Whether it’s defined as the use of organic and/or natural fibers, recycling, repurposing, environmentally friendly practices or upcycling – turning waste or useless items into new products – sustainability may just be the new black in Maine and elsewhere.
Creating stylish goods with sustainability in mind is the focus for many clothing and accessory designers, from international clothier giant Esprit to smaller Maine companies such as Brook There, a Portland-based clothing and lingerie brand.
“The term (sustainability) is used as shorthand to refer to the environmental movement or to products that are readily renewable,” said fashion designer and Maine native Brook DeLorme, who runs Brook There along with her husband, Daniel Pepice. “Sustainability can also be about how long something lasts. Rather than go fast fashion and buy five pieces that may be out-of-trend or fall apart within a few months, go slow fashion.”
Organic products and sustainable practices are at the heart of the products Brook There makes. The couple also own Seawall, a shirt maker in Portland.
“Brook There focuses on organic cotton as a base fabric, but we use other fabrics too – silk, wool, rayon and nylon elastic for trim,” said DeLorme, who sees sustainability as the “endurance of systems,” but recognizes it can mean different things to different people.
For DeLorme, a crucial component in sustainable systems is building up a stronger local economy.
“We cut and sew locally. Maine has a weak internal economy, especially in fashion. While there are giant businesses and brands based here, most of their income (sales) comes from outside the state,” she said. “Maine has a rich history of clothing and footwear manufacturing, which saw major declines in the 1980s and ’90s as production was off-shored. It seems that some boutique manufacturing might be re-emerging in the state.”
Fabric artist Mallory Sophronia’s self-named shop is one of those. Located at Galleries at Morning Walk in Kennebunk’s Lower Village, the boutique is full of fanciful, one-of-a-kind, eco-friendly accessories and clothing handcrafted in Maine.
“This is my first bricks-and-mortar location,” said Sophronia, who opened her shop earlier this year. “It’s a great space. Most of what I make is one size, and all is unique.”
Sophronia was raised in Maine, but has lived “all over the country.” She uses local fabrics that have been reclaimed, or purchased in estate sales for the unique pieces she puts together. In addition to clothing, Sophronia, who studied fashion design and advertising at Syracuse University and was an alternate on the television show “Project Runway,” designs and makes one-of-a-kind jewelry.
For Sophronia, sustainability is akin to “nature worship.”
“Something is sustainable when it regards the importance of the environment and natural resources,” she said. “Upcycling is one form of honoring the planet by breathing new life into a product that otherwise might become pollution. Upcycling requires a person to see the good in something and that positivity aspect can really be addicting.”
For Hannah Tarkinson of Ponomo, a Portland-based company that offers handcrafted jewelry, handbags, accessories and clothing, sustainability is personal.
“It’s loving the life I have, being in the present moment and refreshing what is no longer working for me, my family, the community and the planet. I have to do this from the inside out in order to sustain it as a lifestyle,” said Tarkinson, a Maine native. “It’s worked for me as a mother, a partner, an individual and as a business woman.”
Tarkinson started with leather work and repurposing vintage jewelry and has since added metalsmithing. She said she thinks of Ponomo’s style as ageless because she is breathing new life into pieces dating back as far as the mid-1800s.
Maine-based designers are not alone in their push for sustainable style.
In September, Esprit launched its “Recycled Collection” in stores nationwide. All of the garments in the collection have a tag with a scanable code that links to a website allowing consumers to view details about Esprit’s supply chain and where the garment was produced.
The recycled collection, now in its third year, is created by utilizing Esprit’s own manufacturing fabric off cuts, which would otherwise be thrown away. According to Esprit, their use “serves to reduce textile waste, save water and carbon emission, as well as to promote a more sustainable lifestyle.”
Websites dedicated to sustainable style have popped up in recent years, each hoping to engage consumers in a conversation about sustainability while encouraging green shopping.
In 2009, Jill Fehrenbacher, founder of Inhabitat.com, introduced Ecouterre (www.ecouterre.com). The mission of the online clearinghouse is to highlight and support designers who not only “contemplate cut, form, and drape, but also a garment’s social and environmental impact, from the cultivation of its fibers to its use and disposal.”
The site features articles and information about designers and innovations in technology with the hope of facilitating a “conversation about why sustainable fashion matters” in the hope that it will “pave the way for designers and manufacturers to embrace sustainable materials and processes.”
