Cool to Care

Increased consumer concern and celeb interest help drive the surge in eco-friendly fashion.

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Forget the heady days of hedonism: Having a conscience is cool again.

But today’s wearers of ethical fashions are not into macramé and peace signs or reminiscing about Woodstock, and are instead seeking sharp suits, sexy dresses and covetable handbags. That’s why hip boutiques, celebrities and online retailers are all targeting keen-to-be-green consumers.

“We love products that marry good design with a good cause. They’re appealing more and more to consumer conscience,” said Sarah Lerfel, a buyer at Colette in Paris. The boutique stocks a handful of ethical brands like Peruvian line Misericordia, and in June will add an eco-themed collection of T-shirts designed by Kate Moss and Gwyneth Paltrow to raise funds for Al Gore’s Climate Project.

“I support eco-fashion because I think there are a million issues regarding the way the world operates right now that need to — and are slowly — being addressed,” said model Lily Cole, who has posed for free for eco-designers like Katharine Hamnett. The 18-year-old Cole is one of many ubercool youngsters who are now checking out not only the cut but also the origin and ecological and social impact of the clothes they buy.

“Ethical fashion was considered for so long to be tents and camping equipment,” said Orsola de Castro, co-curator of London Fashion Week’s Esthetica ethical trade show and founder of From Somewhere, a line that turns fabric cuts rescued from factory floors into chic dresses. “The minute it was no longer just vegans and hippies buying it, designers were quick to jump on to it.”

Many retailers, from H&M to Wal-Mart, have added organic or fair trade lines over the last year, while freestanding stores with an eco-fashion focus are springing up, such as Alter Mundi Mode in Paris, From Somewhere, which opens in London next month, and Linda Loudermilk’s Los Angeles boutique, slated to open in July. They’re hoping to tap an increasingly broad consumer base for eco-fashion.

“Many of us now work in offices where we don’t observe people wearing logos, but clothes that say something about individuality rather than status or designer,” said Chris Sanderson, a trend forecaster at The Future Laboratory, a London-based brands and consumer insight network. “You feel emotionally better as a person by wearing a brand that’s good for you, for the environment and for other people.”

This story first appeared in the April 10, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

While fashion trends generally tend to trickle down from high-end brands to the high street, the ethical fashion movement has more grassroots origins. Since consumers are increasingly conscious about the provenance of the food they eat, that concern has impacted other areas of consumption, including clothing.

Take Lima, Peru-based streetwear brand Misericordia, for example. When designers Aurelyn Conty and Matthieu Reumaux struggled to find wholesale accounts for their clothing based on the uniform of a Peruvian school, they created brand awareness by peddling jackets on the Parisian party circuit, even in the street. Four years later, Misericordia counts Colette and Citadium as its main retailers, while in the U.S. it can be found at Gamma Player, techno legend Jeff Mills’ new Chicago boutique.

The Internet has similarly enabled small brands to reach consumers. A host of “eco-tailers” such as Comptoir Ethique, Trendster and Adili have sprung up over the last year. Comptoir Ethique, which sells fair trade cotton, cosmetics and coffee, drew 50,000 visitors to its site in its first three months. Eco-conscious line People Tree’s e-commerce site generates half its direct sales; the rest is catalogue.

Mainstream retailers are increasingly creating exclusive eco-friendly lines. In March, high street fashion stalwart Topshop introduced an exclusive collaborative collection with People Tree at 20 of its stores. Also last month, French lingerie chain Etam introduced organic cotton-and-bamboo lingerie by Ekyog, and La Redoute will feature Franco-Brazilian brand Tudo Bom in its June catalogue.

Celebrities have also fueled the green wave. Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” has put the environment at the top of trendsetters’ agendas, while Bono and Leonardo DiCaprio (the cover boy of Vanity Fair’s green issue this month) are other green giants using their celebrity status to keep the environment high on everyone’s agenda. “Fortunately, the movement is not just in fashion, it’s in every area,” said actress and self-described eco-warrior Daryl Hannah.

“When the mainstream audience sees a celebrity wear something, like it or not, it automatically spurs an interest,” said Deborah Lindquist, an eco-designer who counts Sharon Stone among her clients.

The fashion industry is now aiming to take advantage of the situation by making having a conscience cool.

“It’s about influencing people through fashion, and communicating the idea that it’s cool to think about the environment,” said London-based accessories designer Anya Hindmarch, who has launched a line of reusable canvas shopping bags.

Indeed, today’s consumers prize commercial products with a message, according to model and eco-fashion consultant Summer Rayne Oakes. She stars in an upcoming campaign for “Levi’s 5-01 Day” — a community service initiative — and is introducing a line of fair trade organic T-shirts this month.

“The backstory is what these brands have over normal brands,” she said.

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