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Stewart + Brown Puts Eco Stamp on Denim

Ethical fashion label Stewart + Brown is delving into denim for its fall collection.

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Karen Stewart and Howard Brown, the husband-and-wife team who founded the label in 2002, recognized they were missing a sizable market and an opportunity to expand and diversify their line without denim in its product offering.

This story first appeared in the October 29, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“We felt like we needed to offer denim to round out the collection and offer more woven bottoms,” said Stewart, who noted the line’s assortment has traditionally been focused on cut-and-sew knits and tops.

They also believed there was an opportunity in the market for a higher-end take on denim with a socially conscious message.

“We took styling cues from [traditional] denim, but it has a more refined and sophisticated appearance,” said Stewart. Details such as heavy contrast stitching, zippers and brass have been lifted from the traditional denim world and incorporated into more refined designs. “We wanted to take it a little more dressed up rather than the casual perspective on denim,” she said.

One of the keys to achieving that upscale look has been the choice of a lightweight fabric they are referring to as a “platinum twill.” The 7-ounce Japanese fabric is made from 100 percent organic cotton the designers had been working with over the years for other items. The fabric’s manufacturing process allows the fiber used to pick up all the dye, which results in clean water after the dyeing process.

The line’s denim offerings will consist of trousers, shorts, skirts, dresses and jackets. Wholesale prices will range from $82 to $138.

Stewart + Brown targets high-end women’s specialty boutiques, and has felt the pangs of the recession as their customers struggled to survive. Many didn’t. Stewart said that prior to the global financial crisis, the line shipped to 350 stores in the U.S. as well as to stores in Europe and Asia. Today, the line is down to 200 doors in the U.S. However, an online store launched two years ago is growing and customers did not flee entirely from the premium prices generally associated with green products.

“You can’t un-ring the bell,” said Stewart, who was introduced to environmental and sustainable issues during a five-and-a-half-year design stint with Patagonia. “Those people that are focused on sustainability and LOHAS [Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability] are not going to change. I don’t think they went back to conventional buying, they were just watching their money for a little while.”

Stewart sees confidence among retailers and customers on the rise, and the increased attention to sustainable practices from mainstream brands and retailers like Nike, Timberland and Walmart has moved the needle on consumer education.

“Our new challenge is there’s a tremendous amount of ‘greenwashing’ going on,” said Stewart, referring to the number of brands claiming to be environmentally friendly but not really being so. “We need to make sure people know we’re a legitimate and authentic company.”

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