Monday, December 28, 2009

Nest fair trade products promises to change the world


In three days, we will usher in a new year with hope for peace and prosperity. And for one fair trade organization, it continues its pledge to change the world one product at a time.

Build a Nest founder and executive director Rebecca Kousky has a simple vision for the future: empower artisans to rebuild their lives and communities.

Kousky offers "microbarting", a process she created that advances interest-free loans for materials, manufacturing space, and personal income in exchange for products that are sold through Nest's Web site and selected retail outlets. Products include jewelry, clothing, and home d├ęcor accessories.

"We wanted to provide a full transformative process," Kousky said. "It is everything from education to product development to sustained income."

Nest relies on in-country partners to assist the artisans in managing their microloans. Local non-governmental organizations and Peace Corps volunteers ensure delivery of training, receipt of loan, and supplies purchased.

The loan recipients are primarily women from a handful of developing countries who face economic hardship. Their status also prevents many from an education and business opportunities. Loan recipients Regina Kubiru and Elena Felipe Felix are worlds apart but bonded by their art. Kubiru, a 41-year-old Tanzanian seamstress, sells her dresses and traditional African baskets with the dream of owning a store. In Mexico, Felipe Felix draws upon her family craft of pottery making to create bowls worthy of a museum exhibit. The delicate designs and bright colors are signature traits of Mexican artistry.

The artisan relationship extends to a contingent of independent U.S. artisans who contribute their wares with proceeds supporting funds for additional artisans. They engage in a cultural exchange themselves by mentoring the established artisans cultivating a community of artists worldwide.

Nest comprises five employees and an advisory board in 12 U.S. cities, including Washington, DC. All contribute to the promotion of the company and its mission to enhance the lives of its participating artisans.

"We definitely want to grow in number of artisans we promote," Kousky says. "And in doing so, we get to preserve traditional craftsmanship and ensure sustainable livelihoods."

Image: Courtesy of Build A Nest
Mini-dress. 100% Cotton. By Rectangle Designs

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Todd Reed Jewelry: uncut to perfection

At I. Gorman Jewelers in downtown DC, encased are the world's most precious natural resources: diamonds, pearls, gold, and silver. Some are sourced from the most exotic places in the world. Several are produced under ethical practices.

Among the store's best sellers is Todd Reed Jewelry, a label synonymous with turning rough diamonds into morsels of perfection.

Reed, a self-taught blacksmith, embarked on an ambitious endeavor 22 years ago when he decided to immortalize the diamond's purest form. He started his journey by sourcing the raw diamonds from private collections and ethical mines in Sierra Leone (PRIDE Mine), Western Australia (Argyle) and Canada.

Reed designs and handcrafts each piece in his Colorado studio. There he studies the diamond's characteristics, informing him on which direction he should take. Perhaps, it is a bracelet reminiscent of a cobblestone street in old Europe where each diamond haphazardly placed yet protected by the strength of recycled gold. Or it is a cluster of rose cut and black raw diamonds fastened eternally by a band of 18k gold. In exchange, Reed's innovative designs have earned him industry awards and honors.

"I honestly make what I like," Reed said. "What is important is that the design is connected to the material and my customers make that connection, too."

Before green was the new black, Reed has lived and created with the environment and humanity in mind. A "right relationship", a term Reed coined, guarantees the authenticity, premium value, and social responsibility garnered from years of sourcing from the same suppliers.

Albeit reluctant to wear the "green" badge himself, Reed encourages consumers to research diamond suppliers before making their purchase.

Thanks to initiatives such as the Kimberley Process, retailers and designers pledge to source conflict-free diamonds. [The Kimberley Process, a joint government, industry and civil societies initiative, curtails buyers and designers from using potential conflict diamonds - diamonds used in exchange for weapons in war-torn countries such as Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) imposes extensive requirements on its members to enable them to certify shipments of rough diamonds as 'conflict-free'.]

"There is nothing more sustainable than using recycled diamonds or new diamonds mined in ethical conditions," Reed says. "They are truly the most beautiful resource we have."

Photos courtesy of Todd Reed Jewelry

Monday, December 14, 2009

Calamarie Promotes Colombian Artisans


Fair trade products often conjure images of hemp bracelets and "hippy-fied" macabre purses made from artisans in remote villages in South America or Africa. However, that was yesterday. Today, buyers are creating a market for artisans using recycled materials from metals to plant seeds fashioned into modern accessories and apparel.

Catalina Lemaitre, founder of Calamarie, has returned to her native Colombia to promote eight artisans whose designs evolve from all things organic.

