UIX: The designers and retailers weaving sustainability into fashion

Consider the T-shirt.


It's underwear and it's outerwear. It's modern and it's vintage. It's a statement of comfort just as much as it is one of rebellion, a statement that may speak louder than the wearer ever intended.


Fashion is unavoidable. It's also a choice, a creative decision that takes the form of material design and a receipt of ethical prerogative, often as subtle as a brand name or the three-word story describing the manufacturer of origin.


But the story doesn't have to stop there.


Through sustainable practices in design, sourcing, and manufacturing, several makers and retailers in Grand Rapids are weaving social and environmental impact into fashion, a statement that looks as good as it sounds.


Sustainable design


Fashion designer Elonda Willis has been intrigued by fashion since she was 4 years old. Her grandmother gave her a rag doll that year and introduced her to sewing.


"She taught me how to hand sew all my doll clothing, and from there I was interested in fashion," Willis says.


Using grandmother's Singer sewing machine, the pair made clothing and home decor items like curtains to sell in a resale shop.


Willis followed that thread to Michigan State University, where she majored in apparel and textile design. It was a subculture and sustainable design class that shifted her focus to sustainable design, "Promoting zero waste, redesigning old clothing, and making new designs from that vintage clothing."


"I saw videos based on clothing factories in India and how the industry used third-world countries as a hub for clothing scraps," she says. "It looked like a wasteland. Those documentaries made me very emotional and made me want to make a difference as a designer in this world."


The term "fast fashion" once illustrated the fully-automated system of the future in which clothing can be produced in an instant, possibly without any human interaction at all. Prices are kept low because manufacturers are not expected to maintain the same quality standards as other clothiers. And much like the nature of trends, these garments live fast and die young.


Designs by Willis for her two clothing lines, Avante Garde at Breon Aries and IBHB Vintage Boutique. Fighting this trend are makers like Willis who understand the raw materials and processes that are incorporated into their products on the journey from concept to final sale. They are not only better prepared to pass on the same message and mission to their customers, they can more quickly adapt to their customers' concerns.


As the owner of Breon Aries and the creative force behind two clothing lines, Avant Garde at Breon Aries, as well as IBHB Vintage Boutique, Willis hopes her customers see the fibers of craftsmanship in her work.


"I think fashion deserves more highlights behind the scenes and not just the finished product hanging on the racks," she says. "There is a lot of thought and labor put into this form of art called fashion design."


Willis incorporates sustainability into her garments by integrating household items like furniture fabrics and vintage clothing.


"When I use fabrics, I use the zero-waste technique, meaning all the fabric is used and not thrown away," she says. "I make extra pockets on the garment or create extra accessories with the scrap fabric."


Every inch of an Avant Garde or IBHB Vintage garments is intentional. Willis doesn't leave anything on the showroom floor, and it pains her to see items made without the same sense of care.


"The see-through plastic shoes, aka Cinderella slippers, are a 'no' for me," she says. “They are not eco-friendly for the environment or sustainable. Just thinking about where the waste is tossed makes me want to cringe."


From jelly shoes to cinderella slippers, a lot of plastic footwear is made from a kind of plastic called Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the world's third-most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer, and according to Greenpeace, the "single most environmentally damaging of all plastics."


Willis says fashion has a strong influence on culture. It changes the way people carry themselves, and how others perceive them. First and foremost, "Fashion should help people look good," she says, "while protecting the world we live in."


Before materials make it to the sewing machine on their way to becoming the latest Avant Garde piece, they're most often guided along by a pattern. From his Godfrey Ave. SW office, Andy Parauka, owner of ProperFit Clothing, provides those patterns to inspire makers around the world.


Parauka sees sustainability as a way of being conscious of natural resources, and "making sure you use/make only what is necessary." His online shop currently offers patterns for all manner of bags, hats, pants, and even formal neckties, and Parauka believes many of his customers choose these designs in pursuit of living more sustainably.


"It can be a financial goal or even using recycled fabrics," he says. "Many small businesses use my patterns to make products, and I help my audience achieve sustainability by providing professional patterns and instructions. I also work with upcycling old clothing and resourcing fabric from used garments."


Through patterns that emphasize precision over waste, ProperFit helps people learn how to be more resourceful with the materials they use in their creations. According to Parauka, if "fast fashion" helps designers bring new collections to life quickly at the expense of quality and the environment, slowing the process down a bit can have the opposite effect. It may seem much easier to just buy new clothes when the old ones wear out, Parauka says, but making the creation or recreation process fun and exciting is an effective way of promoting change.


"I like the idea of making fresh new looks without harming the environment," he says. "Giving people the tools to create their own garments helps keep down on over manufacturing."


Though the patterns available on ProperFit require the use of a needle and thread, if not a sewing machine, Parauka provides instructional videos, so people at any level of sewing experience can make their own fashion.


