FASHION : Eco-Fashion, Naturally


“Recycle or Die,” warns an $18 T-shirt by Joe Boxer at Fred Segal’s trendy Santa Monica boutique.

But between the lines a subliminal message is also being conveyed: “Buy this T-shirt because it’s fashionable and politically correct.”

In an era where everyone from chemical companies to pop stars have embraced the environmental cause, the greening of the fashion world comes as no surprise.

From fake-fur jackets to salmon-skin boots, from shampoos that aren’t tested on animals to cork skirts that look like leather, environmentally inspired clothes and cosmetics have become the first global fashion trend of the 1990s.

The ascendance of eco-fashion has been made possible by a recent harmonic convergence between environmental concerns and financial opportunities, says fashion retailing impresario Fred Segal.


A longtime environmentalist, Segal says he tried for years to introduce T-shirts and other clothes with ecological messages.

“Ten years ago . . . people wouldn’t buy it. Now they’re coming around,” says Segal, who leases out space in his Fred Segal shops on Melrose and Santa Monica to chic boutiques that sell under his name.

Still, the very idea of environmentally aware fashion strikes some as a hopeless paradox, especially in an industry whose survival hinges on getting people to consume and discard on a seasonal basis. And when you consider the color dyes and chemicals used to process most fabrics, the idea of ecologically sound, mass-produced fashion becomes daunting, if not downright impossible.

“If I were to be a completely socially responsible person I’d have to shut down my business,” says Devi Jacobs, whose Outback Adventurous Clothing Co. in Berkeley features clothes designed around themes such as rain forests, American Indians, glasnost and endangered animals.

But Jacobs already qualifies as one of the more environmentally responsible manufacturers around. A member of the Social Venture Network--a group of firms that share progressive philosophies and donate a percentage of their profits to ecological causes--Outback prints its catalogues on recycled paper, sponsors community projects and uses store displays to educate its customers.

Outback’s long-term plans include working with other manufacturers to process cotton without using chemicals and setting up a factory that uses only natural dyes.

California swim and surfwear companies like Gotcha, Body Glove and Jimmy’Z were among the first to catch the environmental-awareness wave with office recycling, donating to environmental causes and promoting ecological concerns in ad campaigns and printed T-shirt messages.

Esprit Clothing has been in the forefront as well. Most recently the company asked customers to put the brakes on conspicuous consumption. “Let’s think carefully about . . . how we consume, waste, and create demands that impact nature,” reads the introduction to Esprit’s Spring 1990 children’s catalogue.

“It does seem kind of strange,” says Helen Orchard, Esprit’s director of public relations. “But we’re not telling people not to buy, we’re asking them to think whether they really do need it.”

Creating conscientious consumers is also the goal at the Body Shop, a chain of skin and hair-care product shops founded 14 years ago by Englishwoman Anita Roddick.

The Body Shop, which has 450 shops in 38 countries and will open outlets in Seattle this fall and Orange County’s South Coast Plaza sometime next year, has achieved global success while long and loudly proclaiming that its products aren’t tested on animals. The company uses shredded office paper to pack its mail orders and gives customers a nickel when they bring back plastic containers for refills.

“We check our chain of usage all the time to see if there’s a way of lessening the environmental impact,” says Michael Waldock, president of Body Shop USA.

Mainstream cosmetics firms, many of which have been targeted by animal-rights groups, have also become savvy. A growing number now bear labels proclaiming “Not tested on animals.” The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Assn. says its members conduct only half of 1% of all animal testing, but that statistic is disputed by animal-rights groups.

More frivolous, perhaps, but equally trend-conscious are the growing numbers of fashion sloganeers now getting in on the act. In Italy, Franco Moschino’s $1,624 polka-dot fake-fur jacket carries a message stitched into the lining: “Fur coats are worn by beautiful animals and ugly people.” San Francisco-based Joe Boxer’s less costly top has a more cryptic message: “If this T-shirt was a rain forest it’s going to be a tank top in no time.” Price: $18. Compagnie BX, a division of Los Angeles-based Bronx Clothiers, offers a $115 white silk shirt with a chambray collar emblazoned with the title “Acid Rain/Ozone Guardian.”

“It didn’t take a genius to see that this was on people’s minds,” says Chris Blanchett, a spokesman for Seattle-based International News, whose tank tops and sweat shirts this season feature slogans such as “International People: Greening the Earth, Feeding the Children, Opening the Doors.”

Then there are those who say they stumbled accidentally into this stylish fray. Jungle Beach, which makes clothing and accessories from cork, reaped the benefits of the environmental movement without even trying.

“We were not started as an environmental concern but it has really come our way and we’re very pleased,” says spokeswoman Jennie Acosta, whose Los Angeles based-firm recently received an award from the Los Angeles chapter of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for manufacturing an alternative to leather.

The company harvests its raw material from cork trees that shed layers the way a lizard sheds its skin. The cork is then processed into very thin layers that look like leather but can be washed and ironed.

“We call it nature’s leather,” says Acosta, who company carries everything from cork bikinis to wallets, skirts and $260 men’s jackets.

For every designer motivated purely by ecological concerns, there seem to be two who researched the profit possibilities carefully before plunging in.

“Naturally, we looked at it from a business standpoint,” says Jim Garner, whose Alaskins Leather firm in Juneau, Alaska, tans salmon and halibut skins in a way that combines the strength of woven cloth with the naturally pigmented look of leather.

The raw materials come from a cannery that formerly discarded the skins; the idea came from Alaskan Indians, who used to make boots and rain gear from the salmon skins. Last year, Alaskins doubled its sales to almost $250,000. Today, the company offers 53 products in 10 colors that range from purses ($80 and up) wallets ($28-$56) and belts ($30).

Turkey-feather outerwear is the specialty of 2-year-old Lena Fiore Inc., which says the fur salons are now courting it.

“The animal-rights groups were affecting their business and they wanted to provide their customer with an alternative,” says Celeste Massullo, a spokesman for the Cleveland, Ohio, company.

A chartreuse turkey-feather jacket by Fiore goes for $650 and a tomato-red swing jacket fetches $800 in boutiques and department stores.

Other designers say they steer clear of environmental fashion, rather than trivialize it by simply putting ecological slogans on expensive clothes.

“My customer is definitely more interested in looking a certain way than in saving the Earth,” says New York fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. “And frankly, my clothes are so expensive that I don’t know who could buy them on a regular basis.”

Some maintain that followers of eco-fashion, whether intentional or not, help a worthwhile concern. “There is a bandwagon, and it’s going to get trivialized like mad,” says Waldock, president of Body Shop USA. “But in a way it doesn’t matter because the more people make noise about it, the more it’s going to get the consumer to behave himself.”

Others take a dim view of the whole situation. Dr. Chaytor D. Mason, an associate professor of psychology at USC who studies trends and fashions, calls it a fad that will probably fade.

“People are rushing out and buying T-shirts they don’t need, which is giving us visual pollution,” Mason says. “We are getting polluted with stuff about not polluting.”

But adherents say environmental fashions will only wax, not wane, as more people become aware of the need to save the planet.

Segal, for his part, plans to open a new shop in Santa Monica next February that will offer inexpensive, environmentally sound clothes. Patrons will have to bring their own shopping bags.

Denise Cohen-Scher, the fashion director of the California Mart, considers the long-term prospects for eco-fashion more dicey.

“It’s all going to boil down to what the consumer is willing to do,” she says. “But it’s the hip thing right now, and it’s certainly the necessary thing to do.”