For instance, dried orange peels, watermelon seeds, silk cocoon, groundcoffee beans, and Bombona and tagua seeds - indigenous to Colombia - are ingredients for beautifully crafted necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. Weavers use woven hammock and fique fabric to create handbags and clutches embellished with flowers and/or dyed in bold hues, vegetable dye that is.

Calamarie's products are to be experienced.

"The items have a real tactile feel to them because they are made from materials you would normally eat," Lemaitre says. "Our designers use discarded coffeegrounds or other materials to make something really beautiful. And still smell good."

Lemaitre draws upon her experience in economic development and art to advise artisans on product development and marketing in addition to supporting financially through microloans. For the majority of artists, their craft is their sole income.

Changing the image of "fair trade" products starts with the relationship between the customer and the designer, according to Lemaitre.

"Art softens people," she says. "Calamarie is about making the connection between art and culture. And hopefully, people will want to support artisans when they understand their story, when they know a little something about where the item came from and what it means."

Calamarie products are sold online and available for local trunk shows priced affordably under $100.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Simply Soles Gives Simply From the Heart


This holiday season will bring a ray of light to patients at Children’s National Medical Center thanks to the kindness of strangers. Leading that charge is Kassie Rempel of Simply Soles who kicked off December with a toy drive to benefit Dr. Bear®’s Closet at the Children’s National Medical Center of Washington, DC.

“I offered to do a toy drive because I wanted to give back this holiday season,” Rempel says. “A friend of mine told me about the Dr. Bear®’s Closet at the Children’s Hospital and I found it fitting since the hospital is in the neighborhood and personally-speaking, my family recently had a positive experience with the doctors and staff there.”

The closet provides items to patients who are treated in Children’s inpatient units, the Emergency Department and Regional Outpatient Centers, and the Health Centers. Toys also help stock playrooms in the hospital.

Rempel’s altruism is not seasonal. Since launching the accessories company, she has partnered with Suited for Change, a national non-profit helping low-income women transition to the workforce, for numerous fundraisers and offers a 10% discount when customers (online and in-store) donate a pair of gently used dress shoes.

If the mission of Simply Soles is to use fashion to enhance a woman’s style and confidence, then Rempel is a woman’s conscience.

“I look for unique accessories that are refined and well-crafted,” says the former accountant. “I have a responsibility to my customer and that means selecting shoes that offer both fit and comfort.”

And considering the supply chains’ impact on the environment and paying workers a fair wage is a non-negotiable. You won’t see Made in China. Rempel’s own line, lillybee by Kassie, is manufactured and packaged in Brazil. Come Spring, Rempel will offer a vegan line by Charmone.

Clients are encouraged to recycle their Simply Soles catalogs and reuse the stylish totes used for packaging, dubbed the “shoe shuttle” for heels and flats and the “boot bus” for boots.

Yes, Simply Soles is simply doing its part to better the world.

Toy Drive: Drop off a new toy, game, or book at the showroom now through Saturday, December 19 and receive 20% off any purchase. Showroom located at 1438 Park Rd NW, Washington, DC.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

VirtuArte Promotes Artisan Fine Arts and Fashion

VirtuArte is not just another source of fair trade products. It is a social business. Its online presence promotes artisans from the developing world in an effort to preserve their craftsmanship.

Scrolling through the Web site is akin to a virtual traveling museum. Start your journey in Niger where the Koumama family strings hand-engraved silver plates onto a fine leather cord worthy of any globetrotter’s neck. Venture next to Laos and stop at Lao Textiles to find Carol Cassidy, an American ex-pat, working with her 32 full-time weavers produce silk scarves embellished with traditional designs for the modern woman.

A. Jabbar Khatri employs the Indian tradition of Bandhani textiles, a tie and dying technique, to create delicate silk shawls complementary for an evening dress or worn to glam up a turtleneck and jeans outfit. From India head to Brazil to acquire a chic clutch made entirely from soda can tabs or Colombia for jewelry fashioned out of tagua seeds and stained with vegetable dyes.

VirtuArte founder Debbie Myers promotes artisans she has encountered through her travels or referred by ex-pats living and working among artisans worldwide. Myers pays the artisans their asking price directly sans negotiating. Profits from sales are reinvested into the company’s education and outreach program and a percentage invested in the artists’ communities.

For Myers, it is more than alleviating artisans out of poverty, it is marketing beautiful art.

“Helping artisans from developing countries generate a sustainable income is definitely an added value,” Myers says. “But we are also about offering high quality fine crafts and art to people who are looking for something unique and have an appreciation for customs and culture.”