So far, many have.


"People email me excited with completed projects or tag me on social media," he says. "It is very cool to see such great feedback."


Social and environmental impacts


There may not be much difference in the utility of a designer-named bag and a second-hand item of similar size, but the social and environmental impacts leading up to the purchase of each are far removed. The same can be said of articles that show less disparity. The difference between a lockstitch and a multithreaded chain can mean years in a single white T-shirt's lifespan, leading one to the landfill far faster than its more durable counterpart.


At Clothing Matters, Maddison Reilly helps visitors at the Blackport building retailer learn more about the fibers they're wearing, and the downstream consequences.


A piece from Willis' Avante Garde collection.One of the biggest environmental issues clothing waste has created, Reilly says, is not easily seen, though it results in countless dead fish, thwarted reproduction cycles, and overall blight on marine life. Microfibers have already created serious problems in Lake Michigan, and shine a stark light on fashion choices.


According to Steve Stewart at the Michigan State University Extension, clothing made of polyester or polyurethane sheds thousands of synthetic fibers in every wash. The fibers make their way through the sewer system and eventually into lakes and oceans. High concentrations of microfibers from clothing have been found in the waters and stomachs of fish in southern Lake Michigan, where densely populated cities contribute to the runoff, kept in place by lake currents.


The human impact of fashion has a dark side, as well. Slavery has been intertwined with garment manufacturing for centuries and is still a reality for sweatshop workers around the world. As Reilly says, some shops demand unreasonably high quotas, 250 items produced in a day, putting workers under undue stress to create items that are made to sell, not to last.


"Globally over 40 million people are trapped in modern slavery, with poverty being the biggest driver," Thomson Reuters reported in a 2019 audio series on modern slavery. "Many victims are forced into labor trafficking in the fashion industry. Think of big clothing brands like Zara which have been mired in controversy after their Brazilian sweatshops were raided by authorities in 2011. Or the fashion giant H&M for failing to fulfill a pledge to ensure garment workers are paid a fair 'living wage,' forcing many employees to work excessive hours in order to survive. Major brands are under growing pressure to improve working conditions along their global supply chains, and render them free of exploitation and slavery."


Clothing Matters works with companies that stand by fair labor practices and use alternative fibers like soy, hemp, and bamboo that can be harvested sustainably, as opposed to cotton and synthetics which leech the land of nutrients, if not outright polluting it, Reilly says. Hemp is durable and stands up to use, while bamboo is antimicrobial and well suited for athletic wear.


Sustainable sourcing


Clothing retailers often work with a number of vendors in order to provide the styles and brands their customers want. Like Clothing Matters, a smaller segment of those retailers choose vendors based on environmental and ethical standards.


Emily Smith's Adored Boutique, now in its third year, is a casual contemporary women’s boutique selling fair trade women's apparel and accessories. Smith goes through a thorough analysis with each vendor to "confirm the integrity of their manufacturing."


And that's not always easy.


Not every supplier that claims to offer fair wages and healthy working conditions defines those ideas the same way, Smith says. Neither do retailers, as Smith points out, vegan patent leather may be sold by a company that champions its own ethics while at the same time sourcing its materials from slave labor.


"At first, I would take people's word for it, and then I really started learning like people define 'ethical' very differently," she says. "I had to learn that the hard way, and I had to make sure that I understood what it meant for me, and where am I unwilling to waver?"


Smith admits she didn't even know what "fair trade" meant when she opened Adored, but she has since worked hard to learn everything about the process as she can, cutting out suppliers who might be linked to factory collapses and poverty wages, and finding her company's mission along the way.


"We might pay $500 for a bag that was made in the same factory as that $5 fast fashion item," she says. "And the person who made that bag is still only getting paid two cents for it. And that's hard for us to acknowledge because there's a tendency for people to put shame on people for that. It's really hard not to do that.


"Years ago, I knew nothing about this either," she continues. "I just want this to be a place where people can safely learn and be empowered to make a different choice over time."


Many of the items for sale at Adored Boutique are made from recycled or upcycled materials that may have simply been left on the cutting room floor. Other items at the shop just didn't sell the first time they were put up in a retail showroom. It's often cheaper for retailers to ship the unsold product to another country to be sold, which is where Smith sends her buyers, who bring back the pieces that are still in good condition.


The pieces may not be made from sustainably harvested crops, but Smith is able to give them a second or even third lifetime, keeping them out of the landfill for years to come.


"It's really fun for me to be able to be part of that journey," Smith says. "And then when I can't provide people the thing that they need, to help them find it somewhere else."


If you’re thinking about changing up your look, and want to consider making a sustainable choice, there are many options available in West Michigan. It doesn’t have to be a drastic change. Replacing an entire wardrobe might even be the least practical choice. But it’s a choice you get to make.


Even if it’s just a T-shirt.

Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected]

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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