Monday, December 21, 2009

Fifth Annual Gorgeous & Green Eco Fashion Show

A recent event held by Global Green in San Francisco distilled the pre-conceived notion that eco fashion and the City By the Bay lack the style and glamour of high fashion.

Global Green’s 5th annual fundraiser held last week at San Francisco’s W Hotel proved that sustainable clothing and its Bay Area-based design community can be just as inspiring and directional as what you may find in the latest issue of Vogue or Vanity Fair. The W is the 7th hotel in the nation to receive LEED certification. Event co-chair Nadine Weil was delighted she didn’t have to worry about the trash being properly sorted for recycling afterwards.

The evening’s event brought out San Francisco’s eco-heavyweights, society luvies and dedicated followers of fashion to support both green styles and the designers dedicated to producing them in the Bay Area. The handpicked group of designers, who highlighted two or three looks from their recent collections, couldn’t have asked for a more receptive audience. The ongoing sustainable design story has, up to now, been about the composition of elements—organic cottons, silks, natural dyes, a mind for preventing waste and local construction—but what really made this show exciting (my feelings echoed by the visceral buzz amongst the audience) were the fresh proportions, cutting-edge artistry and undeniable design values of the dynamic looks coming down the runway.

Co-chair Zem Joaquin green lit the fast–paced runway show with a simple directive: “Think about what you are wearing and be conscious.” The opening looks included a succession of alternatively ruched and flowing washed silk gowns from Robin Brouillete and Leila Hafzi. The dresses were exquisite and fitting for an evening reception, but what eco-fashion really needs is to feel essential. To my mind, separates are the smart women’s response to the economic fallout of the last year. Clothes women can wear to get things done! Right on cue, Nina Skarra’s jaunty, sustainably-sourced sweaters came down the catwalk, providing a nice break in the sea of gowns.

Local favorite, Carja Borja wowed the crowd as her scarlet plaid ensemble came down the runway. The voluminous skirt and jacket (did I just see the outline of a totally wearable bustle go by AMAZING!) skillfully cut to flatter the body contrasted perfectly with the black silk tank awash with tiny ruffles.

Two of the night’s standout looks came from Casey Larkin’s dynamite Mr. Larkin line. The white Chloe jacket with cutouts and delicately molded shoulder pads is a wearable and (less expensive!) take on those beloved by Balmain. The other piece, an organic knit lace dress appeared off runway, worn with requisite rock-star aplomb by guest Josie Maran, model and creator of epononymous eco-cosmetic collection.

The jewelry and accessory pairings were particularly inspiring. A sartorial match made in heaven was Litter’s punk-edged jewelry, its sultry pieces proving themselves a siren call to Sara Shepherd’s lady-like tailoring and immaculate seams.

While the pneumatic models showing Yves Behar’s PACT underwear came dangerously close to undermining the evening’s achievements, the interjection of levity served as a reminder of the work ahead necessary to develop the Bay Area as a destination for all things eco-fashion. The sense of lightness—of not taking things too seriously—is an element to embrace rather than reject if we want to see change in terms of S.F. having a strengthened fashion identity.

The universe’s ironic ways of directing things, a.k.a those delicious instances of life imitating art, were illuminated as Zem introduced the work of artist Sage Vaughn. His delicately rendered images of butterflies are the perfect motif for eco fashion’s current metamorphosis. Only now is everything falling into place: better fabrics, greater interest by designers and increased consumer awareness. It indicates that this is an idea whose time has come to an industry newly challenged by a more value-orientated consumer and the plaintive wail of Mother Nature.

Lighter in celeb quotient than previous years, the event’s focus was on celebrating the achievements of our green fashion community and seemed to highlight that 2009 was the year when Bay Area eco-designers, like Mr. Vaughn’s fragile yet transcendent butterflies, emerged from their cocoons.

It was great to see 10AK designers Priscilla Guimarais, Kumiko Haruyama, Nui Tanapornwattana, Audrey Wang and Tramaine Tillman enjoying themselves. One of the dresses created this summer by the band of Academy of Arts students was fashioned out of hospital scrubs and worn by actress Ginnifer Goodwin at the 20th Anniversary Environmental Media Awards in Los Angleles.

It was a pleasure to speak to Rachel Mann and Mackenzie Burdick of hot body jewelry line Litter at the event. Their line, which artfully decorated Sara Shepherds runway pieces, is made from re-salvaged second-hand and flea market finds. They hit fashion editorial paydirt this year when Wintour it-girl, Lauren Santo Domingo spotted their designs on a trip to San Francisco and asked them to collaborate with one of her new favorite designers, Christian Cota for his New York Fashion Week show. The rumor is NYC fashion peeps plan to steal them away--we hope they stay…

One player the SF fashion scene will loose to NYC is dapper stylist, Lo’renzo Hill White, who also does double duty championing local fashion talent. “It’s great to see society step up for the green cause, and it’s nice to see them in cocktail attire,” he enthused. He’ll be leaving for NYC this spring, but we both agreed, he’d need to watch this space!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Why Brand the Man?

A couple weeks ago, IFCSF Advisory Board Member and Global Brand Consultant Bertrand Pellegrin spoke before a receptive audience of fashion students and enthusiasts at the Academy of Art University to discuss his new book: Branding the Man: Why Men are the Next Frontier in Fashion. San Francisco Chronicle columnist and fashionable man-about-town Aaron Britt led a lively discussion about the uniqueness of a man’s shopping experience and how retailers need to wake up and tap into this very powerful and discerning consumer.

When Pellegrin was asked why he felt the need to research and report on men and their shopping habits he said “I saw that the marketplace wasn’t growing to meet their needs. I didn’t feel the retailer was really able to communicate with that customer in the right way. I think they were missing out on an opportunity.” Pellegrin went on to say that marketing to the male shopper involves more than just the product assortment – it’s in the way they communicate and how they make him feel in the store. For example, a shop like Best Buy attracts men not only because of its technological gadgets, but he can feel like smart about products while he’s there and even teach something to his female counterpart.

On the other side of the spectrum, Britt and Pellegrin discussed the stagnation of most men’s sections in major department stores. Pellegrin said, “The boutique has a distinct advantage over department stores…the men’s department has not changed since our father or grandfather’s generation.” Britt brought up the prime example of the Macy’s Men Store on Stockton, which I admit, has become a real shopping destination for my semi-retired father on his visits here, but then that kind of makes their point, doesn’t it? The men lamented that in many of these old-school stores, the salesman isn’t even someone you’d feel inclined to trust with your fashion sense, given they’re often wearing an ill-fitting suit or dirty shoes.

Both agreed that men like to share knowledge, and shopping is more than just about the stuff – they crave an experience or community, and they like to know more about what they’re buying. “There’s never enough signage in a store that explains the product,” Pellegrin said, “… if you notice even in J.Crew, they’re putting more information on the product in their catalogs, perhaps on the heritage or manufacturing. I think people do want to know, what are the telltale signs of quality. Think about Mollusk - it’s a surf shop and really struck me as a fantastic men’s environment. It felt like a really cool place to hang out…there was no pressure to buy, the place is very organic and it just feels very real. There were a lot of little stories attached to things.”

A discussion about men’s fashion wouldn’t be complete without mentioning San Francisco’s Wilkes Bashford, on the brink of closing during this discussion (and later rescued by Mitchells/Richards/Marshs) Britt wondered what kind of strategy they’d need to follow to attract new customers and stay open. Pellegrin said, “Wilkes is a brilliant man and a personal friend of mine. I think he was the vanguard of people who brought new designers over to the U.S. over 40 years ago. He’s the first to bring Armani to the U.S…The problem is he hadn’t diversified his offering enough, and his price points are still all equally high. He hadn’t grown his customer base. We all know Willie Brown is Wilke’s most famous customer, but we all know Willie Brown doesn’t need any more suits.” Ah, the harsh reality of old age and what many classic brands are facing as their core customer base grows older, and they haven’t successfully attracted a new generation. “He still has tremendous clout and is recognized all over the world. There’s still an opportunity to renew and refresh how the brand is positioned in this market. People aren’t buying Brioni suits right now but there will be interest again.” Let’s hope.

In conclusion, Pellegrin offered retailers the idea of creating learning events around their products – for instance, brew your own beer while getting styling tips. Even better, learn the difference between a shirt that’s been custom-made for you in comparison to an off the rack piece. Finally, there’s nothing more important to a man than how he’s perceived by his peers especially when it comes to his sexuality – understand this piece of the puzzle and use this to design your tactics.

For more about Pellegrin and how to order his book, click here.