It is only fitting that VirtuArte takes its namesake to heart: “the quality of being artistic, beautiful, rare or otherwise such as to interest a collector.” Webster’s Dictionary said it best.

VirtuArte Trunk Shows in December:

The Wintergreen Performing Arts Home Tour
Sunday, 6th of December 2009
1:00 - 5:00pm
Wintergreen , Virginia

Holiday Trunk Show
Saturday, 20th of December 2009
1:00 - 5:00pm
2800 Forest Hills Court
Virginia Beach, Virginia 23454

Sunday, November 22, 2009

KoolEarth cools the earth with chic tees

Shaima Ismati has a lot of ideas about how to save the planet. It is the little things like trading plastic bags for reusable canvas totes or using stainless steel water bottles instead of plastic. Her green lifestyle has even earned her the title of “The Green Monster” by friends. So, it was not a stretch when she decided to leave her 25-year career in the airline industry to pursue a future in eco-fashion.

The Virginia resident launched KoolEarth to promote sustainable clothing two years ago. The collection includes tees, sweatshirts, tunics, scarves, and totes all produced in the United States and made from alternative and natural fabrics such as organic cotton, bamboo, hemp, and soy.

“KoolEarth enables me to educate the public on sustainable clothing and make something that is ‘American-made’,” Ismati said.

Sporting KoolEarth are teens to elderly ladies, Ismati says, an indication of the design’s versatility and “cool” factor.

“The majority of people buying KoolEarth products do not pay attention to the fact that they are sustainable,” she continues. “They simply like the design and fit.”

When Ismati is not showcasing her wares at local festivals and trade shows, she can be found at Eastern Market on Saturdays from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

What to Pack for Your Thanksgiving Holiday

Next week, we will break bread (and a turkey leg or two) with family and friends on a day observed to give thanks. Some will travel across town while others several states or even a country to mark the Thanksgiving holiday. Perhaps, the festive weekend will include a museum or art gallery walk, a night at the movies, or a mean game of Trivial pursuit.

Not sure what to pack for multiple activities surrounding the holiday?

Take your cues from the racks at Treat, Old Town Alexandria’s resident outlet boutique. Owner Jennifer Donahue has stocked her store with cozy knits, cashmere dresses, jeans and a variety of shoe options perfect for the fall season. What will she be wearing this Thanksgiving holiday?

“The holiday is always about comfort, relaxation and eating good food,” Donahue replies. “So, it means wearing a sweater dress, tights and tall boots. Clothes easy to throw on and expandable for all the eating!”

Whether you are traveling or having a stay-cation, here are a few simple rules and clothing suggestions to consider.

1. Comfort is the key. If traveling, take garments with fabrics that stretch like cotton knits or blends (nylon/lycra/spandex). These items pack better and come out wrinkle-free.

2. Colors should be basic with one or two warm hues for interest. Mix and match grays, browns, and off-whites with burgundy, forest green or midnight blue.

Her Essentials:

1. One carry-on tote
2. One pair of sexy undergarments and pajamas
3. Two pairs of pants – one jean and one trouser
4. Two wrinkle-free blouses/tops
5. One cardigan – Light- to mid-weight knit cardigans in basic black, white or beige can be tossed around the shoulders, layered over a T-shirt or dress, or worn alone with dressy pants for dinner.
6. Two dresses – one casual and one dressy
7. Two pairs of shoes – one casual and one dressy
8. Statement necklace – opt for costume jewelry and leave the real gems safely at home
9. Trench coat or wool-blend jacket like a peacoat
10. Something scented - bring a favorite scented candle or sash




Treat Client Appreciation Sale Nov. 20 – 22. Pick from the “Turkey Platter” and your wrapped chocolate turkey holds the discount amount you’ll receive at the register.

And don’t forget Black Friday sales (Nov. 27th)!

(Photos: items from Treat)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Limon Piel Handbags Carry a Message of Goodwill

In Colombia’s remote highlands, there is a child who is receiving medical attention for the first time. Their family and friends also get the care they need thanks to Colombia Missions, a volunteer medical program akin to Doctors Without Borders. A team of American physicians and non-medical volunteers spend six days in communities throughout the year treating everything that is requested.

Three years ago Baltimore native Lisa Garrett joined a team and met Liliana Montero, a local artisan. Garrett returned home sporting one of Montero’s handcrafted bags and hatched a plan that would support the medical missions and alleviate the local artisans out of poverty.

Limon Piel International was born.

