Fashion: Is This The Year You Pay More For Less?

Questions over the price of our clothing – be it too cheap, the environmental cost of producing it, consumers shifting ideas about what luxury or true value actually is – all seem to go hand-in-hand when it comes to fashion. Regrettably, I have to admit that the crux of most conversations I have in the world we call “eco”, “fair-trade”, “sustainable”, “green” or (the most un-fun fashion moniker ever) “responsible” fashion always comes down to this, “How much more does it cost?”

With last year’s economic climate, getting more for less was an exceedingly relevant question. However, in 2011, things appear to be looking up. Timed with last week’s high profile Paris Couture Week there were a slew of news reports that customers of flagrantly expensive Haute Couture are increasing and that couture houses are thriving.

For the rest of us, couture fashion runways are an unobtainable but accessible indulgence. It’s when fashion watching goes from merely aiding the delight/dilemma of what to wear daily to the heart-pounding fantasy of a whimsical dreamscape. It’s fascinating to trace couture colors and details as they go on to inform and interpret a broader, mass market fashion story. (Remember Meryl Streep, as the Devil in Prada’s great soliloquy about the origins of skeptical assistant Andy’s cerulean blue sweater?)

“It’s been an excellent year for couture,” Sidney Toledano, CEO of Christian Dior, was heard saying from the sidelines of John Galliano’s runway show. “The young generation, even if they don’t buy, they want to go to the Internet and see the couture shows…The image is so strong, and this generation is looking for strong images.”

Back home in Northern California, I recently came across a look book of a sustainable line that is as substantial and arresting as the appeal Mr. Toledano speaks of. Sonoma County sustainable designer Emily Melville’s eponymous line was not originally conceived as “eco-fashion.” For her, “sustainability is actually a byproduct of my interest in creating the highest quality locally designed and produced, made-to-order luxury clothing. I don’t feel like there is always a clear dividing line between sustainable fashion and “conventional” fashion. Good design, good quality clothing, creating a connection between the consumer and the creator… these are the things I’m interested in.” With that in mind, I was delighted to ask Emily (currently taking some time out to have her first child) about the role price has in creating a strong brand image.

Vivienne Westwood was recently quoted saying “I was on the bus on Saturday going down to Whitehall. I just looked at everybody and there wasn’t one person who had a silhouette or stood out. They all looked like babies who had come out from a big washing machine – all easy-care jerseys and tights.” Your designs are the antithesis of this.

What a great quote. This is something I’ve observed as well, how there is this trend towards shabby, comfy, sloppy clothing. Where is the glamour? Where is the drama?  At the same time, I have to admit that I tend to dress for comfort a lot of the time too. I think some of it has to do with what a fast pace we are all expected to live by these days.

But there have always been people who just wear clothes rather than fashion. I am very inspired by the blog The Sartorialist; it captures images of women around the world who do stand out, who do find ways to create the glamour and the drama. I am always interested in looking at the way that women combine items, new pieces with vintage items, low price things with high price things. As a designer you create whole new looks every season, but that is not the way most women actually dress. That is something I like to keep in mind as I design – how will this jacket fit into her entire wardrobe, not just into my collection.

What are the eco credentials of your line? Who inspired you to design sustainably?

All my clothes are locally designed and produced here in Sonoma County. I’m creating garments that are made-to-order which hugely reduces the amount of waste I create. I strive to create timeless designs, and use the highest quality construction to ensure the longevity – and isn’t that what sustainable actually means? Whenever possible, I try to focus on natural, biodegradable, and fair-trade fabrics. I save all of my sample and production fabric scraps, which I either reuse or donate to a local charity.

The biggest challenge for any small designer just starting out, whether their focus is sustainable fashion or not, is fabric. My vision required me to look beyond what was available in the “eco” fabric market and instead try to find what was the best quality in the fibers, finishes, and colors. Someday I dream of being able to find organic wools and cruelty-free silks that behave like luxury fabrics and that I can get dyed to any color with a natural dye. And hopefully my line will be become big enough that I can demand that kind of product in the market.

While I was studying for my MFA from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, I took a course in Sustainable Fashion taught by Lynda Grose. That was probably the most challenging classes I took the whole time I was at AAU. Lynda is always questioning, always pushing you to think deeper about sustainability, and constantly pointing out how there are so many “catch-22’s” in the world of eco-fashion. That course sparked in me the desire to focus on small fashion, slow fashion, local production, hand-made garments. At the same time, I was being encouraged by my other instructors to cultivate my high-end designer sensibilities.

I love your classic color palette of charcoals, olives, steel gray and pale lemon. Did you intend to create a timeless, heirloom quality in a world of fast, disposable fashion?

That is exactly my intention. Clothes that will last for years, clothes that won’t ever go out of style, clothes that can work with other things in your wardrobe, clothes that you will pass on to your children… that is what I’m aiming for. There is no way that I could compete with the fast fashion that is out there. The only option for a small designer like myself it to aim for the opposite of that, to design for a woman who doesn’t want to change her entire wardrobe twice a year.

What is your price point? How do you persuade a customer to spend more on sustainable fashion?

My price points put me in the high-end, luxury market $600- $5000, depending on the piece. The question to me is less about persuading them to spend on “sustainable” and more about spending for quality and design. My hope is to create a relationship directly with the customer, so they feel like they understand where the garment is coming from, what the story is behind it.  When someone can see the hand of the designer in a garment, it takes on much more meaning, becomes more important to them and therefore is worth the extra money.

Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.