Clothes are cheap. That's the premise of "What Not to Wear," a popular cable TV show where bad dressers trash their entire wardrobe in exchange for $5000 to buy a new, stylist-approved one. The disposability of our clothes is reflected in overflowing bins at the Salvation Army. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American family spends 33 percent less on apparel than it did in the early 1970s -- but that doesn't mean we're buying less.
Most of us know that inexpensive apparel comes at the price of low wages. Those exotic origins printed on the labels of clothes from Old Navy or Wal-Mart -- Malaysia, Bangladesh, the Philippines -- call up images of children laboring in tropical sweat shops. For the ecologically minded, there's also the issue of clothing materials: Is it enough to buy "natural" fibers? And what's a fashion-forward person who's concerned about the origins of her clothes supposed to do?
Two young Vermonters have innovative -- and very different -- answers to that question. For those willing to pay low-end designer prices, Callie Smith's new Richmond boutique Envi offers stylish silhouettes that won't trouble anyone's conscience at night. Meanwhile, in Montpelier, Trish Denton's Clothing- Change Collective encourages thinking outside the consumer box altogether. The group retails used and "remade" clothing, but also holds clothing swaps and workshops where you can learn to be your own seamstress. Neither Smith nor Denton subscribes to the "If it's warm, wear it" school -- both clearly love clothes and their potential to make the world a little more interesting.
"I just made that this morning," says Trish Denton, pointing to a dress hanging on a rack in a small room tucked in the back of Montpelier's used-goods emporium the ReStore. Made of glittery gauze and faux silk, with a tight bodice, the princessy dress looks like a relic of the age of big hair and "Dynasty," but it's been slightly revamped. The skirt's been sheared off a few inches from the bodice, which has been crisscrossed with jagged yellow and green stitching. "I'm totally into the Frankenstein stitch look," says Denton.
Her own look today is more playful: a silky green vintage dress with a printed petticoat, a black beret, purple tights and Black Spot sneakers. The 24-year-old single mom calls herself the "main organizer" -- "director is a dirty word," she says -- of ClothingChange, a fledgling project aimed at changing the way people acquire their wardrobes. "Our mission is to use clothing as a tool for people to practice self-sufficiency, sustainability and personal change," says Denton, who has devoted two years of labor and personal funding to the endeavor.
Plans call for a garment-making cooperative; a "socially responsible capitalistic venture"; a "household department" that includes child-care swapping; and an environmental aspect: taking used "misfit garments" and making them sellable. The ClothingChange Recreation Center and Showroom launched two months ago. Today is the opening of the ShamRock show -- "rocking men's and women's clothing inspired by Irish folk wear and the color green."
A cardboard rainbow plunges from the ceiling into a pot of "gold" bottlecaps and other bric-à-brac. It's the work of volunteers at the nearby Cardboard Technical Institute. A flyer offers customers free prints of photos showcasing them in their new finery. At a February exhibit of "Radical Lingerie and Romantic Datewear," volunteers snapped photos of customers against a trompe l'oeil mural of an enormous bed.
But the main event is the clothes. Scattered around the space, among unaltered used items, are some novel creations. A silk Jones New York skirt has been transformed into a cape, with the waistband forming a cowlneck, and armholes in the pockets. A slinky leatherette concoction has been accented with green gauze, creating a sprite's tunic. They're marked with tags that say "EK" -- for creator Esther Krusewzski, Denton's 19-year-old "intern."
A girl who looks about high school age picks out a plaid shirt adorned with a stencil of a Lenin-esque guy with a beard. "How much would you like to pay for that?" Denton says. The young woman suggests $18. "Are you sure it's worth that?" Denton asks.
Though she plans eventually to incorporate as a nonprofit, Denton envisions ClothingChange not as a business but as "modeled after a diverse economy." She's a full-time Goddard College student, and her enthusiastic spiel sometimes recalls an academic presentation, as when she calls ClothingChange an "in-depth conceptual art piece" that will "educate by example." There's experience behind it, though. In her native Detroit, Denton organized events she called the Barter Bizarre. The idea, she says, was to revive the lost art of bartering by setting up a "clothing swap on a larger sale."
"It's unlike the Drop 'n' Swap in that people actually have to interact," she explains. "They have these intimate exchanges." Similar swaps in Montpelier, now called the ClothingChange Exchange, provide raw material for the showroom.
