NEW YORK — Designers, naturally, want consumers to respond to their aesthetic, but Karen Stewart and Howard Brown had a further objective. They wanted to create a product that was eco-friendly — without sacrificing style, of course.
So Stewart and her husband, Brown, a former graphic designer at companies such as Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, Microsoft and ESPN, decided to start an organic clothing company, Stewart + Brown, that they could stand behind. “We’re both designers, and we care about the world we live in,” Brown said. “We felt that something was missing. That something was a sense of purpose.”
Before launching Stewart + Brown in Ventura, Calif., in 2002, Stewart held design positions at Urban Outfitters, J. Crew and Patagonia. During her five years at Patagonia, her perception of design shifted.
“At Patagonia, we [the designers] had to know where the fabrics we used came from,” said Stewart, the collection’s designer. “Good or bad, we needed to know.” While at Patagonia, she visited a cotton farm in Central Valley, Calif., and learned of the hazards of conventional cotton, which holds highly toxic carcinogens. “You cannot grow anything on the land where cotton grew.”
Organic cotton is grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides. “Conventionally grown cotton is the second most pesticide-laden crop in the world, second to coffee,” Brown said. “Five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton in the U.S. — cyanide, dicofol, naled, propargite and trifluralin — are classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as Category I and II, the most dangerous chemicals.
“There are solutions,” Stewart added, “You just need to educate people about their choices.”
Stewart + Brown is composed of three product categories. ORGNC is an organic cotton line of pima, jersey, fleece and French terry knitwear. CSHMR is a line of pure Mongolian cashmere sweaters and accessories knitted in the “coldest and most remote parts of Mongolia,” Brown said. “[It’s] right on the border Mongolia shares with Russia, so there’s no Chinese interference. The best cashmere is combed right out of the chest of the goat.”
Additionally, Stewart and Brown wanted to foster a sense of sustainability and, after noting the caliber of the craftsmen from that area, they decided to keep the manufacturing local. “When we went to Mongolia, we found they were amazing craftsmen. Our sweaters are made right there: We’re supporting their economy by keeping the indigenous Mongolian employed,” Brown said.
The final category is SURP+, a collection of apparel and accessories developed from excess fabrics and materials from another manufacturer’s production.
“We take the waste of others and make something out of it,” Brown said.
Wholesale prices of the fall collection range between $21 for an organic cami-tank up to $350 for a cashmere handcrocheted coat sweater. The company expects its wholesale volume for 2005 to reach $1.25 million. Stewart + Brown is available in 110 stores nationwide, such as Takashimaya and Erica Tanov here, Lawrence Covell in Denver, Workshop in San Francisco and Fred Segal Trend in Santa Monica, Calif. A men’s a7nd children’s collection is slated to launch for 2006.
“We’re very much profit-motivated,” Brown said. “Most people in the past have put the issue at the forefront and have made the mistake of selling from the soapbox, but we’re making clothes,” he said. “And they have to look right.”