Eco Fashion World (www.ecofashionworld.com) provides an online guide to sustainable designer brands and eco fashion stores. The site pledges that “being a green shopper and a sustainable fashionista has never been so easy.”
But is sustainability really fashionable?
For some local designers, trendiness is not a motivating factor in their work.
“Honestly, I’d prefer that organics, recycling and sustainability weren’t viewed as trends at all,” said DeLorme. “When I started Brook There in 2007, there seemed to be more green-fashion brands and retail stores than there are now. I don’t think it’s particularly cool, stylish or a must-have by default. It’s a choice.”
For Tarkinson, who started her business with no capital, upcycling goods was a necessity.
“To be honest, in the beginning I didn’t consider the fact that I was repurposing goods cool or stylish. I simply couldn’t afford to make accessories with new materials,” she said. “I’d find vintage and antique jewelry in thrift stores throughout Maine. The only way to produce my visions was to gather pieces at second hand stores and repurpose them.”
But Tarkinson is glad for the experience.
“I’ve been an artist/designer my entire life, in that we didn’t have much growing up so if I wanted it I often had to make it. My parents were artists with deep roots in social justice so they encouraged alchemy, both personally and externally.”
“I think reworking older pieces made me a better artist, because I wanted the end result to look new and fresh. I have never aimed to be cool with Ponomo,” she said. “I can’t afford to allow my creativity to be influenced by what the world at large thinks is cool or stylish. For me it has to be deeper than public opinion for the creativity to continue to come.”
Tarkinson said that although Ponomo has grown in reputation and profitability and she is able to be more selective about what materials she uses, she still “abides by the philosophy that there is enough stuff in this world. We can work with what we have.”
For Sophronia, the pieces she creates have an inherent cool factor because of their uniqueness.
“Like our product, a lot of eco-friendly goods are one-of-kind. Buying something that no one else can obtain allows a person to feel unique,” she said. “In today’s world of mass production, goods that are limited can seem special. Everyone wants what they can’t have, and perhaps this is what makes sustainable goods so appealing.”
While most would agree that the evolution of the fashion industry to a more environmentally friendly and sustainable one is a good thing, some might argue it is not realistic.
Is sustainable fashion really affordable for the average Mainer?
“I’m often asked questions that imply that organic fabrics make our products more expensive,” said DeLorme. “This is not the case. Organic fabrics are typically 10-20 percent more costly than non-organics, a relatively small price to pay. But labor in the U.S. is more expensive than labor in developing countries. Sewn-products production, being comparatively low-tech, is one of the first industries to move into very poor developing nations. This can be really good for some; it can also result in heinous safety issues and substandard working conditions. Labor on garments sewn in the U.S. is typically five to 10 times the cost of the fabrics; offshore it might be 1 to 1 or significantly less. Choosing to buy exclusively U.S.-made apparel products might be a stretch for the average Mainer. However, building awareness of the importance of supporting an internal local economy is important to us.”
Tarkinson believes sustainability is affordable but said “like everything, it’s a choice how you approach it. My business started with nothing. All of my clothes and materials were second hand. I reworked them to meet my personal and professional needs and taste. Most everyone is capable of doing this in their own way and on their own budget.”
“Luckily, there are both high-end and inexpensive eco-friendly options for Maine shoppers. One good and inexpensive way to shop local and support the environment is to source from thrift stores and flea markets,” she said. “Blogger Whitney Waterman of No New Things does a great job of showing how sustainable style has nothing to do with price tags.”
Sophronia also believes that focusing on creating sustainable goods is here to stay in the world of fashion.
“I find it hard to believe that protecting our environment won’t become more and more important as pollution realities kick in,” said Sophronia. “Influential designers like Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood are such great ambassadors for the cause. I have a lot of faith in the good fight.”
Portland artist Sara Lemieux is the owner of LMX, a brand of hand-painted leather jackets. Mallory Sophrina uses recycled and reclaimed materials to make one-of-a-kind items, from clothing to jewelry and other accessories. Fabric artist Mallory Sophrina handcrafts one-of-a-kind items from reclaimed cloth and clothing and other recycled items.Courtesy photo Brook DeLorme is the designer and owner of Brook There, a Maine company that specializes in lingerie using sustainable materials. A rose quartz and black lace organic cotton lingerie set is one of the many pieces available from Brook There.