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.