Jars of angora, cotton and flax above the BF + DA's "petting zoo" of materials.

Jars of angora, cotton and flax at the BF + DA’s “petting zoo” of materials. (Photo: Heidi Harrington-Johnson)

Gone are the mom-and-pop sewing shops that once lined the area between Fifth and Ninth Avenues, from 34th to 42nd Streets in Manhattan. Fashion mongers no longer haul their wares on racks down the street. In fact, there are very few signs that the Garment District — once responsible for producing 95 percent of all the clothing sold in the United States — still exists here at all.

New York is still one of the world’s fashion capitals but its future may lie in Brooklyn. City officials recently awarded $3.5 million in funding to Manufacture New York, one of two sustainable design incubators that popped up across the East River last month. They are aimed at encouraging sustainable, locally made design — part of an intriguing movement in fashion, a new trend in New York’s fashion scene and perhaps the answer to sustaining the industry’s fashionable future.

The Incubator

The corridors of 630 Flushing Avenue, home to Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator and its 27 residents, are stark and silent — markedly different from the gum-stained streets of Midtown. Executive director Debera Johnson’s boldness and enthusiasm is contagious. The BF + DA is her passion project, one progressive enough to receive $933,000 in funding from New York State and the Borough of Brooklyn.

Why sustainability and why Brooklyn? The rising social consciousness surrounding food may have something to do with it. In the accelerator’s entrance, Johnson points out the mason jars filled with dried avocado skins, crimson sumac and sunny yellow wildflowers. They were used to dye some of the ethically sourced fabrics Liz Spencer uses in her hand-made clothes and accessory line, The Dogwood Dyer. All ingredients are sourced locally and are organic, words now commonly seen on menus around the city.

Mason jars holding the dying materials Liz Spencer foraged for through Brooklyn for her line, The Dogwood Dyer.

Mason jars holding the dying materials Liz Spencer foraged in Brooklyn for her line, The Dogwood Dyer.

Materials used in clothing construction like cotton or leather come from the same families as those used in food unless they are synthetic. Johnson explains as she stands next to the “petting zoo” of materials. “The impact with material is similar with food,” she says, pulling on a piece of creamy, organic cotton. “It’s mostly farming and raising animals. I think the food movement and the fashion movement are actually quite aligned.”

Rent also has something to do with why Brooklyn is at the forefront of this trend and a fashionable destination for the design set. The decision to launch the BF + DA here was about getting a good price per square foot and space in Manhattan’s Garment District was too expensive. “If you’re well established you can afford it,” she says in the room that will one day hold fashion shows. Its windows face the city has priced – out its young, creative design community. “But if you’re up and coming, you’re not trying to find a space in Manhattan.”

Judith Weller's "The Garment Worker" on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 39th Street in  Manhattan's Garment District.

Judith Weller’s “The Garment Worker” on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 39th Street in
Manhattan’s Garment District.

Fast Fashion / Slow Fashion

We haven’t been thinking about sustainability in terms of what it means to be fashionable, which might explain why sustainable fashion has been slow to come to the forefront. According to Voguepedia, Vogue magazine’s online fashion encyclopedia, the eco-fashion movement began on Parisian catwalks in the late 1980s, first gracing the pages of Vogue in March 1990. But it quickly became associated with hemp and the urban hippie, all of which have become decidedly uncool. Not so for Brooklynite Suzanne Rae, a young BF + DA ready-to-wear designer. Her Spring/Summer collection for 2015, inspired by the Egyptian pyramid, is sensational, with sleek lines and structure reminiscent of Japanese haute couture.

According to a recent report from the American Apparel and Footwear Association, the number of locally made garments sold in the U.S. has dropped 0.2 points since 2011, to a paltry 2.5 percent. Rae’s decision to live and design in Brooklyn but manufacture in Manhattan’s Garment District was made to help counteract that trend. For her, local production also decreases energy consumption by reducing transportation costs. More then 75 percent of her fabrics are made from biodegradable, natural fibers.

Rae is part of the slow fashion movement, an idea centered around buying less and making more responsible shopping choices in terms of where an item is produced, by whom and how. Like Johnson, she is warm and gracious. Her white A-line skirt hanging from an unassuming rack in one of the BF + DA’s minimal design spaces feels like neoprene, the synthetic rubber used to make wetsuits. But the fabric is softer and more tactile — and made from recycled plastic bottles.

Industry veteran Lisa Corneliusson is also trying to re-frame the fashionable debate. She co-founded the digital slow fashion magazine Make it Last in the belief that the sustainable fashion trend is here to stay. “There’s a tendency to think of fashion as something detached from its environment, when in fact the planet’s natural resources aren’t exactly limitless,” she says from Stockholm where she launched the magazine in October with friend and stylist Emma Elwin. “We want to encourage a view on fashion that’s more justifiable in the long-run. Buy less, choose well, make it last, as Vivienne Westwood said.”

The Sustainability Committee

Michael at the bench cleaning castings, wearing rings from K/LLER Collection made from recycled brass. (Photo: Cicero deGuzman Jr.)

Michael at the bench cleaning castings, wearing rings from K/LLER Collection made from recycled brass. (Photo: Cicero deGuzman Jr.)

