Designers push for a more eco-friendly style

ajohnson@newsobserver.comMarch 6, 2013 

  • Small changes that can help

    Some people are intimidated by the idea of eco-fashion, but the women of Raleigh Redress say small changes can help the environment. A few suggestions.

    • Read labels. Where did your clothes come from? Where a garment is made shows how far it has had to travel, which speaks to fuel emissions and added costs. What are the care instructions? Add more cottons, linens and other organic plant-based fibers to your wardrobe. • Line-dry your clothes when you can. “I do it with most of clothes,” says Mor Aframian. “Granted, you have to think ahead, but your clothes feel better and smell great.” Wash clothes in cold water. • Develop connections with the people you buy from. “I buy from local designers, from people I really enjoy wearing. I love that because other people ask where I got something and I can send them there,” says Beth Stewart. •  Skip the mall or mainstream store sometimes. “I’ve gotten obsessed with vintage,” says Stewart. “It’s about knowing your style, being comfortable with your particular style, not what’s hot right now,” adds Aframian.

  • If you go

    What: The Redress Raleigh Eco-Fashion & Textiles Conference

    When: March 23-March 24

    Where: Raleigh Marriott City Center, 500 Fayetteville St., Raleigh

    Cost: $149 (until March 15); $99 for students; $20 to attend the Eco-Fashion show on March 23

    Details: redressraleigh.com

  • What defines eco-fashion?

    There’s some debate but, in general, eco-fashion is clothing that considers the environment, the health of consumers who wear the clothes and the working conditions of the people who make the clothes. Sustainability refers to the materials and the methods of production. Fair trade refers to a transparent, respectful and equitable relationship with the producers or workers who make goods. Upcycling means converting used materials into something new.

Of the three women who make up Redress Raleigh, Mor Aframian says she’s the “crazy” one, the one who says, “Let’s do this big thing now!”

Not that there’s much resistance – partners Beth Stewart and Jamie Powell may temper her passion, but all three are in agreement when it comes to activism. It’s that shared spirit that led them to launch the Redress Raleigh eco-fashion show in 2009. It has turned it into an annual event that’s moved from a bar on Hillsborough Street to last year’s outing at the Contemporary Art Museum.

And, because Redress Raleigh is a company whose goal is to raise the environmental consciousness of the fashion and textile industries, that same can-do spirit got them to embed this year’s fashion show within a two-day conference. The Redress Eco-Fashion & Textiles Conference, March 23 and 24 at the Raleigh Marriott City Center, will feature industry leaders, 14 North Carolina-based sustainable designers, workshops, lectures, panels and a marketplace.

“We want it to be about inspiring, educating and connecting,” says Stewart.

It’s a big idea, not at all crazy, and the timing is good. Fashion has fully embraced the concept of sustainability. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) has, for three years, sponsored an eco-fashion challenge, devoted to encouraging emerging designers to develop sustainable clothing and accessories collections. Luxury house Gucci, with the help of Livia Firth (wife of actor Colin) has created a more eco-friendly bag. (It’s leather, but the cows were nurtured on non-deforested land.) At the recent Academy Awards, nominee Helen Hunt paired more than $700,000 worth of jewelry with a gown from fast fashion retailer H&M that’s part of the chain’s Conscious collection, an eco-friendly line made entirely of sustainable materials.

The conference is the next step in a company that came together almost organically. In 2008, Stewart already had an interest in environmental issues, filtering it through her degree in architecture by working on green buildings. She heard about an eco-fashion show happening in New York and liked the idea. “But I had no idea how to plan one,” she says.

Google helped her discover Aframian through her nonprofit MorLove, a group she started that promoted upcycling of textiles into new products in support of orphanages in Uganda and Haiti. Aframian produced fashion shows in support of the nonprofit. It was at one of those she met Jamie Powell, an eco-fashion designer with a bent toward vintage pieces.

They agreed that Raleigh was becoming a fashion city, but “something was missing. There was high-end, artistic and really cool. We wanted to see cool, innovative and good for the earth. We thought, ‘I guess we should just do that,’ ” says Stewart, now 30.

“We met on a hot summer day in 2008,” says Aframian, who is 25. “We were passionate about the idea of eco-fashion, but we had no idea what to expect. We thought, ‘let’s see what happens.’ ”

What happened was that the show attracted so many people, they had to turn some away. “Every designer had a fan base, and this was new and exciting,” says Aframian.

The success showed them the possibilities of what they’d started, turning it from a project to an organization. “It was not a question of whether we would do it again,” says Stewart.

Eco-fashion resource

Redress Raleigh became a marketing and event-planning entity aimed at connecting designers and customers. Along with the annual fashion show, there are clothing swaps and sewing classes. “We want to be a resource for eco-fashion, a lifestyle company people can be inspired by and connect with others through social media,” says Aframian.

One of the designers benefiting from Redress Raleigh’s efforts is jewelry designer Johanna Ely, who runs Good Girls Studio ( goodgirlsstudio.com), a line she estimates is 75 percent to 95 percent recycled materials. She’s participating in the fashion show for the fourth time, this year collaborating with Powell’s Revamp clothing line for a collection called “Guardian.”

Ely believes the conference is a great way to educate others about eco-living and to help entrepreneurs run a greener business. “It’s a way to teach people to fit sustainable living more easily into their lives,” Ely says.

Oami Powers, who designs the Judah Ross line ( judahross.com), and will present a panel on sustainable textiles at the conference, says she finds the women of Redress Raleigh impressive. “They’re pretty impressive for their ages. I have no doubt they’ll be influential people in this community. They’re smart cookies.”

She hopes the conference will help those unsure of how sustainability matters in their lives to see things differently. “Some people are not really sure of the connection in their own lives. I find that talking to them about pesticide use in textiles gets them engaged. Or I make the connection with the local food movement. People are already making those decisions about paying more for produce at the farmers market because you know where it comes from and you’re creating jobs. It’s the same idea.”

Beginning a dialogue

The members of Redress Raleigh know that eco-fashion and sustainability is an issue as important as it is complex. (Powers, for instance, says there’s no way to use textiles that are 100 percent chemical-free.) They’re hoping a conference full of people who share their passionate concern about how businesses impact the earth can be the beginning of a dialogue that leads to some clarity.

“For the textile industry, (sustainability) is really hard to define,” Aframian says. “But it’s important to start that conversation and talk about lessons learned. We don’t want to limit creativity. Maybe people can teach us a new way.”

Now that they are near the show time, Aframian admits pulling together the conference hasn’t been easy. “It’s definitely as difficult as I thought, in a good way. It’s a whole different beast than putting together the fashion show – I’d say about four times the work. But it’s phenomenal to hear from people how glad they are to hear something like this is happening.”

Naturally, there’s another “crazy” idea brewing. Aframian says she’d like to see a trade show of sustainable manufacturers and designers, one that would provide sources of new materials for designers and take the marketplace to the next level.

“I’ll never be done coming up with big ideas. Ever,” she says, with a laugh.

Johnson Martin; 919-829-4751; twitter.com/amajomartion

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