COVET: Interview with Tara St. James

February 27, 2008

Canadians are really cool, and not just from the temperature up there. Using soybean rayon, organic cotton, bamboo, as well as natural dyes and processes, Tara St. James – the mastermind behind Covet, has created quite a buzz around herself – and it’s no surprise, Covet really is sailing into uncharted territory by making sustainable clothes that are actually really cool. I can count on my hands how many other designers are doing what I call SSA; Sustainability, Social Justice, and Animal Advocacy. RealizingTara St. James this crucial interconnection is a rare feat that only a few industry visionaries seem to be able to proffer.

Tara St . James has been a vegetarian and environmentalist for over a decade, and is an industry leader in what she refers to as “hand crafted redemption”. The spring 2008 collection from Covet is almost totally vegan, as compared to the Fall lines, which tend to be very heavily wool and cashmere based – and while we disagree on the use of wool and silk, Tara is a beacon of light in the dark, jagged landscape of the fashion industry.

Covet s2008

Covet has been featured in Elle, Lucky, MR, WWD, IOU, and Sportswear International, and showcased at events such as Toronto’s sold-out Sustainable Style World Wildlife Fund fund-raiser. Ms. James’ endeavor is gaining momentum, and I got a chance to interview her recently to find out about her vision, and what’s going on out in the trenches of sustainable fashion’s uprising. Here is the interview:

DB: How did you get into fashion, and what led up to the creation of Covet?
TSJ: I’ve been working in the industry for about 10 years, mainly designing for denim brands.

DB: What were your inspirations for the spring 2008 menswear collection?
TSJ: I wanted to reference the casual yet classy clothing of the 1950s, before baggy jeans and tees were a staple.

Covet s2008

DB: When did you become an environmentalist, and describe the process of actualizing that in your work – including difficulties. Did you meet resistance? Do you have plans to use organics?
TSJ: I don’t know if there was a specific turning point which made me ‘an environmentalist’. Once I left school and started my career in fashion, and as I grew older and more responsible for my actions and my lifestyle, I also became aware of the circumstances these entailed. Information about the destruction of the earth was abundant, so all I did was put it into practice.

Covet s2008

DB: You seem to be at the forefront of a shake-up in the fashion industry where people are actually demanding accountability for the ways in which their products are made – from labor to raw materials. What’s happening out there?
TSJ: Firstly, thank you for the compliment. ‘Going green’ has become very trendy over the past two years or so and to be honest I don’t mind one bit. Whether consumers are buying eco-friendly products because it’s trendy or because they feel a sense of accountability towards the environment, the same end result ensues… eco products are slowly becoming the norm in every day use and people are educating themselves about the repercussions our choices have on our future.
As for labor and raw materials, it’s becoming increasingly easier to find resources both overseas and domestically. Factories in India and China are performing complete overhauls in their methods and products in order to offer labour and eco-friendly products.

Covet s2008

DB: The fabrics you use are not common in mainstream fashion – from soybean rayon to bamboo cotton. How are these products made, why are they so great, and how come everyone isn’t using them? What other exciting processes and materials are on your radar for the future?
TSJ: So many beautiful fabrics, so little time! I currently use organic cotton for all my knits, bamboo, modal, soybean blends, tencel and silk.
As for the future, I’m working with an organic merino wool quality that is beautiful. I’m also looking into ingeo (a corn-based yarn), seacell (a version of tencel mixed with seaweed), recycled polyester (made with old plastic bottles), and a milk-based yarn. All very interesting.

DB: Many of my readers are animal advocates. Thank you for not using any fur or leather! Where do you stand concerning the fur and skins trades, and animal advocacy in general?
TSJ: I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 14 years old. I refuse to buy or wear fur, but haven’t quite kicked the leather habit (a girl needs her shoes after all!). Luckily companies like Stella McCartney and Natalie Portman for Te Casan are starting to offer beautiful vegetarian shoes that may help me kick that nasty habit. I also buy vintage leather shoes instead of new whenever possible.

Covet s2008

DB: Is ‘cool’ being redefined in our culture? How is iconography changing, or is it not?
TSJ: The world has become a very fast-paced place in which to live. Trends no longer last 2 to 3 seasons. They don’t even last one season, for that matter. The industry is in such a rush to catch up to itself that I think the consumer is looking for a way to stand out, not only in a fashionable way but by wearing their personal philosophies as brands, the way we used to wear band t-shirts or sports jerseys. Now that ‘eco’ is a trend, consumers want others to know they make specific ethical choices when purchasing goods (without wanting a huge recycle logo on their chest)

DB: What other designers do you have your eye on, and who should we be looking out for?
TSJ: For menswear I’ve always been a fan of Alexander Herchcovitch, Henrik Vibskov, Marc Jacobs. The world of mens eco-fashion needs to start moving away from organic cotton jeans and tees. I look forward to the day when a sustainable tuxedo walks down the red carpet at the oscars.