Garrett began to import Montero’s bag and sells primarily online and specialty boutiques. Each collection is named after an Indian tribe whose history is recreated through delicate fabrications. The Shinye Collection, for example, pays homage to tradition enriched by bold colors (deep reds and brown and bright lime green – perhaps, revealing their sense of humor) and embellishments (ancestral guanga weavings). Retailing between $200 - $400, proceeds from the bags go to the medical missions.

While shopping in Old Town Alexandria, Garrett stopped by Hysteria and shared the story of Limon Piel Handbags. Manager Alicia McCaslin could not say no to the idea of hosting a trunk show.

Hysteria, as many know, offers contemporary high fashion to Washington’s tastemakers. So, how would a bohemian-natured aesthetic fare alongside wares by Trina Turk, Diane vonFurstenberg, and Nanette Lepore?

“The handbags appeal to the woman who wants something different,” McCaslin said. “But the bags themselves are simply beautifully made and have a great story.

“Fashion should make people feel good about themselves but also aware,” she continued. “And we like that Limon Piel gives back to the community.”



Handbags from the trunk show are still available at Hysteria or visit the Limon Piel Web site. To learn more about the missions, go to Colombia Mission.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Young Designers Wise Beyond Their Years

Terra boutique recently hosted the creative talent behind independent label Eva Khurshid, Fatima Monkush and Nyla Hashmi. The lifelong friends brought their first collection to DC in hope of finding an audience – they left with an instant fan base.

Upon my arrival, a few minutes past the start of the event, I sensed community forming. Perhaps it was the eagerness of the two young designers to introduce themselves or seeing how the Washingtonian woman could have easily been the designers’ muse translated into conservative construction but bold in color and fabrication. Guests touched, inquired and tried on every garment in the roughly 15-piece collection to the delight of the designers and boutique owner, Oriana Khatso (who has a trained eye for quality and innovative styles).


“The Eva Khurshid woman is confident and always on the go,” Monkush, 26, and Hashmi, 24, said practically in unison. “She wants pieces that are easy to wear and simply are a great fit.” Oh, and don’t forget sexy.

“We really considered our line as sexy rediscovered,” they continued. “Being sexy really comes from confidence.”


The New York-based designers’ fate was sealed as childhood friends growing up in Connecticut in Muslim households. They both pursued their interest in fashion by majoring in design - Monkush specializing in printmaking and jewelry and Hashmi in knitwear. Despite choosing different schools to hone their skills, they remained committed to a design partnership.

A year ago they honored that commitment by starting Eva Khurshid, named after their grandmothers. The line appeals to young women, and Muslim women in particular, who want fashionable clothing without compromising their faith or modesty. They unveiled tailored pants, billowy blouses in bold hues and signature prints and pleating, and shirt-dresses that could be worn over leggings or skinny jeans to accommodate those who prefer not to show bare legs. The collection describes the design duo's nature - thoughtful and respectful. And fabric choice is not spared.

Monkush and Hashmi present a fresh alternative to business attire this city so wholeheartedly embraces while maintaining the integrity of what has so affectionately been dubbed the sisterhood of traveling pantsuits (a la Hillary!). Similarly, the line evokes the qualities we seek in community: familiarity and acceptance. Kudos to Terra for recognizing genuine talent and making Monkush and Hashmi feel at home.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Walish Gooshe = Class and Sophistication

For his new label, WG for Walish Gooshe, Greg Taylor turns to his trusted source of inspiration for the yet-to-release collection of men and women casual wear. Since the launch of his company in 2004, Greg’s designs mimic his surroundings. “I grew up in a very stylish family,” says the DC native. “But I seek inspiration from architectural buildings and nature.”

The collection will unveil Greg’s introduction to menswear, an audience he hopes is receptive to the line of jeans, hoodies and tees – simple shapes with a hint of buzz.



And buzz is what has followed Greg since opening his showroom in his adopted Philadelphia in 2007. What started as custom tailoring with Greg as the designer, sewer, and manager has expanded to a staff of eight coordinating client consultations, events, and of course, three collections to date. All thanks in large part to Greg’s exposure in the Philadelphia and Washington media and red-carpet gowns for celebrities such as Laila Ali, Sheinelle Jones, Angela Russell, and former America’s Next Top Model winner Naima Mora.

Humbly, Greg appears unfazed by the accolades given by the models and spectators alike at his recent showing at the CW Beauty and Style Expo in Washington. I for one gushed at the origami-shaped crop jackets and a pair of black cigarette pants made of silk layered in intricately woven tulle. Ok, poor description but trust me, these pants were amazing!


