Clothing: Eco-Fashion

The New York fashion week crowd packed a large hall to await the latest designs by the likes of Narciso Rodriguez, Versace and Calvin Klein. When the lights dimmed and a procession of lanky models wafted across the runway, the looks they wore were far from the designers' standard fare. Instead of using traditional fabrics like silk and cashmere, designers sent out clothing cut from sasawashi (a Japanese fabric made from paper and herbs), peace silk (a process that lets silkworms live out their full life cycle) and hemp. In a dramatic visual representation of recycling, Belgian designer Martin Margiela draped three vintage wedding dresses over a bustier to make a stunning ball gown.

The January show, called FutureFashion, exemplified how far green design has come. Organized by the New York-based nonprofit Earth Pledge, the show inspired many top designers to work with sustainable fabrics for the first time. Several have since made pledges to incorporate organic fabrics into their lines. Many other recent events have budged eco-friendly design toward wider recognition and a more fashion-forward image. At the high end, specialty store Barneys made a major commitment to sustainable design, commissioning exclusive "conscious" lines from Theory, 3.1 Phillip Lim and Stella McCartney, and dedicating its Christmas windows and catalog to green fashion. "We felt we should do our part in moving fashion into a more conscious place," says Julie Gilhart, Barneys' fashion director. Last November, eco-conscious designer Rogan Gregory won the prestigious CFDA/ Vogue Fashion Fund award for rising talent, sending another signal that style and sustainability aren't mutually exclusive. At the lower end, nearly every recognizable brand, from Banana Republic to Guess to H&M, has rolled out a green line. In May, Target will launch one in partnership with Gregory's Rogan label.

The designers who undertake green fashion still face many challenges. Scott Hahn, cofounder with Gregory of Rogan and Loomstate, which uses all-organic cotton, says high-quality sustainable materials can still be tough to find. "Most designers with existing labels are finding there aren't comparable fabrics that can just replace what you're doing and what your customers are used to," he says. For example, organic and non-organic cotton are virtually indistinguishable once woven into a garment. But some popular synthetics, like stretch nylon, still have few eco-friendly equivalents. "There are not a lot of people making the best green fabrics," says Hahn. "The coolest stuff is tech-driven, and that's what people get excited about."

Those who do make the switch are finding they have more support. Last year the influential trade show Designers & Agents began waiving its participation fee for young green entrepreneurs who attend its two springtime shows in Los Angeles and New York and giving special recognition to designers whose collections are at least 25 percent sustainable. It now counts more than 50 green designers, up from fewer than a dozen two years ago. This week Wal-Mart is set to announce a major initiative aimed at helping cotton farmers go organic: it will buy transitional cotton at higher, certified-organic prices, thus helping to expand the supply of a key sustainable material. "Mainstream is about to occur," says Hahn.

Some analysts are less sure. Statistically, green fashion occupies a tiny sliver of the apparel market. Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market-research firm NPD Group, says it represents less than 1 percent of industry sales. Among consumers, only 18 percent are even aware that ecofashion exists, up from 6 percent four years ago. Natalie Hormilla, who writes for the blog, is an example of the unconverted consumer. When asked if she owned any sustainable clothes, she replied: "Not that I'm aware of." Like most consumers, she finds little time to shop, and when she does, she's on the hunt for "cute stuff that isn't too expensive." By her own admission, green just isn't yet on her mind. But—thanks to the combined efforts of designers, retailers and suppliers—one day it will be.