In studios throughout the city of Vancouver, fashion designers are turning out everything from soy underwear for rock stars to ball gowns for A-list celebrities.
In a recent twist of thread, Al Gore has gained more pull in the fashion world than even Vogue editrix Anna Wintour. Ask a designer what has most influenced their designs and fabric choices this season, and they’re more likely to say An Inconvenient Truth than any runway show. Luckily, they’re inspired more by Gore’s practices than his sartorial style.
Fashion, to those of us who love it, is about delight. So the fact that it’s the dimmest candle at the sustainability altar – taking a back seat to food or shelter – is a bit of a killjoy. The good news is that Vancouver has recently emerged from its Ugly Betty fashion past, where fleece ruled, to become one of the most vibrant design communities in North America, and many in this new generation of designers are at the forefront of sustainable fashion, worshiping the twin deities of esthetics and the environment.
Here’s the bitter pill: traditional synthetics like rayon release toxins into the ecosystem, and cotton is hardly any better because traditional harvesting methods soak the environment with more pesticides than any other crop. Dov Charney, the man behind American Apparel, calls cotton “the nicotine of clothing.” Simply put, we need to go into fabric detox.
So what’s the best way to get a hedonistic kick and also cut a toe off fashion’s carbon footprint? Well, other than wearing recycled and vintage clothes, the ethical fix for fashion fans seems to lie in sustainable fabrics – or as close as we can come. Organic fibres, like organic foods, are grown without any toxic pesticides, insecticides or toxins. Fabrics made from bamboo and soy are free of pesticides and grow very quickly, which means they take up a smaller footprint.
But only a few earnest devotees are willing to wear sustainable fibres whatever the cost or whatever the style (or lack of). So luckily, while sustainable fashion used to be as exciting as tofu brownies – and far more expensive – that’s no longer the case. “Vancouver doesn’t know they have this huge quality and quantity of goods at reasonable prices. We’re way ahead of Toronto and elsewhere,” says Glencora Twigg, who designs her own line, co-owns Twigg & Hottie clothing store on Main Street, and sits on the board of Fashion High, a group of over 100 designers and retailers that promotes sustainable fashion.
Twigg used to be a swimmer on the Canadian national team, which she says taught her the perseverance and dedication she needed to make it as a sustainable entrepreneur. When Twigg set out to open her first store while still a student at the Helen Lefeaux School of Fashion Design, she realized that feeling good about the clothes she sold was just as important to her as being able to create a well-designed, “non-girlie girl” line.
“I love working with sustainables,” she says. “Sure, there are still some problems with the fabrics, but I mean, polyester stinks after one wearing. Why is that OK, but it’s not OK to pill a bit like bamboo sometimes does?”
But while she’s been using organics, bamboo and soy for a few years, she’s seen them in a new way recently. She’s pregnant, and when she went to buy clothes for her future progeny, she wondered why clothes from big stores like The Bay seemed to be the automatic choice. “I don’t shop there for myself, so why would I for my kid?” she asks simply. Instead, she hit several stores on Main.
“It’s finally dawned on organic food consumers that they’re spending their money one way for food and another for clothing,” says Ronnie Cummins, the national director of the Organic Consumers Association in the U.S. Those consumers are the main converts to organic and sustainable clothes.
Hajnalka Mandula, one of Vancouver’s most high-profile designers, also uses only natural fibres, mostly organics. She has her own label and store, and her line sells across Canada and the U.S. “The cool girls used to shop elsewhere,” she says, “but not anymore.”
Mandula’s grandmother and aunt taught her to sew when she was eight, in Hungary, then she went to Helen Lefeaux after moving here. “All my grandparents’ clothes were natural, probably organic,” she says, and that’s what she grew up with. Why else does she use sustainable fabrics? “They’re just so beautiful to work with, something that has never touched a chemical. I love the feel of organic materials – they’re just so soft. It’s addictive.”
Mandula also loves “imperfection,” and recycling – “finding things and using them again.” Recently, she found a bucket of vintage buttons in New Westminster and “drove my boyfriend crazy. It was all I could talk about for days. I’ve used them on necklaces, bracelets… I’ve designed tops and jackets around them.”
Mandula says she simply doesn’t get inspired by synthetics. And she thinks designers should care about people’s skin and health. Luckily, market demand has caught up. She started using certified organics about four years ago, and when she told the stores in New York, they said, “That doesn’t matter to our customers.” But now they use that information in their marketing.
