The premier of Season 11 of Project Runway on Lifetime four weeks ago set the hearts of many at-home fashionistas and DYI designers a flutter. As usual, the sixteen finalists who made it to the Parsons design studios in New York’s Garment District brought with them a variety of personalities, aesthetics, and talents that made for good clothes and—most importantly—good reality TV. Among them for the first time, though, was a self-proclaimed sustainable designer: twenty-four-year-old Timothy Westbrook from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It seemed like the infamous “unconventional materials” challenge, where designers are tasked with making garments from objects such as groceries and hardware-store stock, was made for a designer like Timothy. Reusing materials in his designs was his schtick, but it was also his mission in his life and art. Even when the contestants were allowed to shop for traditional fabrics at Mood, the 40,000-square-foot fabric superstore, Timothy chose to dig through the discard bins for scrap materials; he also passed on styling his models with hair products or makeup to refrain from the use of chemicals. It’s been more fun, frankly, to watch him dream up and defend his ultra-conceptual pieces than to watch them walk down the runway. Take, for instance, the dress he made on the first episode with layers of burnt parachute (pretty but, as judge Zac Posen pointed out, not great for the environment) that even required choreography for proper wearing; the model was instructed to flail about in anguish like the Virgin Mary at the crucifix. His take on the diamonds challenge—models were draped on millions of dollars’ worth of precious gems, from which the designers drew inspiration—was to create a jewelry box illusion involving blue velvet and a racer-back neckline . . . in the front. Everything about it was backwards, and it seemed like Timothy too sacrificed his finished products for his ideals, which won’t keep you afloat in an industry based on appearances. He just couldn’t make it work.
As I watched Timothy battle against convention so valiantly, my compassion for him grew ever so slightly. My first encounter with sustainable clothes was also something of a cringe-worthy accident: it was the middle of summer and I found myself without a dress for a family barbecue. Desperately searching through the seasonal left-overs, I declared a victory when a sherbet-orange sleeveless shift dress seemed to call to me from the racks. I fell in love as soon as I tried it on: it was made out of what felt like the softest cotton that had ever touched my skin. The design was classic, and given its simplicity—and the fact that I was in a discount store—I thought I’d make out with an excellent deal on a piece that would last me well after its mid-thigh hemline would be considered age-appropriate. Then I flipped over the tag: it was nearly $100. With the 50% reduction. Reading beyond those digits to the garment’s second tag, fastened to the collar with a neat hemp (!) slip knot and a safety pin, I learned the dress was made of organic bamboo. I decided that if wearing this dress would mean depriving a family of poor endangered panda bears a meal (or several), the least I could do was pay a little more than I’d expected to. The dress still hangs in my closet today, and whenever I wear it I feel somehow more attuned to nature—like it would fit in equally well at a first-world poolside party or in an East Asian jungle, on a panda-rescue mission.
But eco friendly fashion is not all rainbows and unicorns. Sticker shock like mine underscores that developing and working with sustainable fabrics is a more costly endeavor, just like that organic apple that costs twice as much as a non-organic one. And as Timothy learned the hard way, after being cast “out” of the Runway competition in just the third week, designing high-fashion looks from scraps and without an electric sewing machine can result in pieces that are more of a hot mess than haute couture.
Thankfully, a growing number of mainstream designers and clothing companies—with greater resources than those provided during insane reality show challenges—are providing the average consumer with more opportunities to make environmentally-conscious decisions, and in turn feel as good about what they put on their bodies as what they put in them.
In 2012, H&M launched H&M Conscious, a line of eco-friendly clothing and sustainable business practices that help the environment at every stage of production. They’ve become the #1-user of organic cotton worldwide and, true to the brand’s mission of affordability, have organic products that won’t force you to cut back during your next trip to the farm stand: a basic jersey organic-cotton tank is still only $8. The store also offers a great incentive to pay it forward. For every bag of used clothing you bring in, you can get 15% off one item during your next purchase.
For shoppers craving more luxury, look no further than Stella McCartney, one of fashion’s biggest sustainability advocates. Her offices and stores around the world operate on renewable energy sources, and her brand has banned the use of all leather, skin, and fur. All of these contributions justify the prices of her goods, which still remain among the most expensive of high-end designers. Her aesthetic is coveted by celebrities and lay-persons alike, and there is no shortage of options when it comes to unique, investment-worthy pieces you might never think of in terms of sustainable fashion. She’s expanded the reach of her conscious designs well beyond the basics to include eyewear made from over 50% renewable materials; lingerie made with recycled metal hardware and organic cotton gussets (bras available from $65-$165, panties from $28-$85); and shoes with biodegradable soles (and still incredibly chic!).
One of cardinal rules of environmentalism can also easily be applied to clothing: recycling. Think vintage shops and consignment stores; your mom’s or best friend’s closet; that bridesmaid’s dress, which can actually be de-taffeta-ed and redyed to wear outside of a carnation-filled reception hall. Recycling clothes, jewelry, and accessories is a fun way to revamp your wardrobe without spending a ton—or anything at all. Donating clothes is a simple process, too; Goodwill and other such organizations often offer pick-up services for added convenience. The thing to keep in mind with used items is quality: stains, broken zippers, the need for extensive tailoring, and other signs of wear and tear that hinder the functionality of the article may not be worth your investment, even if it means saving something from a landfill.
Finding the perfect jeans, pumps, or black handbag is never an easy process; but it doesn’t also have to be a choice between style and your conscience. The way we present ourselves to the world is a message, and these eco-friendly options allow us to express ourselves without compromise. When the mission is complete, there’s an extra level of satisfaction embedded in the very fibers of the coveted item that’s apparent every time it’s used. Checking off “sustainable” on the list of criteria is just one more thing to make your next purchase special—and guaranteed to never go out of style.
Jennifer Kurdyla is a writer and editor in New York City.
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Photo: Lifetime; H&M; Stella McCartney; Grandmother’s Buttons