Even here, Denton asks people to "practice determining their own value" by setting prices on items they want. Then the bargaining begins. Denton sometimes has to "play hardball" with customers who don't understand the difference between vintage and used clothing. "We'll have dresses that I could sell on eBay for 200 bucks that I'll let people have for 15 bucks," she says, laughing. "We're trying to really cater to the community economy here." Proceeds are split 60/40 with the cooperative members who "remake" the clothes.
Denton thinks of the revamped clothes as a form of "outsider art." On a more practical level, she's interested in reviving the hands-on "home economy" of sewing, once denigrated as women's work. On March 18, ClothingChange will host a "Tie Exchange and DIY Tie Use Workshop" for people who want to recycle old men's ties into, say, skirts. Past workshops have included a "Sewing Machine Support Group" for those who approach their appliances with trepidation.
Although ClothingChange can now pay its own rent on the space in the ReStore, Denton makes clear that the collective needs volunteers in order to grow, especially artists who can produce "flyers, signs, sets."
"People love to shop," Denton acknowledges. "Clothing is one of those things that strongly defines who we are as a person. But," she points out, "there's so much used clothing around that's usable still. It's time that people stopped seeing secondhand clothing as second-rate."
If ClothingChange is the sartorial equivalent of an organic farming or gardening cooperative, Callie Smith's boutique Envi is more like an upscale organic market -- for folks who want to consume responsibly and are willing to pay a little extra to do so.
Smith, who's 24 and lives in Jericho, says she's wanted to sell clothes since she was in elementary school. With fashionably ripped jeans, dangly earrings and a suggestion of sunburn, she looks like a student just off spring break, but she has given careful thought to every aspect of her business.
After college at Tufts, Smith worked with a young woman who was opening a handbag boutique on Boston's trendy Newbury Street. The experience the know-how to sell apparel. But she also wanted to make sure she was "buying from manufacturers with sound practices" -- i.e., no sweat shops. As Smith researched common clothing materials, she found out that even 100 percent cotton isn't as innocent as it sounds: "Cotton is one of the worst crops as far as pesticides go."
Smith did hours of "really obscure Google searches" for sources of clothing made from organic, sustainable materials. "In my mind, eco-friendly clothing was hemp clothes that were formless," she admits. "I didn't think stylish at all."
The showroom of Envi shows that, happily, she was wrong. It's a modest room in an old house at 35 West Main Street in Richmond, next door to John's Shoe Shop North. A bathroom doubles as a dressing room. But none of the clothes look like commune chic from 1972.
A mannequin wears a slender tunic that feels wool-blend-ish but is actually made from bamboo -- a sustainable crop, Smith says. "They're calling it plant cashmere." A soft, reversible bamboo wrap that looks like a cross between a boho shawl and a sweater has sold well, Smith says, in spite of its $100-plus price tag. There are sweatshirts made from hemp and tight tees of organic cotton and soy-cotton blends. "I won't carry something just because it's eco-friendly. I want it to be, first and foremost, stylish," Smith says.
Some of the most striking pieces in the store are "recycled vintage." Every thrift shopper has had the experience of finding a piece made of old velvet or cashmere so luxurious you just want to stroke it . . . except it's the wrong size or style. The designers featured in Smith's store take those too-good-to-waste clothes and snip them up into snug tweed jackets or cashmere sweaters that you can actually wear. It's a more polished, market-driven version of the "retrofitted" clothes in ClothingChange's showroom.
Most of the clothing designers represented are based in New York, but many of the accessories lining Envi's walls are Vermont creations. Smith points out "Amelia Pastiche" earrings by local designer Mia Adams, and woolly handbags crafted from old sweaters by a local woman who began making bags from her deceased husband's sweaters, according to Smith. The "Flashbags" created by a Richmond designer feature bright, laminated images taken from vintage magazines.
Envi -- the name is a play on both "environment" and the phrase "green with envy" -- is still finding its customer base. There are no employees yet, and Smith can only keep the shop open when she's not at her other job, teaching Pilates in Burlington. But she thinks the clothing market is "following the same trend that food did" -- toward organics. Smith cites the examples of the Canadian chain Roots, which now offers some organic-material clothing, and outdoor outfitter Patagonia, which gets its wool from a local company called Vermont Organic Fiber.
Maybe it's only a matter of time before The Gap starts offering a choice between organic cotton tees and conventional ones. For now, though, it's nice to be reminded that being stylish doesn't have to mean buying a new wardrobe every time hemlines zoom up or jeans flare. It could mean investing in some versatile, eco-friendly pieces -- or simply, as Denton suggests, opening up your closet and "instead of saying, 'I don't have anything to wear!' looking at it in a new way."