More stories from our 2012 Fashion Issue on dressing ethically:
The trees lining Santa Monica's Main Street don't much resemble L.A.'s signature palms, which rise tall and thin like supermodels; instead, they look like broccoli stalks. Bare-bellied girls with hip piercings slink to the beach a block away, as businessmen drink blue algae smoothies on the sidewalk. The bike lane here actually gets respect.
Don't bother trying to count how many times "green," "natural" or "conscious" appears on the storefronts. Main Street is the greenest street in Santa Monica -- a progressive city known for its eco-friendliness. But while Main Street has evolved into a destination for green trend seekers and trendsetters, it also offers a case study for the challenges faced by environmentally conscious designers and clothiers.
The street's current eco-clothing stores -- Vital Hemp, Natural High Lifestyle, Patagonia and ZJ Boardinghouse -- have been around for 10 years or more, before industry leaders like the Gap, H&M and Stella McCartney started touting the importance of "green" fashion.
Still, the last few years have been especially difficult for Main Street businesses, and green stores have been no exception, says Gary Gordon, executive director of the Main Street Business Improvement Association. Within the last year, eco-lifestyle stores such as the Bey's Garden, Green Denim Initiative and the Green Life shut their doors.
Part of the problem is the economy, of course. But fashion has struggled more than other sectors. A 15-year-old map of the street reveals that the economy has been kinder to restaurants than to clothing or beauty stores generally, Gordon says. "Restaurants really have longevity. If they can last for a few years with a good product and good management, they tend to stay open."
Even among eco-conscious businesses, food seems to do better than clothes, as natural food and drink shops like Urth Caffe, Groundwork and Euphoria Loves Rawvolution thrive on Main Street. Susanna Schick, an L.A.-based sustainability consultant, cites a formula she learned from an old business school professor: "In me, on me, around me." Things that go inside our bodies, like food, tend to receive the most consumer scrutiny; by comparison, fabrics or cosmetics are deemed superfluous.
Frank Angiuli understands this problem. In 2003, Angiuli opened Natural High Lifestyle to sell California lifestyle basics -- tees, hoodies, pants -- made of locally sourced organic cotton, hemp and bamboo. His 700-square-foot store uses fans with big, leaf-shaped blades instead of air conditioning and cuts electricity usage with skylights. In recent years, Angiuli has been forced to trim expenses in order to remain open.
"If people need to cut back on something, it's pretty easy for them to cut back on clothing," he says. He feels that the added variable of sustainability -- which forces customers to think critically about their purchase -- considerably discourages the pleasure-seeking impulse buyer.
Margins in the fashion industry are already slim, and adding "eco-friendly" into the mix doesn't usually boost sales, Schick says. Most consumers need a hook other than sustainability to justify the bigger price tag. There seem to be two routes to survival: Either become an en vogue, luxury-based boutique brand (like Burning Torch on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice) or stick to a more genuine, function-first ethos, avoiding fashion's cycle of obsolescence and consumption altogether.
About four blocks south of Natural High is outdoor-clothing company Patagonia, which opened on Main Street in 1997. It has avoided the wave of green-store closures, partly because it belongs to a larger company (more than $250 million in annual sales) with multiple stores and better infrastructure. But another reason is that it appeals to utility-minded customers (called "gearheads," "fun hogs" and "dirtbags" for their propensity for outdoor adventuring) who are resistant to the pitfalls of faddish caprice.
"Aesthetics is great, but they don't care about how the product looks [as much as] they care about how it works," the store's operations manager, Justin Carpenter, says of his customers.
Carpenter quotes company founder Yvon Chouinard: "Patagonia never goes out of style because it was never in style."
There's a kind of altruistic sincerity to the way Patagonia and Natural High Lifestyle do business. If customers can't afford a $65 beach blanket from Natural High, Angiuli tells them to "designate a towel" in their home as a beach blanket so they hit the beach more often. On Black Friday last year, Patagonia took out a full-page ad in The New York Times with "DON'T BUY THIS JACKET" printed over an image of, well, a Patagonia jacket to call out the mindless consumption of the retail holiday.
Another store, Main Street's Vital Hemp, has managed to not only survive but also flourish. Before moving to its current location at the north end of the street, it got its start at a Venice Boardwalk booth and later moved to a tiny 10-by-10-foot space in the Ocean Park Merchants Mart. Now with a full-fledged storefront, owner Ron Alcalay has tapped into the eco-conscious niche market the street tends to attract: yoga practitioners, cyclists, raw foodies, vegan aficionados and other health-conscious consumers on the block. Like Angiuli, Alcalay has relied heavily on word-of-mouth to build a clientele. He also attends eco festivals and sells at the Santa Monica Farmers Market every Sunday.
His store belongs to a niche within a niche: Alcalay sells only hemp-based clothing and accessories, eschewing bamboo (which he calls an "eco-sham" for the lengthy and wasteful production process it requires) and organic cotton (an inherently water-intensive crop). While it's illegal to cultivate hemp in the United States, proponents cite hemp's negligible THC content and ability to grow plentifully with few pesticides, little water and without depleting agricultural land of nutrients the way cotton does.
Alcalay believes that sticking to a single message since the store's beginnings -- promoting the ecological (and economic) boon that industrial hemp could bring to the United States -- is a big part of his store's success. As with Natural High and Patagonia, any trendiness that comes from being a green clothing store is almost incidental.
His mindset has always favored practicality. Years ago, feeling a little clueless about what his female customers wanted, he would ask them to bring in their three favorite pieces of clothing so he could try to give them expression in hemp.
"I never cared about clothing," Alcalay says. "I used to wear stuff I wore in college for decades. All I cared about is that it was comfortable."
More stories from our 2012 Fashion Issue on dressing ethically: