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Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2008

Earth Friendly Fashion

Organic Clothing for the Masses

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  If the idea of organic clothing gives you visions of shapeless hemp sacks worn by granola-munching hippies, it's time to go shopping. These days, organic duds are not only good for the environment, they actually look good, which puts the "fashion" back in earth-friendly fashions. What's more, the green clothing world now offers an array of fabrics, from the softest bamboo to the silkiest soy, which helps not just in the style department but feels comfortable as well.

  Organic cotton has made it big, for sure-you can find an organic onesie for your baby at Whole Foods, Target, and (close your eyes, this one hurts the socially responsible brain) even Walmart has a line of organic cotton on its shelves. But Walmart's organic offerings are every bit as ugly as you'd imagine, with bad illustrations and slogans about earth-friendliness plastered on t-shirts, and that organic cotton is dyed with who-knows-what. It wasn't until very recently that high-quality fashionable options became accessible to the masses.

Sustainable Style

  That availability is certainly welcome-most of us don't want to put that much thought into our clothing, really. When the idea that the bulk of our clothing was produced in sweatshops around the world with little regard for labor or resources sunk in on a national level, it caused headaches for everyone who cared even a little. And most people gave up and stopped checking the tags for even the illusion of social responsibility after a few months; it's just too much for busy people to think about.

  That's all changing now as designers and stores are starting to focus on green wares; Milwaukee's seen a handful of shops open up in recent years that offer everything from eco-friendly body care and bedding to wall paint and flooring, like Future Green and Chartreuse in Bay View. Newest is Olive in Mequon, which opened earlier this year with the idea that consumers shouldn't have to sacrifice style to be green. Without a doubt, the store, which itself was designed using earth-friendly materials, looks like a hip boutique first; you might go there even if you didn't really care how your clothing was produced. Everything in the store, however, is thoughtfully selected for its environmental impact.

   Light-years away from the maligned hemp sack are Linda Loudermilk's high-end designs, available at Olive. Like the Mequon store that sells her clothing, Loudermilk's company is focused on blending organic, sustainable fabrics and production with style and comfort. That's not just an empty idea-Loudermilk, who outfits the likes of Jane Fonda and Jennifer Beals, is considered a pioneer in green clothing as well as a true designer of couture. There's no compromise, she does both well, and her commitment to responsible business practices is influencing the industry.

The Upside of Organic

  But why organic clothing? Most people think of organic in relation to food, so it can be hard to make the leap to clothing. Why does it matter? Like most eco-friendly choices, there's more than one reason. One is, in fact, the health factor: Conventionally grown cotton contains a ton of pesticides, many of which are classified as carcinogens. Not only are we wearing the chemicals, but they leach into the soil, as well, impacting the people where the cotton is grown. Beyond cotton, the new use of alternative materials for fabrics, like soy, bamboo and seaweed, is opening up the door for more sustainable practices within the industry. And it's often a package deal: Companies and designers that bother to use environmentally sound fabrics are often more likely to also insist on fair labor practices and socially responsible business models for their vendors. That's true of both Loudermilk and Olive.

  The downside, of course, is that like organic apples and fair trade coffee, socially responsible clothing comes with a slightly higher price tag, but not really higher than other designer lines; a boutique's a boutique, and if you're buying designer clothing, it is going to cost more. Higher end clothing, eco-friendly or not, tends to last longer and wear better, anyway. You get what you pay for, and in this case it's quality, fashionable clothing you feel good about wearing. So ditch the sack, tree-huggers-you can go out in public again!