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Five years ago, an anonymous thief made off with Eli Reich’s messenger bag. Instead of buying new, Reich crafted a new pack out of necessity and used bike tubes.
This story first appeared in the February 2, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I thought it would be funny and ironic to make a messenger bag out of inner tubes,” the owner of Seattle-based Alchemy Goods said of his company’s earliest days.
In the intervening years, Reich’s operations have grown to a staff of eight and dovetailed with a developing public interest in eco-friendly goods. Now in its third year, MAGIC’s Ecollection focuses on exhibitors crafting apparel and accessories out of such sustainable materials and with socially conscious philosophies. Alchemy, for example, will show for the second year. Taking Reich’s early ingenuity to a mass scale, the company harvests bike inner tubes for its bags from a nationwide network of bike shops and cyclists. Reused car seat belts also figure into Alchemy’s production. Its newest addition is a line of handbags and totes made of vinyl repurposed from old billboards.
“Just because it’s recycled doesn’t mean it has to look recycled,” Reich said.
Other Ecollection vendors echoed Reich’s sentiment. While it can be tough to spot trends in a category where sourcing materials range from organic cotton to the pull tabs from aluminum soda cans, Ecollection exhibitors almost all agreed vendors in the category are starting to put more emphasis on fashion. A few years ago, eco-apparel might have attracted an audience on novelty alone, but that consumer is now demanding more from such brands.
Arlene Nilsson, an owner of new exhibitor Hemptress, said eco lines have tended to lean more toward the misses’ end of the spectrum, but are starting to have more of a fashion edge. Based in Los Angeles, Nilsson crafts her handbags largely from hemp, which she calls “the strongest fiber on the planet.” She’s started using finished bonded leather, made from recycled scraps, for trim. The company uses a hemp/RPET lining for bags in its vegan collection. RPET, made from recycled plastic, is biodegradable.
“I just love it; it wears so much more like real leather,” she said of the recycled product, which she compared with other faux leather materials. “If you make a bag out of PVC, it’s still there in 10,000 years. That’s the kind of sustainability we don’t want.”
Nilsson uses recycled nylon zippers inside her bags. She said the closures don’t tend to break or get caught as easily as metal, which can add to a product’s sustainability in the long run.
“The eco movement probably doesn’t think fashion is a good thing, because they think it’s one season and it’s gone, but there is such a thing as sustainable fashion,” Nilsson said.
Elizabeth Searle, designer for Earth Co. b.organic, said the basics maker launched several years ago in largely earth and neutral tones, but that demand has changed.
“Our customers were asking us, ‘What about some bright colors?,’” Searle said. “The customer is looking for fashion. Our colors for spring are really bright.”
She said the company is meeting demand by using low-impact dyes for colors such as cornflower blue, coral, sea blue and butter yellow. The company, which sources cotton for its goods from locally owned organic farms in Africa, also uses wooden beads and water-based screen prints for embellishments.
Dallas-based Walleska Ecochicc creates its lines out of materials like recycled aluminum and glass. Owner Walleska Tepping said she’s also been responding to customer demand for color and design.
“The product can be recycled and at the same time look fancy or chic,” Tepping said. “It doesn’t have to look rough.”
She used her bags and tops crafted from soda can pull tabs as an example.
“They’re show pieces,” she said. “You put [one] on and people are going to notice you.”
Tepping’s designs are realized through a fair trade arrangement with a community in her native Brazil. In fact, many Ecollection exhibitors said they adhere to fair trade practices.
Chicago-based Mata Traders Ltd.’s products are manufactured at co-ops in India using materials like recycled denim and saris. Co-owner Michelle King said the women who work in the co-ops are afforded paid sick and maternity leave and have a “huge” chance for upward mobility.
“We make sure that the people are being treated fairly,” King said, but added that the company’s fashions typically attract customers before its principles.
“It sells well on its own,” she said. “Our products are really well made. [They’re] not mass produced. It’s a different production model.”