UC Davis Design Museum struts sustainable fashion

Designer Tierra Del Forte poses next to her premium organic denim jeans.

Designer Tierra Del Forte poses next to her premium organic denim jeans.

Photo By Sena Christian

Fashion Conscious runs through July 13 at the UC Davis Design Museum, located on the ground floor of Walker Hall on campus. For more information, visit

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Designer Tierra Del Forte started her line of premium organic denim on a simple premise: She wanted the values of her professional work and personal life to match.

This was something she didn’t find in the mainstream fashion industry, in which she worked following her 1999 graduation from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco and her big move to New York City. During this time, she visited domestic and international garment factories and was appalled at the high levels of waste generated and the general disregard for the environment and people who make the clothing.

“The mainstream fashion industry is all about producing the cheapest clothes and getting them to the stores fastest,” Del Forte explained. “Innately, that creates an unsustainable process.”

She took matters into her own hands, moving to Berkeley three years ago and starting her own company, Del Forte Denim. Her jeans look like regular jeans, and they sell for around the same price as (if not lower than) designer brands. But there’s one difference: Her clothes don’t harm the environment.

Del Forte’s designs and other sustainable clothing and accessories are currently on exhibit at the UC Davis Design Museum. The show, Fashion Conscious, reflects the fashion industry’s move toward eco-consciousness and features clothing made from alternative fibers, colored with organic dyes and garments constructed entirely from salvaged and recycled materials.

Fashion Conscious is part of a year of eco-exhibits at the museum; this particular one is the brainchild of curators Susan Taber Avila, a UC Davis design professor, and Julia Schwartz, a UC Davis design alum. The exhibit grew in part out of Avila’s own work as a fiber artist and from her academic research into sustainable design.

Increasingly, segments of the fashion industry are looking inward to examine their ecological footprints. Here’s what they learn: In industrial manufacturing, 2.5 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste is generated in the United States annually—the equivalent of 10 pounds for every person. And that the production of commercial cotton consumes 25 percent of all pesticides in this country. Of course, they also learn about health problems suffered by farmers working in cotton fields with long-term exposure to pesticides and herbicides. Thousands of cotton workers worldwide die every year as a result of accidental poisoning.

Several years back, high-end fashion designer Linda Loudermilk began touting the beauty and benefits of eco-friendly clothing. She coined the term “luxury eco” to describe clothes that give back to the Earth or, at least, produce minimal negative impact. She also wanted to refute the belief that wearing clothing made of sustainable materials such as hemp, linen, bamboo and soy automatically equates to wearing a burlap sack.

Loudermilk’s philosophy spread as designers recognized that transitioning to sustainable fashion meant engaging in something they enjoyed: innovation.

And so many of these creative individuals did just that—they innovated. Designers turned used soda bottles into recycled polyester and bike inner tubes, car seat belts and vinyl signs into wearable items. They transformed old billboards into trendy-looking messenger bags and cork (a rapidly renewable resource) into jackets as smooth as leather. They made shoes from recycled latex soles and vegetable-tanned leather.

All of these items are displayed at the Design Museum, along with a corn dress by Elisa Jimenez, who rose to fame as a contestant on season four of the television show Project Runway. The dress’s bio-polymer fabric can eventually be composted or recycled.

Appropriately, the museum space fits the exhibit just right: Walls are covered with 100 percent toxic-free paint, and hanging banners are made from recycled milk jugs and water bottles. Background accent pieces are made from wheatboard—agricultural waste that would otherwise be burned or dumped into landfills.

“Our focus on sustainable design is in theme and practice,” said exhibition coordinator John Fulton.

For both the museum staff and the fashion designers, the goal is to find alternatives to environmentally harmful options, just as Del Forte did when she chose organic cotton for her jeans (grown without the use of pesticides and fertilizers).

When Del Forte began her business a mere three years ago, maybe 10 green clothing boutiques existed in the whole country, she said. Now, a couple of these pop up weekly.

“Sustainable fashion is catching on in a big way,” she said.