By  on October 28, 2008

At the spring 2009 runway shows, sustainable fabrics — often associated with organic cotton T-shirt and denim lines — popped up in a handful of unexpected collections, from Koi Suwannagate to Carlos Miele. Vintage cashmere and organic cotton were worked into skirts and jackets, tanks and T-shirts — all utterly chic designs sans the utilitarian vibe heretofore associated with eco-friendly fashion.

“I think more and more designers are proving with visionary designs that ‘green’ fashion doesn’t have to sacrifice style,” said Suwannagate, whose spring collection featured her signature sculpted knits, a number of them made of overstock embroidery yarn by Los Angeles-based husband-and-wife artists Josh and He Yang. “In my case, working with recycled cashmere and natural dyes supplements my nature-inspired designs.”

And, unlike the production of other green materials, such as organic cotton and silk, vintage fabrics are cost-effective. “When I work with vintage cashmere, one cost benefit is sourcing it locally in L.A., as opposed to having it made and shipping from overseas,” she said.

While Suwannagate’s collection incorporated ecofabrics with aesthetics in mind — for her, “it’s more about the process of reconstructing an existing piece and transforming it into something new and beautiful” — New York-based designer Behnaz Sarafpour worked with a variety of organic cottons with an eye on the environment, mixing organic cotton with other fabrics, such as silk and linen, for skirts and dresses.

“As a designer, I have been in a position to put out a great deal of product, and it is important to realize a sense of responsibility for that,” said Sarafpour, who has found that, although her organic pieces have won critical approval, they are still finding a footing retailwise. There are few buyers “open to thinking differently about what they offer their consumers in the luxury market,” including organic fashion, she said. “There is even an assumption that maybe their customer won’t really care about buying a dress because it is organic.”

Sarafpour also has found that sourcing, rather than cost, is a challenge in using eco-friendly materials. “There is a much more limited selection of fabrics at a quality level suitable for designer product,” she said. “The majority of the fabric mills that create our most cutting-edge and luxurious textiles are not getting into doing organics.”

Indeed, designers of several high-end sustainable clothing lines did not want to divulge their material sources — production and access is limited, these designers reason, and the more publicity their sources receive, the higher costs may rise. As for the impact of the economy on more expensive green designs, including denim, the response is mixed.

“We recently enveloped our organic line into the Paige line because there wasn’t significant demand for it,” said Paige Premium Denim founder Paige Adams-Geller. “We currently have one style in men’s that is organic and a couple styles in women’s, but we no longer market them as organic, even though they are.”

Although Adams-Geller believes that “denim isn’t the marketplace for [organic] at this time,” Seun Lim, the creative director of James Jeans, is betting that the faltering economy will open up a wider array of niche markets in the apparel industry — which is why she is launching a green capsule collection for men and women.

“Because our eco-green line is competitively priced, the souring economy has not adversely affected the sales any more so than our regular line,” Lim said. James’ “green goods,” using natural dyes, resins and recycled fabrics, wholesale from $74 to $84.

For designer Linda Loudermilk, whose wholesale prices range from $40 to $800 for women’s and $45 to $1,000 for men’s, the faltering economy has meant downsizing her in-house staff and using outside contractors for production. Loudermilk said there is an upside for the industry with this kind of outsourcing, however. “We do have to train these artisans to work with my fabrics,” she said, “but it is good for the marketplace to educate and train them.”

Meanwhile, Eviana Hartman, a designer of new line Bodkin, which consists of stylish dresses, tanks and jackets made of fabrics including Japanese specialty cotton wovens and recycled nylon, said that, while she wishes “certain categories of fabric and trim could be found in sustainable versions,” she agreed with Sarafpour, noting that designer eco-friendly clothes are less vulnerable to the economy than they are to retailers’ skepticism about the ability to combine great design with sustainable materials.

“The news of Wall Street’s collapse happened to fall in the middle of spring market, and it’s affecting every designer I know,” said Hartman. “I think, though, that some buyers want to support sustainable lines, while others buy based on style alone. That hasn’t changed yet.”

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