The Rise of Slow Fashion 

The Bay Area fashion scene has long been outshined by New York and LA. Now, a group of independent fashion supporters is trying to take the lead in sustainable fashion. Can they succeed?

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But while there's no denying the enthusiasm around independent and eco-fashion in the Bay Area, herding all of that energy into a strong, unified movement is still an ambitious endeavor. Perhaps the biggest challenge? Most indie designers don't last very long.

Most people think of hemp clothing as hippie-dippy burlap sacks. Crystal Sylver wanted to change that notion.

So three years ago, the Oakland resident started a line of hemp and organic cotton wear called Funk Divine. Her collection consists of well-tailored T-shirts, hoodies, tops, and dresses logoed with a bold scarab design, which she says represents life and renewal. "The idea behind it was to create fashionable, more design-oriented hemp organic stuff because I think most of it is really plain," she said. "Most of it is hippie stuff. Most of it is unfashionable clothing."

Like many young designers, Sylver had plenty of passion, but frankly didn't know what she was doing, and her dream turned costly. "When I first started, my vision was really big, like I wanted it to be all over the United States and international," said Sylver, who went to junior college where she studied drawing and painting. "I really wanted to create hemp awareness." She ran up $50,000 in credit card debt, and had another $50,000 in loans. "I mean part of it is because I didn't know anything about what I was doing," she admitted. "I made a lot of mistakes. I made three lines. The first line was garbage."

Sylver eschews the method of buying pre-made shirts and just having them screen-printed. But it was hard to find the right manufacturers and sewers, she said. And eco-consciousness is costly. Hemp fabric costs about $10 a yard and has to be imported from China, which costs hundreds of dollars to ship. After the fabric is sent to a dye house in LA, she cuts the fabric herself, then takes it to a manufacturer where they sew it. Not including shipping, Sylver estimates the base cost to her at between $20 and $25. To make a profit, she has to mark them up. And not many people want to fork over $80 for a T-shirt these days — even if it is totally unique, well-made, and eco-friendly.

Because Sylver is so far in debt, she's not making any profit right now. So she recently decided to branch out from hemp, and will launch a new non-organic cotton line that she says will be one-tenth as expensive to make.

"I've been doing this for three years and I just got into a showroom," Sylver lamented. "It takes a while to get some recognition. Part of me thinks, how am I going to do this? A part of me feels like it's so easy to give up. I understand why a lot of people give up. I know it's going to take years to be successful, not having to work all these other jobs. So that's what people have to hold onto — what they see, their vision, no matter what."

It's entirely possible that Sylver will make it. But the odds are against her. Early burnout is incredibly common among young designers. That's one reason why Jennifer Lynne and fellow designer Misty Rose decided they wanted to help budding upstarts. Last year they launched the East Bay Fashion Resource in order to teach designers the fundamentals of the fashion business.

When she first started her Porcelynne line six years ago, Lynne says she knew about twenty designers. Today, only five are still in business. "Even ones that started two years ago aren't around," she said. "Designers get into it because they want to do it, but they don't know the business side." Many have the naive concept that "if you make it they will buy it," but that doesn't really happen, she says.

Lynne and Rose started offering three three-hour-long seminars at Lynne's studio in downtown Oakland this fall. They start with developing a designer's vision, figuring out who are their customers and what the market is. They recommend keeping it small at first — three to five pieces for one's initial collection. From there, they cover production, marketing, and sales. ("PMS," as Lynne fondly calls it. "It can be a pain.") That means figuring out how to deal with patternmakers and sewers, coming up with a plan and sticking to it. Other topics include how to green your business, how to put together line sheets (which details all the pertinent info on a product for potential buyers), marketing and PR (including blogging and search-engine optimization), avenues for sales (trade shows, mailing lists, stores, consignment), and finally starting the business (including choosing which type of entity to file as, copyrights, patents, building a business plan, getting funding, and figuring out financial projections).

The demand for this type of training is growing, Lynne believes, because fashion schools don't train their students to start their own businesses, but rather to work for big companies. And more and more people want to get into the industry.

Lynne credits shows like Project Runway and the slumped economy for motivating young fashionistas into wanting to start their own lines. Lynne says the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, where she teaches part-time, had its highest enrollment ever last year — about 1,000 students compared to the usual 700 to 800.

The channels for selling your stuff also have become a lot more accessible. Boutiques like RAG Co-op and Secession Art & Design solely spotlight indie designers. E-commerce sites such as Etsy expose anybody to a worldwide customer base. And events like Indie Mart, Capsule Design Fair, Chillin', and even the music festival Noise Pop combine drinks, DJs, bands, art, and shopping into a social event where shoppers don't mind plunking down a $5 entrance fee to buy a piece of jewelry or screen-printed T-shirt while schmoozing and sipping cocktails. Most of the stuff is very reasonably priced, and far more unique than anything you'd find at Macy's.

But while awareness of eco-fashion has definitely grown lately, it's still many steps lagging behind the organic sustainable food movement. The issues are similar: general ignorance about how clothes end up on the hanger, how people and the environment are exploited in the process, and what sort of impact wearing cotton grown with pesticides might have on your body. "People don't even want hemp or organic in their store because they think it's weird," said Sylver. "Right now it's a very small market. It will be bigger in the future."

So for now it's not realistic for consumers to only buy indie or eco-friendly fashion, says Lorraine Sanders, who runs the blog Not only because there aren't enough indie designers out there, but also because of the high turnover rate. "One of the obstacles is that independent designers are by definition independent," she said. "People don't necessarily continue in the indie fashion world for years and years on end."

Thus, building anything definitive around this constantly shifting playing field can be incredibly difficult. That is one reason why Leticia Ntofon's book The Bay Area Guide to Independent Fashion is now four years in the making (she's also been busy having babies). "That's been one of the challenges of the book as we get closer to press — getting up-to-date versions of the product. Some people have closed. ... That was the reality."


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