LOS ANGELES — The plebian T-shirt has long had a knack for achieving star status when used to raise money for charities.
The formula isn’t lost on Mike Korchinsky, founder of Sausalito, Calif.-based Wildlife Works, whose organic cotton Ts featuring vintage collegiate screen prints of endangered and exotic animals, such as jaguars, koalas and Siberian snow bunnies, have graced the frames of Charlize Theron, Amy Smart and Rachael Leigh Cook.
His emotional tug? Korchinsky’s grand plan for an animal haven in Africa, away from poachers and safe from habitat destruction, is a vision similar to one many others have harbored in selfless moments, but Korchinsky has made it a reality.
The one-time Silicon Valley tech whiz took a trip to Kenya in 1996 and has been looking back ever since. He started Wildlife Works a year later (with help from the sale of his $15 million management consultant firm in 1995), creating an 80,000-square-foot sanctuary — home to elephants, cheetahs and antelope — and a 56-employee factory in the Kenyan village of Maunga that manufactures about 20 percent of the line. A percentage of sales from Wildlife Works supports the sanctuary and job center.
“We’re able to bring jobs and better standards to the community so they’ll stop killing the animals for food,” said Korchinsky during an interview at the Sunset Marquis Hotel & Villas in West Hollywood. “People don’t have to think too hard to help the planet.”
Trendy milieus might be a departure for someone with a chemical engineering degree, but this nature lover is no fish out of water. Korchinsky has snagged invites to suite parties, such as the Sunset Marquis Oasis and the Ultimate Crib at the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica, held prior to the MTV Movie Awards, and now he’s preparing for Lollapalooza 2003, the multiartist music fest touring July 3-Aug. 23.
“We want to court the future stewards of the planet,” he said. “For our mission to have teeth, we have to reach those who aren’t enlightened.”
Since it began selling its men’s and women’s T-shirts in 2001, Wildlife Works has grown an account list of 450 retailers, including Nordstrom and Los Angeles area boutiques Kitson, Diane Merrick and M. Frederic. Selling for $32 to $40, the baby Ts, tanks, raglan sleeve shirts and thermal varieties in cheery shades of rouge, grape and robin blue provide an alternative to logo Ts, say retailers. Sales are approaching $3 million.Even Anna Getty couldn’t resist the allure of signing on as his paid spokeswoman for the new yoga line bowing in fall featuring a logo of an elephant in the lotus position. Among the 15 looks are straight-leg and boot-cut cargo pants with rollover waistbands; tank tops with shelf bras; sleeveless raglans, and thermal bodies in shades of periwinkle, pumpkin, maroon and olive. Wholesale prices range from $14 for sleeveless raglan T-shirts to $38 for cargo pants.
A devout yogi and investor in the Golden Bridge Yoga studio here, Getty appreciates the message of the line, which will sell first to yoga studios, then hit stores.
“Yoga is union, and if there’s no union with the planet, then we’re all screwed,” she said.
Korchinsky hopes Getty and his cause can influence fashionistas to grow more eco-conscious. His imminent mission is supporting a $3 million campaign with the Humane Society of the United States to stop the slaughter of harp seals in Canada. The Canadian government has recently upped the yearly 275,000 seal-hunt quota to 975,000 over the next three years. An estimated 95 percent of those seals killed are 12 days to 12 months old.
Wildlife Works has created a T-shirt imprinted with the face of a baby harp seal and the slogan, “Do something,” for fall delivery. The shirts will sell for $27, and $5 from each sale will support the seal campaign. Already, a petition signed by 25 celebrities, including Amy Smart and Chynna Phillips, was sent to Dolce & Gabbana asking for the cessation of sealskin use in the designers’ clothing. The Italian fashion house has used the skin in a men’s jacket, according to the Humane Society.Repeated phone calls to Dolce & Gabbana officials were not returned for comment.
“What we’re asking is for consumers who care about these things and citizens who care to speak with their wallets,” said John Grandy, senior vice president of wildlife and habitat protection for the Humane Society. “And, we think with Wildlife Works, we can reach a whole new audience.”
Getty, a front-row regular at fashion shows, hopes her decision to stop wearing Dolce & Gabbana three months ago will inspire others to take a stand.“I love Dolce & Gabbana, but for me, if there’s speculation, I won’t wear it,” she declared. “I plan on wearing them again once they stop using fur, but for now, there are great designers who support fur-free clothes, including Zac Posen.”
Wildlife Works also has found its supporters.
“We blow it right out and it’s a real snappy item that beautifully accents the solids in our activewear,” said Fred Levine, co-owner of M. Frederic, which operates seven activewear boutiques.
Korchinsky admits his isn’t an easy mission. The sanctuary costs $250,000 a year, whether or not Wildlife Works posts a profit. To ease costs, he’s shifting production from Northern California to two factories in Los Angeles by July 31. He’s also exploring organic cotton options in Turkey, instead of relying on more expensive California growers, as well as blending conventional cotton in the clothing.
“We had to do the sanctuary and facility first, so we’re playing catch-up,” Korchinsky said. “but it’s all been worth it.”
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