Tag Archives: organic

The Web We Weave

Last night at the Loomstate party, I told someone I was a journalist.

“Who do you work for?” he asked.

“I’m independent,” I replied, which is funny, because in many ways, nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, my stories are my own and I have no editor to answer to, but lately I get overwhelmed thinking about everyone pitching in to help me with the completion of a website about sustainable style, based on my recent trip to Sweden.

I’ll limit my example to yesterday alone. I’ve asked two of the Swedish designers I’m writing about for additional photographs for the site. One simply sent me a login to peruse her server as I pleased, and the other emailed me selected favorites, including the one below, of her colleague weaving wool in Scotland. I tend to have my Sweden emails in the morning, thanks to the time difference, and these were particularly lovely to wake up to.

But it was time to get down to business. One of my mounting challenges in writing about sustainability, as I’ve noted, is the tremendous task of defining the word. Recently, a Huffington Post reader called Denis Ethier alerted me on Twitter (I get it now!) that he had just left a comment under my article. Indeed, dear Denis had advised  me that in using the term “sustainable growth,” I had employed an oxymoron, and directed me to Dr. Albert Bartlett’s Laws of Sustainability.

Dr. Bartlett, who holds a PhD in Nuclear Physics from Harvard, has been writing and lecturing about sustainability for forty years, and I found his papers to be at once helpful and harrowing.

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race,” Dr. Bartlett once famously said, “is our inability to understand the exponential function.” (That’s the green one.) I was experiencing an inability to understand a great number of things, but I was able to perceive an exponentially increasing portion of panic. So I did what any perplexed fashion enthusiast would do, and directly contacted a nuclear physicist. Within moments Dr. Bartlett replied to my email, with his home telephone number and a warning he knew nothing “about fashions.” We had an enlightening chat, which you’ll be able to read about once the Sweden site is done.

New Source: Dr. Al Bartlett

By the time we said goodbye, Loomstate’s Earth Day party was about to begin. Commemorating Earth Day in a basement beneath midtown seemed a little counterintuitive until I walked into the sprawling room and saw Pemba Sherpa, one of my absolute favorite souls on this planet. Edun, my previous employer, was once housed in the same SoHo apartment as fashion brands Rogan and Loomstate. Things have since grown and separated a bit (exponentially? I’m not sure.), and Pemba remains the single employee all three labels share. This speaks to their intelligence, because any place blessed with Pemba’s presence on a daily basis will find their employees learning daily lessons about patient kindness from his example.

Old Friend: Pemba Sherpa (on my last day at Edun)

He used to be a guide in the Himalayas (now he treks between Edun, Rogan and Loomstate’s Tribeca offices, handling all things logistical), so Pemba’s appreciation for the planet comes from a uniquely elevated perspective. He knows I love stories from his native Nepal, and he recently returned, but this time his most exciting revelation was not about the mountains, but about an unplanned pregnancy in his community, which resulted in an unplanned adoption, and now Pemba is the proud papa of Arbin Tshering Dorjee Sherpa. I thought of Dr. Bartlett’s famous lecture on population growth, and how heartily he might approve of Pemba’s adoption strategy. It also occurred to me that if I’m ever reborn, Pemba’s family might be a good one to go for.

Just then, 40 drummers filed in, and took their seats at a mishmash of sets under a white pyramid in the center of the cavernous space. Cymbals began to shimmer. A pelican in slow-motion flight was projected onto the pyramid; and Pemba stood beside me, taking pictures. Before long, a strong reverberation took over the room, and it became nearly impossible to distinguish between the beats of the different drummers. Before they started playing Scott Hahn had introduced the program saying they intended to “shatter the illusion that we’re all separate.” Indeed.

When I got home, I checked my email, and found a message from a reader who had sent a question about organic concert tee shirts a few weeks ago. We’ve never met in person, but he asked if I had been at the Loomstate party, and then later on the L-train! He had recognized me from those seemingly gratuitous photos I post of myself, and even asked if I was free tonight, as he’s found himself with an extra ticket to the opera. I loved the idea of meeting up for the opera, but am previously engaged for a pow-wow with the Sweden site’s new designer/developer –a young lady called Grace, whose surname, incidentally, is derived from the German for one who weaves.

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Want to Build a Lifestyle Brand? Build a Lifestyle.

For most bloggers, linking to last week’s story is sort of like wearing last season’s clothes. But let’s be honest, I do wear last season’s clothes, and Rebecca Mead’s ramble through Brunello Cucinelli‘s Umbrian kingdom of cashmere, in the March 29 New Yorker is already a classic, much like Cucinelli’s casually elegant clothing.