Stephanie Ostler found a similar trend with handmade clothing. Ostler, who recently opened a store on Main Street called Devil May Wear’s Art Gallery and Clothing Emporium, started making T-shirts a few years ago when she was “running with bands” in high school and making their buttons to sell at concerts. First she started silk-screening designs onto store-bought T-shirts, then one band, You Say Party, We Say Die, said they didn’t want to use American Apparel T-shirts because the quality was going downhill, and they asked her to make the shirts too. Now she makes about 500 T-shirts a month, mostly out of sustainable fabrics, and sells them for the same price as American Apparel shirts. Ostler has since branched out from T-shirts, and also makes women’s underpants from soy, cotton, bamboo and spandex, which she also started making for bands.
Ostler sews the underwear and T-shirts herself on a sewing machine, and doesn’t use a factory either here or abroad for any part of the manufacturing process, even though it would be cheaper. And her boyfriend, a professional BMX racer, makes all deliveries by bicycle. “If I’d known how much work it was going to be, I’d have become a bartender,” she jokes.
Ostler loves pre-Second World War manufacturing techniques and handmade quality. “The tipping point in handmade came a couple of years ago,” she says. She used to leave “handmade” off the label, because people thought that meant it wouldn’t fit well or wouldn’t last, but then craft came back into style. Now people come up to her and tell her that a T-shirt she made three or four years ago still seems new. “Everything now is made to break – iPods, computers. People find it exciting when something has better quality,” Ostler explains. People also say it’s a richer clothing experience to have contact with the designer, at markets for example. She’s part of a trend that’s some refer to as the “slow clothes movement.”
Ostler uses mostly sustainable fabrics in her handmade clothes, even though they’re harder to source and still pricier than conventional fabric, because she “believes in it,” and also because conventional fabrics used to make her hands sticky when she sewed with them all day, and gave her rashes. She keeps prices low because Vancouver has “the largest design community per capita in Canada,” which makes it very competitive, but she adds that it also leads to more creativity and more innovation, especially in sustainables.
Sunja Link, another local designer, credits not only the craft movement but also people’s desire for unique, individual clothes for the surge in the local fashion scene. She’s been using sustainable fabrics longer than most – she started three seasons ago with soy. Her parents used to own an organic blueberry farm in Abbotsford, and for her it was a simple decision. “I suffer from guilt, producing clothes. But I love clothing; I don’t want to stop. So I use sustainables, so I can feel good about it,” she explains. Link designs vintage-inspired dresses, blouses and skirts in what she describes as the “not cheap, but affordable” price range ($80-$300).
RozeMerie Cuevas, one of Vancouver’s highest-profile designers, owns and designs the Jacqueline Conoir line, and is new to sustainables. One of her main suppliers showed her some bamboo jersey for T-shirts this year, so she decided to try it. “It’s so soft,” she says, “and it doesn’t have as much stretch, but the lines are really flowing.
“We have to evolve,” she says simply. She’ll add one bamboo T-shirt to her line for spring and see how it sells, then go from there.
Cuevas trained in Paris then came back to Vancouver 22 years ago, “when there was no fashion here. People just didn’t dress local.” That changed about seven years ago, when “people just lost faith in big department and retail stores.” Before that, a local fashion spread would have five pages of European fashion and one of Canadian. Now, it’s the opposite. Then about two years ago, dressing local became a trend. Previously most of her buyers were in other parts of Canada, but now about 80 per cent are local. She says a new influx of designers with new vision came in, and a new generation of writers and editors started covering it.
jason matlo is one of the local designers most visible in the new, increased media coverage, largely because he designs ball gowns for A-list U.S. and Canadian celebrities. He started using sustainables several years ago, and is what many would consider a hardcore enviro: he has no car, works and lives in a downtown loft and recycles everything. “When my parents went on a motorhome trip in the U.S., when there was no recycling in a campground, they packed up everyone’s recycling there and brought it back home,” he recalls proudly.
Nevertheless, he says the premium price (combined with the high cost of manufacturing due to the amount of detail in his designs, which sell for between $200 and $2,500) often puts sustainables out of range for him.
How long will it take before he and others can start designing everything in sustainables? “I hope it’s not a few years,” he says. “I hope it’s a few days.”
What will it take? First, the fabrics need to be there – the quality and the different types. Next, says Matlo, the price needs to be the same or just slightly more. Third, he says, high-profile designers need to start using them. “If Donatella Versace can make her whole line in sustainable fabric and prove it’s no different, that will work.” Then magazines need to back it: “Vogue needs to say they’ve arrived for real.” Then finally, celebrities need to start wearing and endorsing them.
Susan Gagnon, who co-owns Syka Textiles, which supplies most sustainable fabrics to Vancouver designers, says there’s been a “huge jump” in the last six months and the surge is continuing. “Two words,” she says: “Al Gore.” But she says she doesn’t see this as a trend – more like the beginning of the new norm.
It seems if you weave it, they will come. Then stick around.