Eco-Conscious Fashion Hits One D.C. Runway

Posted September 23, 2009 at 5:12pm

Fashion has never really been D.C.’s thing.

And yet, for a town that is known for maintaining a distinctly formal (yet pretty dull) look — think well-pressed suits, boxy dresses and plain old pairs of loafers — D.C. is arguably ahead of the curve when it comes to responsible fashion.

Case in point: D.C.-based Fashion Fights Poverty, an all-volunteer organization founded in 2005 with a mission to use fashion to help eliminate poverty. FFP has raised more than $40,000 for various charities since its inception.

On Friday at the Mayflower Hotel, the nonprofit group will hold its fifth annual fashion show, a fundraiser showcasing the work of six designers who have used eco-friendly materials and ethical practices to bring their ideas to the runway.

The show will prove that fashion is about more than just clothes, FFP President Chris Belisle said.

“Fashion isn’t just what’s on your body,— Belisle said. “It really is about how you see yourself as part of a global community.—

As anybody who has seen “The Devil Wears Prada— understands, fashion is a huge industry. It employs thousands upon thousands of people, generates billions of dollars in tax revenue and has a major effect on the planet.

But when people go to actually buy clothes, they don’t usually think of all that.

“For the most part, you pick something that’s pretty, or that’s nice, or you look good in,— Belisle said. “We’re trying to move people beyond, ‘Oh, that looks fashionable,’ to ‘Well, how was that garment made?’—

One way to spread that message is to show industry leaders (and consumers) that responsible fashion can not only look good, but also can be profitable, Belisle said.

And there’s no better place to spread this message than Washington, said Elaine Mensah, FFP’s fashion director and vice president of production.

After all, the city is full of policymakers and advocates who can have a huge influence on issues related to responsible fashion, she said. In the coming months, FFP hopes to spread that message across town, educating folks about the merits of ethical and eco-friendly fashion while promoting and supporting designers known for responsible practices. D.C. really can be a place to “blend fashion and philanthropy,— Mensah said.

And that whole argument that D.C. doesn’t want to be stylish is just plain wrong, she said.

“I think there’s a perception that we want to be boring, that we want to wear the suit,— Mensah said. “But I think Washington really wants to be fashionable.—

Friday’s show will prove that eco-friendly fashion doesn’t mean ugly, Mensah said. The six designers in the show will present collections that flatter the body and are made using sustainable materials and ethical practices, she said.

Dubai-born designer Taimur Baig, for example, designs, sources and manufactures his MIRZA MPÉRIAL collection entirely in the Washington, D.C., area, providing fair wages for the local workers who help bring his ideas to life. And the clothes reflect Baig’s unique aesthetic, combining art, architecture and a mix of world cultures in an oh-so-glamorous way.

Designer Aidah Fontenot’s Aidah Collection undertakes ethical practices such as shunning dishonest factories, using natural materials and donating proceeds to nonprofit groups, according to FFP. In addition, the San Diego native has created a distinct look that mixes formality with the laid-back style of the West Coast.

Then there are the designs of the Nudie Jeans Co., which has created an everyday-wear line of jeans, T-shirts and underwear using all-organic materials; RenéeQ Bespoke, which offers unique, pattern-infused T-shirts made of organic and biodegradable materials using fair-trade resources; René Geneva Designs, whose line of fun, girly dresses (often featuring corsets) are made of eco-friendly fabrics and just showed at New York Fashion Week; and Studio D-Maxsi, the line of West African designer Afua Sam, whose garments are made out of handmade, silk-based fabrics and are designed to bridge the gap between African and Western culture, according to FFP.

The end result, according to Mensah, is people will want to wear these clothes, and they can feel good knowing they are contributing to a good cause when they do.

“Gone are the days when eco was crunchy, it was unwearable, it was just art,— she said. “Frankly, people are just excited to see some fashion… People are just excited that we have recognized there’s a need for fashion here, and we’re combining that need with a good message.—