The fast fashion business model currently in vogue takes fashion’s relationship with novelty to the extreme. In many ways it has democratized fashion, an industry renowned as a playground for the rich, well-bred and famous. Capsule collections and diffusion lines introduced by more established brands to target younger and more diverse audiences have helped to sustain an industry whose headlining players have been forced to sell up, or who have passed on. Encouraging a change in buying practices might not be the right answer in sustaining fashion’s future, at least not yet.

Melissa Joy Manning believes this consumerist philosophy can be used to inspire us to care about what we buy. She co-chairs the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Sustainability Committee while also designing jewelry for her own line using Certified Green practices. “Even though we’re conditioned to value our worth with what we buy and how we look, I think we can also choose to see this materialism as an incredible power,” she says. “If we ask for the right things, we can create change within our own communities.”

Sketches from K/LLER's Evolution 5 collection and the Parallel Quill ring cast from recycled brass. Shot by Cicero deGuzman Jr

Sketches from K/LLER’s Evolution 5 collection and the Parallel Quill ring cast from recycled brass. (Photo: Cicero deGuzman Jr.)

Fashion has rarely been concerned with what is right or responsible but in launching the Sustainability Committee last year, the CFDA is trying to change that. This year, their Eco-Fashion Challenge winner  is four-year-old design duo K/LLER Collection. Most of their designs are cast from 100 percent recycled metal and made by hand in an old dormitory in Downtown Brooklyn. Studio space is cheaper here, they explain — a sentiment shared by Johnson in deciding where to locate the BF + DA.

K/LLER Collection designer Michael Miller believes the Eco-Fashion Challenge is helping to change the stigma around sustainable fashion, making it cool to be conscious. “The CFDA is focusing more on the younger generation because it’s up to us to make the change from the beginning,” she explains during a phone call with partner Katie Deguzman. “You should be able to have this beautiful, luxury, fashion item that’s also sustainable and not creating more waste.”

The Model Business

Yael Aflalo in Reformation's headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles, the country's first sustainable sewing factory. (Photo: Felisha Tolentino)

Yael Aflalo in Reformation’s headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles, the country’s first sustainable sewing factory. (Photo: Felisha Tolentino)

Yael Aflalo, one of the runners-up in this year’s CFDA Eco-Challenge, established Reformation in 2009 with the aim of reinventing the “green” garment as a stylish alternative. Her model business, which recycles hangers and paper, is a good theoretical fit for young designers starting out on the East Coast. All of Reformation’s pieces are designed, produced and photographed in Downtown Los Angeles — at the country’s first sustainable sewing factory.

Products for packaging and cleaning, and those used in the factory’s kitchen and office are bought with the environment in mind. The factory’s fixtures are energy-efficient and all the fabric used is sustainable or re-purposed.  “When the company first started, we were told by a lot of people to play down the fact that we were an ‘eco-friendly’ clothing brand because people would automatically roll their eyes,” she says. “We continued on with our mission of becoming a leader in the wearable ‘green’ fashion space, proving that style and sustainability can co-exist.”

The most challenging aspect for Reformation has been trying to break the frumpy stereotype surrounding eco-fashion. Open any fashion magazine and you’re hard-pressed to find anything sustainable, save perhaps for an article about food. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for it, or that sustainability isn’t a viable business model. Of Reformation’s three boutiques, two are in Downtown Manhattan. K/LLER Collection, launched by Barney’s CO-OP in 2013, retails in over 50 stores worldwide.

This is the beginning of a new era in fashion. If Reformation and K/LLER Collection can provide good models for how to run a sustainable fashion business, according to the CFDA’s Sustainability Committee,  then the BF + DA and its Brooklyn-based cohorts hold the key to developing a strong foundation. They will serve as the jumping-off point for less established designers to foster their talent, and help New York sustain its status in leading what to wear alongside London, Milan and Paris. “As this generation grows up and creates competitive brands in the industry, I think we’ll continue to see New York leading,” Manning expains. “Not just for great design but for great responsible design. The two will eventually become synonymous.”

The Future

Spools of cotton at the BF + DA

Spools of cotton at the BF + DA. (Photo: Heidi Harrington-Johnson)

Looking towards the future, something ingrained in fashion’s nature, might provide some of the answers to the industry’s sustainability questions. The BF + DA’s Fashion + Technology Lab is home to the incubators four residents exploring the possibilities of digital fabrication and wearable technology. “We really want to know where it’s all going,” Johnson explains, pointing out Francis Bitonti’s work, which revolves around the idea of soft 3D printing. “We really want to understand the impact of 3D printing on production and distribution. We want to understand what wearable technology is beyond the bracelet that takes your pulse.”

Johnson plays with a piece of Bitonti’s work as she talks. It is black and Lego-like, moving like fabric but looking and feeling like plastic. “I think technology has a huge role to play in sustainability,” she says. “But we don’t know what that role is so this about experimenting our way into that space.”

3D printing could revolutionize the industry. Ten years from now you might get a file instead of a fistful of beautifully packaged goods holding your latest purchases, which are customizable and printed locally. It’s like Kinko’s, but for fashion. This on-demand, zero waste, local production and distribution model might be the way forward for fashion and create a space in which consumers and producers can co-exit mutually while keeping the environment in mind.

I’m excited as I step onto Flushing Avenue — about not only the future of New York’s fashion industry but about the future of fashion and the part Brooklyn will play in defining that. Ten years is a long time on the fashion clock, which ticks at a pace beholden only to itself. No one knows what the future may hold, but with any luck and a lot of Brooklynite insight, fashion might be stylish and sustainable – helping the planet and the bottom line.