Underneath his mild nature is an ambitious designer. He is currently scouting the DC area for a second showroom and a third in Boston. His team is feverishly working on a fashion show to benefit Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a partnership established two years ago with the first fashion charity event. The show will be held in December in DC. After a holiday break, Greg returns to DC in February for the 2nd annual Northern Virginia Fashion Week (NOVA Fashion Week).


Walish Gooshe is exclusively sold in small boutiques (five in Philadelphia) just as Greg intends. “We are a very special brand meaning we don’t want to work in large quantities,” says the young designer. Greg travels to NY for his fabrics and production.

“I think happy people take more risks,” Greg says. And by any indication of his new collection and company expansion, Greg is pretty happy.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Beth Bowley Trunk Show at Lettie Gooch

Tonight’s unseasonably warm night (a much welcomed reprieve from days of rain) sent me indoors, uncharacteristically of me, to view the Beth Bowley fall collection at Lettie Gooch. The one-night only trunk show unveiled classic pieces on trend with faux fur, jewel embellishments, and Mad Men-esque influence. The hammered silk bird top and zebra print halter dress appealed to my sweet-natured side; however, it was the range of coats and cropped jackets that set my heart aflutter. Alissyn Gettenberg, a Beth Bowley Account Executive present for the only trunk show, confirmed this sensation. “An essential for this fall is a great coat,” she said emphatically. And from the pictures below, I think you will agree.
Cropped Leopard
Teal houndstooth, $414
Teal mohair vest, $352
Teal pullover, $308
Black coat, $450

Shop the collection through October 25. Love an item but not in your size? The sales associates will place an order. Beth Bowley is carried only at boutiques and in the DC area, Lettie Gooch and Sugar,

Sunday, October 18, 2009

DC Fashion Shows Spotlight Ethical Designers

Carolina Herrera left me breathless. And the designers showcased at the 5th Annual Fashion Fights Poverty Fashion Show reaffirmed a role for independent designers in the industry. A handful of local and international designers, among them Nudie Jeans from Sweden and local newbie MPerial, previewed collections inspired by the environment's social and economic landscape. And some showed us a completely different world. Each conveyed a story rich in detail, perspective and the unimaginable - ideals Washington nurtures. I had the fortune of working with the representative, Diego, for Nudie Jeans. The models channeled James Dean in the ethically-produced premium jeans, organic tees and lumberjack shirts, and sporty jackets and coats. He emerged as a cool cat too cool to notice the cheers by both male and female guests. Let's just say I didn't complain dressing the models!!!! The night also introduced the guests to model/environmental activist Summer Rayne Oakes as she shared co-hosting duties with Fox anchorman, Will Thomas. Her commitment to environmental advocacy as earned the recognition of the international community and multiple awards. Her presence reminded us all why were there to support the organization - eco-chic plays a vital role in alleviating poverty and saving the planet one garment at a time.

A few weeks ago, I found myself working backstage again at another show - multiple shows that is during the CW Beauty and Style Expo. The GWFCC and cable network, CW-sponsored event attracted fashionistas and inquirers alike to shop local beauty and fashion vendors as well as be treated to on-the-spot hair and make up demonstrations and fashion shows. The line up of shows included local designers Tashia Senn, Chez Kevito, Walish Gooshe, CG Originals (congrats to jewelry designers Cecilia and Patricia for venturing into clothing!), jewelry designer Evelyn Brooks, Tsyndyma, and wedding couture designer Helen Kimmer and retailers Betsy Johnson (the designer herself made an appearance at her store earlier in the week - and yes, the hair is real!), South Moon Under (I love this Annapolis-outpost for it's west coast feel - ahh, how I miss California at times...), and Ed Hardy. America's Next Top Model fans gushed at the sight of previous contestants walk the catwalk, and perhaps, the most eye-catching was Bravo TV filming Washingtonian socialites in the upcoming Housewives of DC "socialize". And yes, that is me dressing the models for the CG Originals collection behind two stars of the gab about something.....

What's next for MSL? Well, find us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mysignaturelook tweet about store sales, fashion dos and don'ts, and shows behind the scenes. See us mingle at an upcoming fashion event in support of Suited for Change at Old City Taven in Georgetown on Oct. 21 and check out the Eva Khurshid Trunk Show at Terra in Dupont Circle on Oct. 23. Also, save the date: Tuesday, December 1 as MSL celebrates 3 Years at Carbon. Consider this a Client Appreciation and Support Local event! RSVP at katherine@mysignaturelook.com.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

MSL Enters the Big Tent

Earlier this week I lost my fashion virginity to Bryant Park. The dream of entering a tent reserved for the fashion privileged – bestowed either by their editorial cred, buyer status, trade association, or fame – was realized with anticipated breath. As a member of Fashion Group International, I was able to obtain a coveted “Standing” ticket for the Carolina Herrera Spring/Summer 2010 show. If time and space allowed, a weeks worth of shows may have led to an internal combustion. In hindsight, I don’t think my constitution could have handled such fashion overdose – I was content with the one show and who better to see than one of the most respected designers in the industry.