DB: What album are you listening to the most right now? What are you reading?
TSJ: I am currently reading The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov and listening to Cut Copy, DJ Krames and MIA.

Covet s2008

DB: What can we expect to see from Covet in the coming year or two?
TSJ: I plan to expand the woven organics part of the line (shirts, pants, jackets, etc…) I have been using linens and wools as standard issue, but I want to introduce organic cottons and hemp blends in future collections. Hemp has come a long way.

DB: Anything else you want to say to these Discerning Brutes?
TSJ: Thanks for reading!

To find out where to get covet clothing, click HERE the click on ‘shopping’.

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Fashion Week Highlight: John Patrick Organic, Fall 2008

February 11, 2008
Organic

I crossed under the scaffolding on a wet, gray Friday to enter the Bryant Park Hotel where a small crowd had gathered by the elevator, chatting about everything from the rain outside to Hillary Clinton’s pants-suits. I wondered if we were all headed to the same show – I couldn’t imagine the typical fashion-week crowd, ambling around in their furs and expensive-logos, getting excited by anything “eco”. Funny thing was, that on any other winter it would be snowing as opposed to raining. February in New York is typically a slushy mess, but – as we know – our planet is changing – and, being a physical part of it, so must we.

JPO Vest

Once inside the loft, a simple set of raw, wooden benches with recycled felt cushions lined the sides of the runway. The lighting was bright and sunny, and the room was getting packed. John Patrick ran around, saying hello to everyone and offering water. “You’re the one with the blog!” he said to me. “I grow my own organic cotton in the Peruvian jungle, and I recycle wool. I have offices in three different countries and I don’t even use computers!” He must have had some coffee. A suited DJ with classic Ray-Bans readied the turn-tables.

Apparently, John Patrick has mastered the art of turning old bed sheets into chic shirts, using harmless and natural dyes, and like Bono’s ‘Edun’, ORGANIC is comprehensive in it’s approach to labor. He travels around the world, training his factory workers to mill the organic crop into fibers and to maintain sustainable, local cottage hand-production industries.

JPO2

The menswear featured on the runway had a casual and bucolic, private-school feel. John Patrick’s home in the Hudson River Valley surely played a role in inspiring these rustic looks from the recycled wool herringbone pants and recycled alpaca, storm-dust gray, short-tie to the organic cotton and recycled-wool, kelp-green vest. Another highlight was a gorgeous, organic jungle-cotton henley.

We talked briefly about our common taste for folk-rock, his work methodology, and his motivations. “We make sexy, modern organic clothes for the sexy, modern organic world…to look at ORGANIC and see only clothes is to miss the point: the clothes reflect a lifestyle. To wear them is to vote for the radically modern concept that luxury isn’t about stuff, it’s about integrity.”

JPO4 While we disagree in some areas, specifically on the use of new wool and leather (aside form recycled wool, which I have no problem with, he uses new ‘organic’ Vermont wool and vegetable-tanned cow skin), our vision for a paradigm shift within the industry is mostly united. More and more, the symbology of ‘cool’ and ‘luxury’ is changing, albeit a resistance of status-quo financial interests, and continual waves of color-by-number designers, stylists, and writers who haven’t been exposed to anything but a traditional and dangerous ideology of garment production and it’s equally dangerous iconography.

Let’s be honest; prototypical fashion designers do not concern themselves with ethical issues of ecologicalJPO3 sustainability, social responsibility, and animal exploitation. Some do, however – recently, fur seems to have made a come-back, and even while a psudo-defiant celebration of infantile self-gratification seems to overwhelm the fashion industry’s most influential – there is a growing rebellion that has yet to be embraced as the true calling of the iconoclast. Designers such as Vivian Westwood, Ralph Lauren, Betsey Johnson, Benjamin Cho, Charlotte Ronson, Stella McCartney, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Comme des Garçons, Linda Loudermilk, Jay McCarroll, Richard Chai and Marc Bouwer have all banned fur from their designs. Michael Kors and Donna Karen, take note. For more on fur, click here.

Furthermore, organizations like the ICC, UN, and ILO provide standards in working towards sustainability and social justice.
>> Go to ILO

There is a new generation of people (not ‘consumers’) who really care about where their clothes come from and what lives they affect. The important thing is that SSA (Sustainability, Social Responsibility, Animal Advocacy) is no longer just a noble concept to put into action – it is literally crucial for the very existence of the fashion industry.

DB’s Etiquette Recommendation: We live on a finite planet (that means there are limits, not infinite resources) and the typical production model for fashion and most other industries is a linear one. All things considered, common sense tells us this is bound to self-destruct. Watch this video to get a better understanding. It’s high time for the rest of the fashion industry to evolve or die off. The stakes are high, but the reward is the sustenance of fashion itself.

Check back soon for my interview with John Patrick.

*Photos courtesy of Paper Magazine