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An Entrepreneurial Model An Entrepreneurial Model
Environment

An Entrepreneurial Model

by Shira Levine

March 28, 2009

Summer Rayne Oakes on the plight of enviro-fashion.

It takes more than a pair of organic Donna Karan yoga pants and a skimpy tank to change the fashion industry's irresponsible ways. Just ask Summer Rayne Oakes, a print and runway model who eschews conventional designers in favor of wares by Linda Loudermilk, Edun, Komodo, and Loomstate. A Cornell graduate with a degree in entomology and environmental science, Oakes is currently touring the country for her book, Style, Naturally, while working as a correspondent for the Discovery Channel's Planet Green Network, consulting for and speaking on behalf of Portico Home & Spa, and teaming with the shoe retailer Payless ShoeSource to create a sustainable line. Today, GOOD grills her on the challenges of eco-conscious fashion in tough financial times.GOOD: Are we getting more creative with fashion in this economy?SUMMER RAYNE OAKES: I think any time we're strapped, it forces us to take an inventory of our resources, both on the consumer front and the designer front. That may mean consumers need to thrift it more, take an inventory of their clothes, pair them up in new ways, throw a swap party, or just spend more thoughtfully. Designers may have to source more locally, use fabric more effectively, reduce travel costs, or scale back and design a very well thought-out, edited line. I do think the economic state has hurt some of the smaller designers, particularly those who were just at the cusp of investing more in their businesses.G: Can little boutiques with small inventory and high prices even stay in business?SRO: I went out to lunch with some designers recently, and they voiced their concern about what was financially involved with building their brands. I've told them, if you are a $1 million or less company, I think it is OK to pack up for a year or two or just wait it out. It's OK to fold temporarily and then, when the recession starts to subside, make a strong comeback.
G: Interesting. But not everyone can just decide to fold and expect to be remembered.SRO: Well then, another tactic I've seen is to sell accessories and use those profits to supplement the growth. [Selling] soaps, beauty and perfume products, and little things people grab [can be] profitable tactics that increase sales dramatically.G: It must be tough for boutiques when high-end department stores like Saks knock off something like 75 percent early in the season.SRO: I don't shop in those kinds of places. I am really a directional shopper and not a destination shopper. I am more someone to go to sample sales in Brooklyn-like Boktier and Covet. Out there it's like a tribe of cool girls doing eco-conscious stuff. I am also a big fan of going directly to the designers' websites so the designer gets a higher cut and we cut out the middleman. It's part of being a conscious consumer.G: There also is a definite turn to thrifting these days, and throwing swap parties doesn't seem tacky. Is that your bag?SRO: There are lots of community events like that and like swapstyle.com. It's great for community building and I see my friends doing it all the time to get new stuff. It makes sense to trade clothes when you don't have money. For me, I don't like a lot of stuff in my closet. I am always giving away more than I am buying. I'm into the practically. I'll figure out a new way to pair things.G: You're a model, an author, and you consult on fashion, all under the "green" umbrella. How do you describe yourself to the public?SRO: The most visible aspect of what I do is the modeling-it's about value-based modeling though. I am strategic in partnering with companies and organizations that are more eco-conscious or looking to get there, and are transparent about it. We aren't all in the same place as individuals, corporations, and communities. I help people and companies get there. I feel passionate about the environment and I [trust] my gut. That's how I am guided in my everyday decisions. I turn down contracts because they don't feel right.
G: Which companies have you turned down? SRO: I had a couple of big name cosmetic contracts that I had to graciously decline because they weren't right for me at this time. There was a lack of transparency in their social responsibility projects. No one is completely green, [but] there has to be a transparency and trust. I have to have that reciprocity and it has to feel right in my gut. ... I hope as a by product of what I do that I showcase that you don't have to sacrifice what you believe in.G: You attended Power Shift. So many conferences are just about the showing up but don't have much with follow up action. Did any action come out of this conference? SRO: Power Shift has direct action and real, experienced campaigners running it. We got 12,000 young people from every congressional district in the United States [as well as people] from other countries to descend on the nation's capital, go through a few days of workshops, lobby congresspeople, and give testimony to [Congressman] Edward Markey (D-MA). In December, many of us are going to Copenhagen to represent the United States for climate negotiations.G: Did you get any reactions of, Why should we look to a model for the answers?SRO: Not really. I look at sustainability through creative means. I try to engage audiences that don't normally act or think or look like me. I like to challenge myself with new ideas like sustainability through fashion, media, and design.G: What about within the industry itself? What's your influence been?SRO: The way I have been modeling is not how business is done in the fashion industry. I sit in with some potential clients and my agent and I add a lot to the conversation. If I can appeal to people that this is visceral and that this makes business sense, then I know I am shaping up individuals. I get some raised eyebrows and I get positive responses. But when you can show people it really works, well, that says something.(Top and middle image: Jon Dennis / Bottom image: Abdul Smith)
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