While waiting to enter, I was aroused by the sighting of fashion’s elite. To my left, I viewed Anna Wintour breeze pass security with such force that her hair flew in the wind only to quickly land gently in its place. A few minutes later, celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe tried to pull a Wintour but was recalled to the check-in table. She may have forgotten her ticket but she kept true to her fashion sense donning a light moss jumpsuit that draped beautifully over her lithe frame. Fellow celebrity stylist Robert Verdi marched in with his signature sunglasses planted firmly on his forehead. Socialites and other industry insiders careened by until finally the “seatless” could make their entrance.

We filed into “the tent” reserved for larger productions, blinded by the photographers trigger-happy flashes, walked up a series of steps with heads perked up to catch a glimpse of the front row. I stationed myself in the middle giving me full view of the runway (sans stage). Before the show even started, my heart began racing at the sight of my fashion icons seated in the front row – a who’s who of the publishing world: Vogue (Anna Wintour, Grace Goddington, and Thomas Florio), Vanity Fair (Graydon Carter), Elle (Joe Zee and Anne Slowey), and Marie Claire (Nina Garcia) mixed in with Carolina Herrera’s husband and daughter, celebrity stylists, and department store buyers.

The lights dimmed, music cued (a mix of bossa nova tempos), and the first of 38 models initiates the story of a woman holidaying in Monaco or Rio, perhaps. She resists a tank and shorts for a sophisticated summer suit (jacquard linen shorts, bustier, and woven vest or cropped jacket). For an evening at the casino or theater, she wears a chiffon or quartz striped organza dress. A natural color palate of amber, rose, and caramel mimic a setting sun. I was truly enamored by the rich fabrics, intricate detailing and belts (woven or leather rope) combined to create a clean silhouette. The gowns flawlessly depicted Carolina’s inspiration from Japanese baskets and a warm summer day.


Carolina presented a strong yet graceful collection for the woman who knows she has arrived.

Photos by InStyle Magazine

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Peace, Love, and Harmony, Baby

Last month, Woodstock turned 40. After seeing Taking Woodstock, director Ang Lee’s interpretation of how 500,000 peace-loving Americans descended on a field in upstate New York, I am compelled to revisit my “hippie” phase (sans obligatory doobies). I outed my inner-hippie with a pair of brown Birkenstocks I bought with my first paycheck from Cinnamon Sam’s at 16. The shoes, which lasted well into college albeit smelly and frayed, accompanied a wardrobe of long flowing skirts, peasant tops, handmade hemp bracelets, and macabre belts.

The desire to be “free”, as what Woodstock signified to many, continues to linger in my closet. You will not find a skirt or pant suit, rather a deconstructed suit to ensure versatility and ownership. I’ve upgraded from Birkenstocks to several gladiator sandals positioned alongside Converse All-Stars and Coach loafers on my shoe rack. While I still favor a vintage maxi dress in flower-power prints, I pair it with a black blazer or leather jacket just to be rebellious. One of my five signature looks is Modern Bohemian, a sophisticated tribute to a movement that encouraged creativity, free-thinking, and social responsibility.

Now a second generation of designers is continuing the legacy. John Patrick uses organic materials and production methods to create beautiful ready-to-wear. Matthew Williamson has brought his ethereal collection to affordable chain-store H&M. Alice Temperley oozes avant-garde but her nature treads lightly in reverence to our planet. Their perspective builds on where Woodstock left off – it’s what freedom looks like in 2009.

We don’t need another Woodstock. But we do need a forum for self-expression and in words, we embellish with the clothes, accessories, and shoes that illustrate a world-view – a personal point of view – conscious of our impact on the environment, the economy, and on others.


John Patrick


Missoni


Anna Sui


Martin Margiela

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Luxury of a Healthier Environment

In what could be his final fashion show, Christian Lacroix presented an extravagant collection to the delight of fashion insiders and loyal customers in Paris in July. It was a demonstration of couture beyond reach. The intricate detailing and construction was a product of the ingenuity Mr. Lacroix has delivered for more than thirty years. It is reported that the collection took an unprecedented few weeks produced by a handful of unpaid staff.