A Brunello Cucinelli Advertisment

The philosopher-king of cashmere’s unusual approach to his business–applying his Greco-Roman values to his home, his office, his sample factories and even establishing a small surrounding city in his vision, made me wonder why we don’t see this more often with American designers, so keen on ever-lucrative lifestyle brand. So why not build lifestyles?

Sure, Betsey Johnson had Betseyville and Ralph Lauren has Telluride‘s Double RL Ranch (and Round Hill in Montego Bay and the beach house in Montauk and the Bedford estate), but these holiday homes and resorts are available to but a few privileged guests.

As long as Ralph Lauren is branding bed sheets, house-paint and 1500 cattle, why not brand his own supply chain, and maybe even build a little colony around it? I’m serious. Imagine if American designers established enclaves for producing high-end capsule collections where the entire supply chain–and not just the look–aligned with their values. Now that would build a brand.

Here are my proposals for a few I’d like to visit.

Image from Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY

Donna Karan’s Pure Peru: Donna Karan could establish a small factory in the mountains outside Máncora, Peru, to produce her existing DKNY Pure line. She could use naturally colored organic Peruvian pima cotton to create heavenly cotton tees in the sandy beiges and whispery pinks she used for the collection in the ’90s.  Mead mentioned 90-minute lunch breaks at the Cucinelli factory–enough time for pasta, salad, grilled meat and wine (for less than five bucks in the cafeteria), followed by a nap. Maybe Karan’s macrobiotic chef could whip up meals in an outdoor kitchen, and factory workers could re-energize with afternoon meditation breaks. The designer could host guests for retreats at Samana Chakra, a little beachfront spot I visited after a production trip for Edun a while back. Pure Peru? Sign me up, the shirts and the retreat.

Ralph and Ricky Lauren, Image by Gilles de Chabaneix, Architectural Digest

Ralph Lauren Red, White and Blue Label: For his All-American collection, Lauren could make it…wait for it…all American. He could bring down some of the beef cattle from Double RL and start a little cotton farm in South Carolina. Since organic cotton can only be harvested once per year (as opposed to conventional cotton’s three yearly harvests) Lauren could rotate his crops with grain to feed the cattle in the winter. Naturally, they would be grass-fed the rest of the year. Lauren could find some  old equipment from the area’s historic mills and make fabrics to send to factories in nearby Surry County, NC, a community that’s been hit especially hard by job losses in the textile sector. (BLS predicts the job market will lose 71,500 sewing machine operators between 2008 and 2018.) He could follow Steven Alan‘s lead and resurrect the old-school Made in the USA tag that’s sewn into some of Alan’s signature pieces.

Ms. Mead wrote of Cucinelli’s commitment to his country, where 100% of his collection is manufactured. When the financial crisis hit, she said, Saks showed their support for Cucinelli by dedicating its windows to his brand and hosting an event with the cuisine of his Umbrian home. What could be more American than an organic cotton dress farmed from land that helped raise a (branded) burger in the off-season? I’ll have one of each, and come down for the cattle round-up.

Yvon Chouinard, Image from Ben Baker Photo

Patagonia’s Camp Cleanest Line: Okay, I’m cheating, because The Cleanest Line is already the brand’s blog, but the double entendre is too good. As you can read in his book, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard applies his philosophy–which involves a great respect for the outdoors and his employees, and providing the time for the latter to enjoy the former–to his business offices in Ventura, California. Camp Cleanest Line could appeal to Pata-groupies who not only love the clothing and want to observe this management technique in action, but also want to take a break to surf Rincon if conditions are conducive. Visitors could participate in a beach clean-up like the one the Patagonia employees recently did, and the trash they collect could be recycled into fleece. Patagonia produces largely in China, but they take the dramatic step of making their factory list public, so any camper who really wanted to follow their soda bottles overseas could. Come to think of it, I’d say Patagonia’s sort of already established a lifestyle brand, which might be why I’m sitting here in the garment district longing for, well, that Patagonia lifestyle.

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Swedish Style Diary: Play Hard to Get, Take it Slow


Over several years working in the fashion industry, and countless more wondering what to wear, I’ve seen the topic of “sustainability,” appear with increasing frequency. And while the fashion industry and the media agree on its importance, no one seems able to land on a definition. The Financial Times’ Vanessa Friedman spent two days at a conference on the topic, only to conclude that “the more you try to figure it out, the more confusing it becomes.” She asked a handful of fashion designers to define the term and received as many varying answers—a troubling result, she wrote, as “sustainability” becomes more ubiquitous in the fashion community.

I don’t mind giving designers a little wiggle room as they find their places in the movement, but like Friedman, I’d like to clarify my own concept of sustainable style. So when the Swedish Institute invited me to Stockholm to learn about their country’s take on the idea, I happily accepted.

