Piecing together a sustainable fashion scene

If you’ve got it, flaunt it, right? When it comes to a creative fashion design and manufacturing scene, Grand Rapids has it. The area serves as a launching pad for many international designers and stylists, and is home to 10+ different apparel and accessory manufacturers. Innovative pieces are designed, sourced and produced right here in the West Michigan region. Many of these makers and artisans are also focused on sustainability and shifting away from the waste and harmful carbon footprint the fashion industry is known for. 
Lori A. Faulkner is a fashion studies chair and associate professor for the Pamella Roland DeVos School of Fashion at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD). Faulkner wrote the curriculum for the program, based on her education and experiences as a designer in the fashion industry. 
KCAD students within the School of Fashion follow a four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts Fashion Studies Degree, with an option to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC. Faulkner says this degree is “designed to immerse the student in the study of the fashion industry and practices, while fulfilling supportive studios in art and design foundation courses and general education courses, for a comprehensive well-rounded education.”
Students learn about sourcing trends, fabrics, applying design elements and principles, finding the balance between aesthetics and functionality, sketching designs and illustrations, fitting, pattern-making, retail buying, sustainability, fashion show production and more. Students also have access to fashion labs with industry machines used for construction, large tables for design, subscriptions to trend, fabric and style services as well as AV technology for demos and photographing of their work. Near the end of their studies, students plan the annual capstone fashion show, highlighting original collections. In March 2022, students collaborated on designing costumes for the Jumpstart Production at the Grand Rapids Ballet. 
In addition to the knowledge and experience obtained locally, students are able to travel to bigger cities like NYC, LA and abroad on donor-sponsored fashion research experience trips to London, Paris, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Melbourne and Sydney. 
Faulkner describes the regional fashion scene as a unique one, spurred on by these creative students and experienced industry professionals. “People are surprised to hear that there are more than 10 manufacturers of apparel and accessories in our area,” she says. 
Each year, Faulkner speaks on fashion and sustainability at different locations including the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Kent District Library and other local organizations. 

Lori Faulkner Sabbatical Show, Photo Courtesy of KCAD“Creating my own sustainable couture collection is part of my job," Faulkner says. "The work was shown in the Alluvium Gallery at KCAD last February and one of my ensembles is currently on display in the Fashion and Nature Exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum,” she says. 
The industry is witnessing a growing trend in sustainability, something Faulkner says will be crucial to the way clothing is produced in the future. Within the sustainable fashion class, students learn everything from sourcing responsible raw materials, new design practices, and dye and coloring practices, to reducing the carbon footprint, recycling, upcycling and focusing on consumer’s education. 
Outside of the classroom, the focus on sustainability is important too, with many local producers creating right here in the West Michigan region, including Public Thread, a local maker of upcycled accessories. 
Faulkner says it’s important to utilize local fashion designers and professionals to reinvest in the community and also reduce the carbon footprint of shipping garments to stores. 
For Sarah Saunders, who uses the moniker Sarah Jo, owner of Jo Clothing, she started teaching herself to sew when she was a teenager, growing up in Alpena. She started selling her crafts at local markets and online via Etsy in 2008. Her love of sewing evolved into a full-time job creating unique clothing items in 2011. Jo Clothing offers comfortable, casual clothing items made from soft, durable fabrics.
The made-to-order designs are also customizable, something Sarah Jo enjoys creating unique for each person. Creating made-to-order fashion, versus fast-fashion in large quantities, is a contrast to much of the industry, “built on waste and exploitation,” Sarah Jo says. “It’s not sustainable to consume as much as we do,” she says. “We should buy less, mend what we have and invest in quality pieces that will last.”
For fellow designer Ashley Trieu, the shift of sustainable fashion is still happening on a much smaller scale than necessary. The Grand Rapids native began curating and selling vintage clothing online during her senior year of high school. She became a designer, seamstress and business owner when she launched Iconoclasp in 2011, offering sustainable unisex, men’s and women’s apparel designed and produced in Grand Rapids. In 2021, she and her partner, Theo Jones, expanded the business, launching Ethos 33

Photo courtesy of Iconoclasp and Ethos 33
 “With Iconoclasp, I grew creatively and personally, which inspired a desire to create more responsibly and within a different aesthetic,” Trieu says. “Ethos 33 developed from that desire and the perfect formula emerged — designing with luxury, sustainable materials, which made an impact and satisfied my growth as an artist," she says. 
The business expansion created several changes. "Through Ethos 33, I also left solo-entrepreneur life behind by co-founding it with my partner, hiring my former intern and entering this new venture as a part of a creative team,” Trieu says.
For Trieu, safety and sustainability are key considerations when sourcing materials for their designs. When ordering swatches for the collection, she noticed a disclaimer that the materials could cause a range of health concerns. “That sent a jolt through me, and a realization that we could not deem these materials as part of an elevated lifestyle if [they] had serious potential health detriment to our customer, us as the creators, the textile manufacturers and our environment,” she says.
“This led me to months of research about the damage the fashion industry causes and luckily, to wonderful innovations in the textile industry that went against the status quo,” she says. “These materials were quite luxurious and fit the bill for the other core elements of our brand. For example, prickly pear cactus leathers with recycled ocean backing that [are] carbon negative [and] efficient on water and energy in production.” 
Trieu says the elevated lifestyle brand found certified bamboo and fibers that not only feel nice on the skin, but are anti-microbial, biodegradable and made ethically and responsibly. 
She hopes Ethos 33’s rigorously-vetted materials show that there can be a healthier, thoughtful supply chain within the fashion industry. 
We've sourced climate beneficial fabrics with processes that create a carbon sink, reversing climate damage and increasing biodiversity,” Trieu says. “We want to set an example that protecting the earth, fair compensation and inclusive, safe, working conditions should be standard. Our brand mission is to represent conscious entrepreneurship with the hope of inspiring more of it.”
While it’s a positive change that small businesses, makers and local artisans are utilizing slow fashion, which approaches fashion with an awareness aspect. The goal is to advocate for buying better quality garments, in turn, lasting longer than cheaply-made, fast-produced items. Trieu says it’s important that larger fashion corporations follow suit. 
“Humans have caused so much damage to our natural resources and it is important that we step up and represent a more holistic approach to creating," she says. This provides an opportunity for all within the industry. "Sustainability is an investment toward the conservation of our planet and collective," Trieu says.
Our three-part series on West Michigan’s creative sectors is made possible through the Grand Rapids Chamber and the Michigan Film and Digital Media Office’s Creative Industries Rebound Grant.

Through our solutions journalism’s storytelling platform, we seek to illustrate how the West Michigan creative community is responding to their present challenges as our creative sector builds bridges so that future opportunities can flourish here.

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.