. In addition to using recycled clothing and low-impact dyes, she's developed a bamboo weave that feels like cashmere. She also trademarked the phrase "luxury eco."
When it comes to design, Lindquist says the key is to go with a very simple shape.
"I just hack away at this very beautiful fabric," she said. "Sometimes I'll mix two colors together, take one sweater and turn into a sleeveless v-neck and add appliqu & #233;s, like skulls." Call it the "Pirates of the Caribbean" look.
"Skulls are selling really well, all because of Johnny Depp."
Lindquist said her recycled items are getting a boost with the increase in eco-friendly stores. New boutiques are opening around the country and looking for recycled materials so frequently now that she's having a hard time keeping up with the email requests.
Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association, is adamant that recycled clothing and ecofashion are completely different things.
In order to be considered part of ecofashion in her estimation, clothing has to be organic. All non-organic cottons with non-organic dyes jeans, for example exude toxins when they're washed.
"We call it Salvation Army drag," Metchek said of recycled clothing, and she doesn't believe the market is at all significant. "It's teeny, teeny. It's almost a cottage industry."
Metchek cites a practical reality in arguing that recycled clothing will never achieve mainstream status. "You can't replicate your success. If one is great, three will be awful."
Greg Alterman, founder of L.A.-based Alternative, thinks the use of terms such as "organic" and "recycled" are a "sell-out" unless the design operation is totally environmentally friendly.
"I don't want to just jump on the bandwagon," Alterman said. "I want to take it to the 'nth' degree. People talk about organic this, and sustainable that, but how are they really processing their product? How are they moving the goods? Are they following all the steps along the way where you can call something a truly environmentally conscious product?"
Alterman said that he wants to do more research on going green, before his company which has about 100 employees and manufactures hats and T-shirts that wholesale between $4 and $8 takes the plunge. He said that he plans to make a move in the next six months, however.
For designers like Brantley, who has been in the business 25 years, there was no conception of ecofashion when she got started.
"Press used to contact me and say, 'What do you think clothing will look like in the year 2000?' " Brantley mused. "And we'd say things like they'll have air conditioning and be made out of plastic." She admits they missed on those predictions.
Today, she says, "it's about things created by hand, recycled by human hand. Someone has touched it and made it special."
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.