What I found on Day One in Stockholm surprised me.

Stockholm’s Old City, Gamla Stan

When I met Piotr Zaleski, one half of the duo behind denim label Julian Red, I expected to hear about sustainable materials like organic cotton and natural dyes, and I did. They were integrated into pieces like high-waisted, straight-legged, slightly cropped jeans (“The Lady Hi”—take note) and a floor-grazing skirt in midnight gauzy wool, hand-painted with thin stripes of watery rainbows. The styles were wearable and well-designed, so I found it odd when Piotr said that since 2003, their company has been growing by about 20% each season—much slower, he clarified, than many successful young fashion labels, that easily increase sales by 100% each season.

“Small quantities are the most ecological part of our business,” Piotr said. “The idea is not to make more than you need.”

Piotr Zaleski

He explained that Julian Red presently makes no more than about 200 pieces in a given style. It’s only now that he is confident with his supply chain, which includes fabric mills in Japan, and factories in Mauritius and Portugal, that Piotr will push the sales a little more—but just a little.

He manages both the brand’s marketing and production—a position that likely leaves him sleep-deprived, but also offers him the unique perspective to adopt an effectively non-aggressive sales style (I believe in dating we call this “hard to get”) that brings the label to stores like Oak in New York City and Isetan in Japan, while growing at a pace everyone—mills, factories and Piotr and his partner Mattias Lind—is comfortable with.  To boot, there aren’t scores of leftover clothing each season, an issue another Swedish brand has reckoned with in regrettable fashion.

This idea, sustainability defined as growth at a supportable pace for a business and its partners, shouldn’t seem so novel. But let’s be honest, this is fashion, and designers and the media alike have been trained to strike while the iron is hot, because it might not be for long.

But I think the guys at Julian Red are onto something, adding fuel to a fire—sustainable fashion—that is better off starting as a slow burn.

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A Man and His Tweed

The night before Fashion Week began, I read an article in which the Financial Times’ style editor lamented the lack of a common lexicon when it comes to sustainability in style. She asked a variety of designers for their definitions and, of course, they varied greatly. Incidentally, the first show Dossier assigned me to cover was John Patrick Organic, a collection one might presume to be made of entirely organic fabrics. But one might be presumptuous. 

There were, indeed, some pieces, like the turtleneck on the left, made from fabrics that were, well, conventionally organic. But the most interesting fabric was not organic–at least, not according to the federal regulation. My favorite pieces in the collection–high-waisted shorts and trousers and a riding jacket with peaked shoulders were made of something called Harris Tweed. 

Just as John Patrick was beginning to tell me about it, a rather distinguished looking continental type strode into the show, donning  a great deal of tweed himself. John Patrick, flitting between photo opps and interviews, looked relieved to hand me off to an authority, and so I was introduced to Mr. Alan L. Bain, the Director of Harris Tweed Textiles:

Mr. Bain told me all about the Act of Parliament that protects the name of Harris Tweed, 100% sheep’s wool that must be spun, dyed and handwoven (at home!) by the islanders of the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. Each bolt is stamped with a Maltese cross and orb, the stamp of Harris Tweed–a coat of arms that John Patrick, incidentally, integrated into the arm of a coat:

It’s beautiful stuff, full of multi-colored flecks–the result of tossing together different colored skeins of dyed wool before spinning the yarns. 

“It’s like baking a cake,” Mr. Bain said. “You have a recipe of different percents of colors.” (I was partial to an orchid pink shade used in a pair of high-waisted shorts.) It’s a recipe the Scots have been using since the 1800s, for a natural, bio-degradable, and, dare I say, beautiful fabric. But my guess would be that it isn’t cheap, which might be why Harris Tweeds’ production is down to one quarter of what it was 15 years ago (400,000 meters per year vs. 1,600,000 in 1995). The Act of Parliament was taken up by Prince Charles and the wool lords (not to be confused with war lords–we’re not talking about Blood Tweed) to protect the traditional techniques of farming and fabric production. The girls from Vogue arrived while I was chatting with Mr. Bain. They loved the tweeds. J Crew has apparently taken up the fabric as well. 

“But is it organic?” I asked Mr. Bain. Well, not exactly. Not the dyes, he said. There is one gent on the island, said Mr. Bain, doing organic, but they just didn’t have the demand yet. So, here’s a strictly defined fabric made of natural fibers using a 200-year old method that’s keeping a few Scottish farmers in business. It’s been in a slump, but might make a comeback if the right designers create demand. 