This atypical achievement is typical in the world of luxury apparel – countless hours spent on creating an original design. From an environmental perspective, the luxury industry inherently is the new green economy.

In the case of luxury goods (apparel, speaking) versus mass production, the former scores higher points in terms of the environment. A bit ironic, no? Both can be viewed as exorbitant, unpractical (more of a want than a need), wasteful, and guaranteed a death sentence (purgatory = landfill). Ok, perhaps harsh choice of adjectives, but fair considering America’s appetite for the Big-Mac (i.e., all things materialistic).

[I am sensitive to the fact that a consumer’s wallet dictates what is a luxury item (clothes, jewelry, handbags, belts and shoes) or not. I am talking about ready-to-wear and haute couture retailing in the thousands - the items featured in Vogue or GQ that make you salivate but don’t come within reach of a non-profit salary.]

I’m not sure if Mr. Lacroix identifies himself as an environmentalist, but his method of production reinforces environmental and labor considerations. By employing a small team of sewers, pattern makers, and artisans, Mr. Lacroix preserves the role of the local artisan (and traditional craftsmanship) in lieu of outsourcing to another country, which would incur carbon emissions from the transportation of goods (or partially-assembled). Creating limited and/or custom-made goods prevents an inventory of unsold goods. And adhering to exact measurements eliminates the waste of fabrics.




Thanks to the growing impact of “eco-friendly” and “ethically-made” fashion, workers are being less exposed to harmful chemicals used in dying processes, landfills are shrinking, and consumers are turning green (environmental stewards, that is). Progress is being made. [It is not a stretch to say Stella McCartney for Chloe and Linda Loudermilk are the Queen Greens – luxurious and luxuriously-priced “eco” garments and accessories.]

But what if every designer adopted a holistic approach to its design process? In Cradle-to-Cradle, authors Michael Braungart and William McDonough advocate for the “up-cycling” of materials and replacing “less bad” design with good design. Alistar Fuad-Luke, noted for spearheading the slow design movement, emphasizes experience over speed. The resources available to designers are only good if the designer values the creative process equal to production.

On September 17, Women’s Wear Daily publication will be holding a forum addressing the future of the luxury industry in the new economy. I urge those in attendance to draw upon the very creativity and innovation it conceives for a solution and spare the notion of changing its current practices at the expense of the environment.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Can Menswear Save the Luxury Market?

In Dana Thomas’ Deluxe, the luxury market is in peril. The fashion industry’s matriarch is showing signs of aging and her offspring have merged into conglomerates leaving her wondering if her legacy is coming to an end.

The imagery is not far-fetched. The luxury market has fallen prey to salivating counterfeiters (despite courtroom battles and appeals to Congress for protection) and further wounded by major designers publicly stating their amusement of being copied. It has been losing its elite customers to the global recession and the Madoffs of the world, but what is probably most disconcerting is the art of craftsmanship replaced by machines and severely under-paid worker bees.

Who will come to her rescue? It appears this is a man’s job and a second-generation at that.

Haute couture’s little brother, menswear, has increasingly emerged as the luxury market’s saving grace.

Locally, menswear clothing stores such as Everard's Clothing, Redeem, and Lost Boys are experiencing relative progress when their womenswear counterparts are feeling the pinch.

The fact is men need clothes, too, and a suit from Men’s Warehouse is not landing or securing the job or the casual pair of jeans lasting for more than a season. So, they are turning to local ateliers or clothing stores to invest in quality brands or customized pieces that bring longevity and style.

Lost Boys is the visual for Dana Thomas’s summation that “luxury wasn’t simply a product, it was a lifestyle, one that denoted a history of tradition, superior quality and offered a pampered buying experience.” Kelly’s interpretation is a light-filled space in a row-house modernized by what a guy wants: a plasma TV, King-size sofa chairs, a refrigerator stocked with Stella Artois, off-set by exposed brick walls and hardwood floors – an updated lair.

Kelly Muccio, the 28-year-old fashion wunderkind behind Lost Boys, disagrees with the growing perception of the luxury markets’ demise. “This is the best time for independent designers and local businesses who offer what is considered a luxury good because the consumer realizes that they need to invest in a style and the luxury market gives you that.

“It is more important than ever to define your style,” continued the former financier. “This is the time to outperform and show yourself as a commodity and the easiest way to do that is to dress the part.”

Although Kelly considers her clothier as part of the luxury market, she does not equate it with “high-end.” The average cost of a pair of jeans sets him back $200 (i.e., Earnest Sewn), which is cheaper when you consider spending twice that much on jeans that are replaced year after year.

