By  on December 9, 2008

NEW YORK — Green is the new luxury.

At least that’s what the participants in the 10th annual New York Fashion Conference, organized by Initiatives in Art and Culture, agreed upon during a three-day series of panels held at The Graduate Center at the City University of New York Dec. 4 to 6. Speakers from both the upmarket apparel, retail and fine jewelry sectors spoke on issues of sustainability, from ethical sourcing and manufacturing to surviving tough economic times as ecologically responsible businesses.

“The fundamental point of sustainability is economic profitability,” said Scott Mackinlay Hahn, who cofounded Loomstate with Rogan Gregory in 2004 as an organic cotton brand (the pair are also partners in Rogan). Hahn told the audience that in the process of manufacturing pieces for their Rogan collection, both he and Gregory became aware of the toxins used to treat cotton; the impetus for their sustainable line was to “create a demand for organic” fashion that is produced ethically and is commercially successful. The company, which will launch a line for Target in April, uses an organic Turkish mill and toxin-free farms to produce its pieces.

“More brands have emerged [since we started],” Hahn said, noting the pressing concern for companies like Loomstate is how to produce organic materials at a manageable cost. “The customer is coming into stores and asking who made [the clothes], where the clothes were made. They’re holding designers accountable. So people have to figure out a way to brand this, and people are racing to figure out how to get sustainable product into their designs.”

Other speakers included designers Christina Kim of Dosa, Tina Lutz and Marcia Patmos of Lutz & Patmos and Natalie Chanin, who relaunched her Project Alabama collection as Alabama Chanin in 2006. Chanin talked about the ways in which creating a sustainable clothing line involves being conscious of everything from packaging to garment waste, and said her company is down to generating one bag of trash a week. She is also collaborating with a Bronx church, which produces organic vats of indigo, to produce a denim line using low-impact dyes.

Simon Doonan noted the overwhelming positive response to Barneys New York’s 2007 green holiday windows made him aware of the market for high-end green apparel. “We were very nervous, to be honest, but we incorporated style and glamour into it — green doesn’t have to be supercrunchy,” Doonan said, drawing laughs about the fact that he and his staff plumbed recycling centers for the thousands of soda cans that comprised one of the displays.

Lutz and Patmos, who gave a presentation on the transition of their company, which started in 2000, from a cashmere collection to an ecologically mindful line of knitwear, said that while they are not yet “100 percent green,” they have implemented natural fibers and low-impact dyeing processes into their pieces (the pair also design a 99 percent organic line, Leroy & Perry, for Barneys Co-op).

Kim, meanwhile, gave a presentation on the process through which she recycles Indian saris into contemporary garments, while jewelry designers Toby Pomeroy and Monique Péan spoke about their practice of using reclaimed and conflict-free materials, respectively.

Barneys fashion director Julie Gilhart, who spoke with Leslie Hoffman, executive director of Earth Pledge, told the audience why, in 2002, she began exploring green fashion as a sellable market for the store. “I became really disenchanted with the fashion business,” Gilhart said. “The media had become more vocal about damage to the earth, but there was nothing in fashion. It was so excessive.”

Gilhart reached out to Chanin, whose then-Project Alabama line was produced using recycled materials and artisans in Chanin’s hometown of Florence, Ala., as well as Kim of Dosa. Barneys was also the first retailer to pick up Loomstate, Gilhart explained; the companies later collaborated on a line called Loomstate for Barneys Green.

“We have a luxury customer who demands the best, so we have to take the sustainable practice and incorporate it into that,” said Gilhart, who has worked with Stella McCartney, Philip Lim and Theory to create green capsule collections for the retailer (Gilhart was also instrumental in developing Barneys’ 2007 green holiday windows display).

According to Gilhart, marketing will play a key role in the success of designer green lines: “You can take the ‘green’ out of it. The sustainable, organic aesthetic is so romantic, and a lot of romance sells product.”

She noted that for designers such as Oscar de la Renta and Ralph Lauren, whom Gilhart commissioned to create a sustainable dress for the store, the prospect of using green practices and materials can be intimidating, particularly given the hippie vibe surrounding the environmental industry. Gilhart said that “if Lanvin were to send out this gorgeous dress and it turned out to be organic, I would say that’s luxurious,” but “when we asked Ralph to do a sustainable dress, he didn’t want to. They had to think about it for a month,” she said. “For these companies that have been doing business for a long time, it’s hard to think about changing.”

Gilhart added that educating retailers and sales staff on the environmental and commercial value of organic brands will help popularize them. “We have to educate from the bottom up, and work hard to promote the [green designers] who were pioneers to help them stay in business,” she said. “We’ll be speaking at this table five years from now, and Loomstate will be on the tip of your tongue the way Ralph Lauren is. And Ralph Lauren will have to evolve, too.”

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