Local clothing designers strive for eco-friendly fashion
Take a walk around Midtown, and you’ll be able to lead a pretty environmentally-conscious day—you can stop by the Lost City Farm on Moran Street, grab a cup of locally roasted coffee at The Hub, and buy some clothes and accessories created by regional artisans at Never Ender. You’d be participating in various aspects of the Slow Movement, a term that refers to localizing industry and manufacturing, and supporting regional businesses and environmental, ethical production over items sold in big box stores.
Slow fashion is one of the newest, but now one of the most prominent, aspects of the movement, comparable with slow food and slow transportation. Inexpensive access to clothes making supplies—and the ability to easily set up shop and distribute through the web with resources like Etsy—has essentially democratized the process of making, selling and buying clothes. In the book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, journalist Elizabeth Cline reported on the negative impact of “off-the-rack” fashion. She discovered the unethical treatment of employees—extremely low wages, horrible working conditions leading to sickness and sometimes death—and attributed much of the problem to the revolving door of fashion “trends,” which keep production rates high. These kinds of reports, along with others that showed the build-up of non-biodegradable clothing and accessories in landfills, kickstarted a sector of environmentalism for those who saw clothing as the next hurdle to tackle. And, like food, a local movement is a good place to start.
Making clothes isn’t a new idea here in Reno. Creating Burning Man outfits has long been part of preparing for the annual event, and clothing stores like Junkee Clothing Exchange and Melting Pot have been around for years. Locally-produced fashion is another branch of Reno’s ever-expanding do-it-yourself efforts, focused on regional production and sustainability. In many ways, it’s similar to Reno’s local food movement.
“Sustainable fashion isn’t about making hemp mumus anymore,” says Aurelie Martin-Chiari, a clothing designer in Truckee who designs AUM Apparel sold through local stores. “It’s a modern way of thinking about the clothes we wear. We eat organic food, recycle and use all kinds [of] materials and are becoming more aware of our carbon footprint. Why shouldn’t we do the same about the clothes we wear? For fashion to be sustainable, our way of thinking about clothing has to change. We can’t just expect the industry to change if we keep buying large amounts of cheap clothing that are made abroad. … I try to source everything for my company from local businesses, from fabric to tags.”
But locally-made doesn’t always ensure that an item is completely sustainable. This is where local agriculture and local fashion differ. Organic farming at its most basic can be accomplished by anyone, but to make entirely eco-friendly clothing or accessories is much more complicated. Truly organic clothing starts in the most likely organic place—with the ground. Cotton is widely regarded as one of the most environmentally-friendly fabrics, preferable to synthetic fabrics, which contain plastic and can’t biodegrade. Clothes require tremendous amounts of cotton, and that alone can be unsustainable for smaller communities with limited urban land, unsuited to cotton’s preferred growing environment. While organic fabrics exist, most local designers must travel to other places to get it—sometimes even to other countries.
Melanie Crane, owner of Never Ender Boutique & Art Gallery, says that many designers try their best, but it’s a challenge.
“Most items are usually not 100 percent sustainable,” says Crane. “If you want to go and get some organic cotton, and you buy fabric—say you buy it here, and it says it’s made in America—I’m not sure whether the cotton was actually grown here or grown somewhere else. The weaving of the fabric might be here, but it might be grown in China or India.”
Instead, environmental consciousness comes through in other forms: buying items made in the United States; making new items out of durable fabric; repairing clothes instead of buying more; and shopping at local thrift shops, resale stores and vintage boutiques.What’s old is new
Crane says that customers come in to the store with many interpretations of sustainable fashion. For her, items made in the United States are a step in the right direction.
“Most of the clothing we have here is made in America,” she says. “And that’s what I try to do. … Sustainable really can be organic cotton—that’s the first thing I ever thought of—and we have organic cotton T-shirts. Since then, it’s gone toward recycled fabrics. … [And] vintage clothing. There are a lot of girls who shop for vintage and for vintage-style fashion.”
As of now, according to Crane, there are limited options for obtaining sustainable fabric locally aside from using vintage wares. She hopes that the region will eventually get a warehouse, like those available in Los Angeles or San Francisco. Martin-Chiari travels to California to get specialty fabric.
“All my garments are made in San Francisco with the use of salvaged, recycled or organic fabrics,” says Martin-Chiari. “Most of the fabrics I use are waste from the overproduction or mistakes of larger companies.”
Crane says that vintage fabric is popular because it’s often hardier.
“That’s the kind of fabric I focus on because it might not be organic, but it would otherwise be thrown in the garbage, and that’s what you’re trying to do—save throwing things out,” says Crane.
“Vintage” is considered different from “thrifting”—vintage requires curation, whereas thrifting offers an assortment of items often without a discernable theme or style. Vintage also refers to clothes made more than 25 years ago. Crane says that many women seek out vintage clothing for the style—retro fashion is very popular, she notes—but also because the clothes have lasted for several decades and will likely continue to be durable. However, vintage items can be expensive, and it’s difficult to find items in certain sizes because the pieces are one-of-a-kind, and “women were very tiny back then,” says Crane.
Shopping at thrift, vintage or resale stores is also a timesaver for most people. While making clothes is enjoyed by many as a hobby, making enough items to live off of is a challenge, says Kristin Smith, a student at Truckee Meadows Community College. Smith has been making clothes since high school when she wanted to learn how to make her own prom dress. She says that reducing the environmental impact is also important to her.
“I love making my own items because I can make things that fit me perfectly,” she says. “I had a hard time finding the type of clothes I wanted at places like Target. But it takes me so much time even though I’ve been sewing for a long time.”
Smith says she tries to shop locally when she can, but notes that it’s hard for her to find reliable outlets for clothes in different sizes. There are also limited options for men.
“It’s difficult for my boyfriend to find local clothes he likes because unless you really like that kind of old-fashioned style, there aren’t really many choices,” she says. Although she briefly considered starting a clothing line, Smith says she doesn’t have the time to fully commit to it.
Martin-Chiari acknowledges the extra work, and often cost, involved, but will continue to make environmental awareness a priority. “Although having a sustainable line might be more work and more expensive, it’s more than worth it,” she says.
Crane predicts that Reno’s local fashion movement will continue to expand, and hopefully include more options for men and children. She also thinks there’s an opportunity for someone to start a sustainable fabric outlet.
“It would be really nice to have that here,” she says. “And there are people here who can do it. People love it when they hear their clothes are made in Truckee or here or in San Francisco. But they don’t want to live in San Francisco just to have access to those things. And we will be like those big cities one day.”