The “pampering” may come in the form of a beer and personal styling, but more so her trained eye for the highest quality pieces with style and brand authencity. Among the shortlist of designers she carries is eco-conscious designer Rogan Gregory, of Loomstate and Edun. The designer plans to design a t-shirt in collaboration with the store to be revealed this fall. Stay tuned for a future trunk show.

“We intentionally carry few designers because we believe in an minimalist wardrobe,” Kelly says. “I have personally edited the selection process for you where you are only going to find the best cut of jean or well-constructed shirt.”

Time will only tell how the luxury market survives this economic impasse. Perhaps, it’s fate rests in the hands of the little brother or its role in the environment (more on that in a following blog i.e., luxury goods sustainable through its slow production process and lifespan), but let’s not be too quick to write its obituary.


(Photos courtesy of Kelly Muccio, Lost Boys)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Redeem Us

Every city has its hotspots. For DC, the jazz scene dominated 14th Street NW in the early twentieth century. Speakeasies and other club dens attracted jazz legends and men who wore fedoras and wingtips and women who donned bold-colored dresses and hats with plumes.

This was where fashion and music synchronized.

Today, the historic HR-57 jazz club now calls upscale wine bars, clothing boutiques, and art galleries its neighbors. Dress code not apply.

In 2006, Lori Parkerson opened Redeem, a men’s and women’s clothing store located fortuitously a few blocks north of the club.

“I always saw fashion and music as equals,” says Lori, a DC native. Such revelation stems from her innate sense of style coupled with a career in the entertainment industry.

If we can learn anything from the fashion and music industry it is the notion that self-expression can take many forms – lyrically and figuratively. We sing and dress according to events and influences that were inspired by or resulted from change.

Henceforth, Redeem. Anointed on the storefront’s window is a modern depiction (etching) of the Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God. A gear replaces the halo. Christ, the redeemer. It intrigues by-passers who note this is not your ordinary clothing store. Walking by is simply not an option.

Upon entering, your senses are stimulated. The alternative rock music juxtaposes with vintage furniture instantly puts you in a groove. This is what urban renewal looks like.

“My friend who is a designer said once that you can’t choose your customer, and it is so true,” Lori exclaims. “Who we thought would be a customer turned out to be so much more than that. Our youngest customer was a 10-year-old girl who fit into a small-cut jean and then we have men and women well into their 60s.”

Age is irrelative when you consider a shared desire to own a luxury garment that takes the guessing out of “how to style.” Lori’s style influences her selection of timeless pieces where the attention is in the details.

Take the Wrath Arcane mens’ slim fitting black pants Lori sports with confidence. The menswear label takes a traditional design and embellishes it with buttons, frayed hemlines, or haphazardly-placed pockets. Religion, a UK-label, creates cinematic flare in its tailored mens and womens shirts.

“Confidence is what makes our pieces work,” Lori says, whose own style she describes as edgy.



You will not find the basic t-shirt here or mass-produced items, with the exception of the popular jean label, Earnest Sewn. Lori and her staff buy from independent designers, many of whom run in-house productions. Of late, Love Brigade, a Brooklyn-based design duo and DC-label, Plastic Heaven, are new additions exclusive to the store. Eco-fashionistas can find items from Covet’s spring 2009 collection, while Recession Rags’s Bermuda shorts made from vintage fabrics stay in stock for about a day (guys, more size 32 are on en route!). Think concert wear for neighboring 9:30 Club or Black Cat or just channeling your inner rock star.

The store actively participates in the Mid-City Business Association and has partnered with the Corcoran Gallery of Art in a project to promote the creative economy. And the first Thursday of each month, it hosts a knitters social club thanks to the store’s resident knitter, Christi.

For all its prosperity, Lori is humbled given the current economy. Her neighbor, Circle Boutique, was not so fortunate. The vacant space is a harsh reminder of the instability many small businesses are facing. In an effort to save local businesses in the U and 14th Street corridor, Redeem is part of a grassroots campaign encouraging customers to shop. The 350 Project asks customers to commit to spending $50 a month at any three favorite stores.

They didn’t have to twist my arm. After eyeing a taupe sleeveless shirt-dress by Covet, I was won over by a gold chain necklace with reclaimed strips of grey leather by AK Vintage (Portland-based jewelry designer). The necklace had a few strong contenders: Stolen Girlfriends Club (New Zealand) and the Realm collection by Jesse Walker (DC).

After my visit, I left feeling hopeful. I not only supported a local business and an independent (eco) designer, but found a deeper appreciation of our creative talents and in those that inspire change.

So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to get your groove on.