So while it may seem a little dodgy to use the word “organic” as a brand name for a line in which all the fabrics are not organic in the strictest sense, it also seems it wouldn’t make sense to throw out the baby with the bath water. I agree with the Financial Times’ editor, that the fashion industry needs to set some solid, scientifically definable standards of sustainability to adhere to. But I also think we need to leave a little room for interpretation and let it develop, well, organically, to leave a little room in designers’ lexicons for fabrics like Harris Tweed.

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The Meaning of Green

At the outset of New York Fashion Week, I found this Financial Times article, about the moving target of “sustainable fashion” to be particularly interesting.

John Patrick Organic, Spring/Summer 2010

And as it happens, I’ve just come from my first show of the season: John Patrick Organic. The photo above is from last season, soon my comments on the current one will be up here at CLOSETTOUR, and on Dossier Style! Stay tuned…

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H&M Busted Again

I got this dress at H&M a couple of summers ago. It’s got a little inverted pleat in the front, a nice wide hem at the bottom, a woven pocket on the chest, and it’s made of the blackest black knit cotton–the tag says it’s organic. But after the news that a German lab found genetically-modified cotton in 30% of the garments H&M labeled as organic, one has to wonder whether it’s quite so black and white.


I was wearing it one sweltering day at Ellen, a great little vintage shop on the Lower East Side, when the owner complimented me on it, and, as any curious clothier might do, asked where I acquired it.

“H&M,” I said. “It’s part of their organic line,” I added, attempting to justify my guilty foray into fast fashion.

Ellen is the type to smoke incessantly in her store, fawn over you if she likes what you’re wearing, and say something like this if she doesn’t:

“Oh, I am so f—ing sick of that shit.”

Oh! My friend and I were done browsing and struggling to stifle our giggles, so we left without pursuing the conversation. But it seems Ellen was onto something. That day I assumed (never wise) she was sick of would-be customers like me patting myself on the back for my “responsible” choice–vintage might have been better. But maybe it was a witchy ESP of something rotten in…Sweden, although the news broke in Deutschland.

But what exactly was rotten? 

Well, according to the federal regulation of the National Organic Program, to which cotton is subject:

A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production. Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology).

Which is to say, if it’s genetically modified (ie: injected with a gene to make it resistant against herbicides or bugs), it ain’t organic.

According to the Organic & Non-GMO Report‘s interview with Terry Pepper, an organic cotton farmer in Texas, contamination can occur fairly easily if organic cotton is processed at the same gins that work with genetically-modified cotton. (Sounds like the disclaimers about peanut in M&M factories, no?) Pepper made a distinction between GMO free and non-GMO, telling the Report that, “GMO-free is not possible, but we can maintain non-GMO with some work.” 

If Terry Pepper in Texas can maintain non-GMO, it seems H&M should be able to do better than 30% for a line they label organic. But who’s at fault when a Swedish company that manufactures clothing from supposedly organic Indian cotton in a factory god-knows-where (not checked the latest labels in the organic collection) to be sold in 35 different countries mislabels their goods?What link in the supply chain should be required to test and prove the cotton is indeed organic, and by whose standards?

And why are everyone’s conventional cotton panties in a bunch over the alleged fraud? Is it because we’ve been lied to? Paid more for an item that might not be all it claimed to be? Just like to see big chains like H&M get busted? Or, are we, as Ellen said, just sick of this shit?

And here I thought it was just a little black dress.

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A Piece of my Heart

Well, dear readers, my heart is pounding, because in less than an hour our Entrepreneurial Journalism class will have the opportunity to pitch our new media ventures to a pretty hard-hitting panel of venture capitalists and media pros. (Perhaps you’ve heard of David Carr or Daylife, or Outside.in?)

I’m a little nervous, but more excited, and as usual I was wondering what to wear for the occasion. So I opted for a comfortable combination that would remind me of the sorts of stories I’m hoping to tell one day, through a more developed version of CLOSETTOUR–because that, if you haven’t figured out, is the idea that I’m presenting. That’s why (so sorry) the blog has been a bit bare lately. 

So, there’s a little snapshot of what I decided to wear: my racing heart as I type before heading to the conference room at CUNY. I’ll fill in later with more details, and detail shots, but in the meantime: The sweater was made in Madagascar, of Italian silk and cotton yarn–I managed its production for Edun. The shirt underneath is Peruvian organic cotton and modal–also for Edun. And the necklace is from an amazing turquoise trader I met in Missouri a couple of weeks ago. She had incredible stories to tell, that for the moment I’m keeping close to my chest. Hopefully this presentation will be the first step towards more resources to pass stories like hers along.

I got a fortune on my teabag yesterday that said, “let your heart speak to other’s hearts.” 

Here’s hopin’…

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