Soy replaces silk in the world of sustainable fashion

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Today it's possible to walk into a trendy boutique, flip through the racks of hangers, and find, mixed in with the usual wool suits and silk skirts, a pair of wide-legged pants sewn from bamboo, a funky shirred shirt constructed out of corn, or an iridescent tank dress made from wood pulp.

It's a far cry from the early days of environmentally friendly but drab organic cotton, and hemp that resembled burlap. While those fibers, often blended with luscious organic silks and cashmeres, have become a staple of sustainable fashion, the newest materials – including corn, seaweed, and soy – seem somehow better suited to a dinner plate.

Well aware of the frumpy stigma that dogged sustainable fashion's first wave in the early '90s, a new generation of designers is as interested in creating fabulous clothing as good stewardship. With these new materials as their canvas, they're putting the fashion back in ecofashion.

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Trumpeting slogans such as "eco can be edgy," green designers and boutiques are promising both "style and sustainability." And they're delivering.

"Oh, my gosh, it's so beautiful." That's the reaction Hellen Yuan is hoping for when someone sees one of her line's diaphanous blouses or fluidly draped pants. Ms. Yuan, the senior designer for Linda Loudermilk in Los Angeles – perhaps the best known and most successful high-end designer of ecofriendly fashion – wants people to recognize the environmental benefits as well. But if they don't, that's OK, too. Their textile choices make a difference, she says.

Hundreds of ecofriendly designers

True to fashion's cyclical nature, it was around 2001, about a decade after Esprit first launched its Ecollection, that ecofashion staged a return. Since then, environmentalism has become more mainstream, and fashion magazines now devote regular small spreads to sustainable fashion. In May of this year, Elle was the first to devote an entire issue to green fashion, printing the magazine on recycled paper.

But even five years ago there were only 10 or 20 designers who "were doing interesting things," says Summer Rayne Oakes, a model and environmental activist who blogs about fashion for eco-chick.com.

Today, there are hundreds. She's compiled a list of at least 500 ecodesigners worldwide, including those using ecofabrics but not overtly marketing themselves as green.

Nina Valenti of Nature vs. Future is among them. Without reading the label, a shopper who picks up one of her neutral tops, shirred across the chest, or a boldly geometric shirt dress might never know they were made of ingeo, one of the buzzier new fabrics derived from corn sugar.

Ms. Valenti, who designs the line out of Brooklyn, N.Y., didn't set out to make ecofashion, and only a few of the stores that sell her clothes are "green" boutiques. Yet each season, 50 to 75 percent of her designs are constructed from sustainable fabrics including bamboo, soy, and recycled soda bottles. Her martini dress, an ecofriendly take on the traditional black cocktail dress, is a hemp-silk blend.

Like Yuan and Valenti, designer Carol Young says she doesn't want a customer buying a piece from her Undesigned line "just because I'm making it out of hemp or bamboo."

"For me that's great," she says. "But it's icing on the cake."

Fashion-savvy shoppers agree. "I'm always attracted to the clothes first, and then the material is a nice little extra," says Layla Delridge, a fashion student and one of Ms. Young's loyal customers, who has also modeled for the Los Angeles designer.

At Greenloop, a boutique devoted to sustainable fashion in West Linn, Ore., most of the customers who wander in are drawn by something in the window that catches their eye.

"The environmental aspect is added value," says owner Aysia Wright. And she says she's delighted to "convert" customers who "haven't found they fit into the category of hippy."

Her online store (thegreenloop.com), however, is trafficked mainly by people deliberately searching for ecofashion. The lines that Greenloop carries, including Valenti's Nature vs. Future and Young's Undesigned, are "the cream of the crop," says Ms. Wright. "They are painstakingly made by designers who are "building a brand not just on sustainability but on image."

Prices are about what you'd find at a high-end department store such as Bergdorf Goodman or Barneys: T-shirts cost between $17 and $180, jeans run from $70 to $200, and cocktail dresses and suits sell for up to $400.

Wright says she gets some strong reactions to the high prices. "There are really angry, upset people who feel like we're preying on their guilt to swindle money out of them," she says.

For smaller designers, the biggest challenge in working with ecofabrics also may be cost. Using organic rather than regular cotton can cost a designer up to 30 percent more, which is why so few are able to make their lines 100 percent ecofriendly.

Pine wood and Japanese leaves

At the forefront of the second wave of ecofashion when it launched five years ago, Loudermilk has successfully created and marketed itself as "luxury eco," a category it created. The label continues to experiment successfully with some of the most unusual fibers available. Last year's collections included pieces utilizing fabric made from soybean oil; a Japanese leaf called sasawashi; lenpur, from a sustainably harvested pine wood pulp; and recycled plastic bottles.

This year, in addition to bamboo, Yuan is working with ingeo. In October the company plans to open a flagship "eco hub" housed in a green building on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.

For those constantly on the lookout for the new black, green may be it.

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