When I first got into eco-fashion years ago, Prairie Underground was one of the firsts on my radar. I loved its fashion forward takes on everyday closet staples – not to mention that two young gals from Seattle were doing it all by themselves, from concept to manufacturing, all in Seattle. How great is that?
Prairie co-designers, Davora Lindner and Camilla Eckersley, have taken the line to new heights, creating five collections a year (yes, even a substantial summer and holiday line). Their designs are now in over 230 stores all over the U.S., Canada, Australia, France and Germany (not to mention taking up at least 50% of my closet).
I caught up with Davora recently.
We started in 2004 and our first collection was Summer 2005. We were late, of course, and had to come back a month later with a Fall collection.
The Seattle Public Library. Camilla lived in San Francisco and I lived in Minneapolis, and we discussed it at length via e-mail. Eventually we both booked a trip to Seattle and wrote a business plan in a meeting room at the library. After we relocated we both worked out of our homes for the first two years.
Naming the line was impossible – seriously, we had pages of lists. I practiced writing different names with a calligraphy pen in a journal before I moved and Camilla came with piles of books that were important to her and of course every possible combination of our names was explored. We ended up with Prairie Underground because the line was an extension of a friendship and community in the mid-west. There are so many memories that we share and our cultural references intersect in really easy ways. There is a very healthy dose of our past in everything we do that is filtered through the present to varying degrees.
I think at our last meeting with our sales rep the number was 227 active accounts. Not everyone orders every ship date, but then there are always new stores testing the line, too. We’re thankful for every single one of them, and stores know us. I talk to the buyers every month.
Our line is different and accessible; women either identify with the entire line or a particular piece, but the attachment is strong. Our clothing offers a practicality and ease and is often worn in private. We’re very close to our customer in that way; women are comforted by our clothes. We’re lucky to have lots of different types of customers and we think about all of them in the design process. We offer a really versatile fit and we’re particular about a silhouette, so the line is consistent and recognizable. Camilla is an amazing pattern maker. Really that’s been the key to our success.
We have always worked with sustainable textiles, or textiles that are produced in a way that does less harm to the environment. The line is almost all organic cotton and we work with a lot of hemp blends that are strong and beautiful fibers and a more renewable resource. We are concerned that our clothing lasts a long time and we take quality very seriously.
All of our clothing is made in the United States, in Seattle, and we are a made-to-order company so we’re not producing piles of garments that people don’t want or need. Obviously we recycle (it’s the law in Seattle), but we do take this seriously as both Camilla and I detest waste. It’s just a personality trait we share.
I’m pretty sure all of our office fixtures are secondhand and many of them were found on the street, it’s just a reflection of our lives. At the beginning of our business we made the decision to establish a way of working that was in sync with our personal beliefs. We had an opportunity to do so and we were going to take it.
It wasn’t about marketing or trend forecasts – it was personal and true to our lives. When we started no one cared about organic or sustainable fabrications; it was almost a joke and certainly not a selling point. Very few stores even understood why we would want to use those materials, or why they were more expensive.
We’re in the business of change and more, more, more. Participating in a way that has less impact on the environment and also the potential for appealing to someone who isn’t the typical contemporary customer feels better. I don’t think it’s the only way to approach sustainability. Buying a fine garment not made from organic material but one that you wear for twenty years is also quite sustainable. Repairing your clothes or having them tailored instead of buying new clothes is great, too, and looks gorgeous and authentic.
We both love secondhand shopping and giving things that we’ve simply tired of to charity or selling them! A good portion of our personal wardrobe that isn’t Prairie Underground was bought at thrift stores. We shop Goodwill together and discuss all of our garments at length.
The greatest hits at Prairie Underground’s workshop have been the Hard Times Dress (Spring 06).
It was our first risky silhouette in that it was umpire, had volume and a print which I hand painted on all of the productions of that style. Everyone at Prairie Underground wore it a lot, and it caught the attention of editors at Nylon and Vogue when we were really new.
We all are still pretty involved with The Falcon (Fall 08) t-shirt which we’ve continued as a dress,
and the Denim Legging (Fall 05)
which we also wear in heavy rotation – sometimes we’re all wearing them at the same time. The Denim Leggings aren’t organic, and are the only piece in the line we continue to produce from a conventional fabrication, but the fabric is right, the price is right and you can wear them all the time. I haven’t mentioned a single hoodie which are by far our best selling styles.
Camilla would say the Moth Coat (Spring 08).
She is really proud of that style and it represents the epitome of our design collaboration. It’s interesting to note that these are all continued or older styles. We’re really excited about new styles too, but these have stood the test of time.
We give styles nicknames during the design process. Some of them stick even when the official name changes, and these can be rather funny and not too commercial. Some styles are named at the time they are sketched, while others simply resist naming. We want the name to communicate a message about the style but also to be descriptive. We choose both options and intersperse. We also love animals and any time we can name a style after an animal we’re all over it, for better or worse.
We always think people should know what they’re buying, and not just when it comes to clothing, but we’re not perfect or judgmental in regard to people’s choices – unless they’re really ghastly! I think supporting independent design and local business makes a great statement, eco or not. Anything that is done ethically and beautifully in such a big world is inspiring, so I’m not sure if it is only the bummer of homework or the thrill of discovering a new designer who shares your interests and seems to be making things especially for you. We’re delighted when we hear from the women who discover our clothing for the first time and they feel like it’s their voice, the clothing they’ve been waiting for, or the jacket they live in. We really want to make clothes that are worn often that make women feel great.