American Made

American Made: Enduring style from the land of the free

2013-05-13T00:00:00Z 2013-05-14T14:03:37Z American Made: Enduring style from the land of the freeMarcia Froelke Coburn
May 13, 2013 12:00 am  • 

It is Day 240 of Rachel Bethke’s year of slow fashion, but her outfit is racing with personality. She wears a maxi skirt in a creamy floral print, highlighted with hits of pale pink, blue and tangerine. The inside of the bottom skirt vent is lined with hot pink. To complete the outfit, Bethke, 27, has chosen a burnt orange long-sleeved blouse and Steve Madden ankle boots and, over her shoulder, she has thrown a black-and-brown leather messenger bag. There are hints of current fashion trends in this outfit: the length of the skirt, the floral print, the hard-edged bag. But overall, it is a uniquely personal look, which is how she likes it.

“I’m more interested in making a social and environmental choice about what I wear than I am in following fashion,” says Bentke, who lives in Grand Haven, Michigan, and writes a blog called The Year of Slow Fashion. She started the blog after she decided to stop her consumption of cheap, disposal fashion items. A former fan of Forever 21 and other inexpensive style stores, Bethke decided to concentrate on creating her own look in three different ways: from what she already owned; from what she could find in vintage or resale stores; and from concentrating on buying new, American made clothing that she calls “investment pieces.” She documents what she wears every day for a year in her blog. Today, for example, her skirt was made by Tenden, a fashion label made by local Michigan artist and designer Todd Hancock; her blouse and bag she found in resale or thrift shops. She already owned the boots. “Fashion trends change from day to day, season to season. But style lasts a lifetime,” she says.

Bethke, a manager of a resale shop that benefits a local animal shelter, is part of a growing international movement interested in rethinking the way we approach what we wear. Often it is called slow fashion because it grew out of the slow food movement, which is a reaction to fast food and the eco-problems that presents. Fast fashion centers on high speed (knockoffs of expensive fashion), high volume (massive international chains), and high disposal (the clothes are cheap so they don’t last and are easy to toss aside for something new.) Slow fashion wants to transform rampant consumption of disposable fashion by emphasizing local origins and creative approaches to style. It encourages creativity and personality over brand names and unleashed consumerism.

Bethke changed her mind about buying inexpensive, disposable clothing after reading “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion,” a book by Elizabeth L. Cline. In it, Cline outlines her former addiction to buying fast fashion from Target, H + M, and other high volume-low price clothing stores. When she found herself lugging home seven pairs of identical canvas flats from K-Mart (such “a steal!” she thought), she realized that something was wrong with current fashion consumption in the U.S. Overdressed outlines Cline’s journey into the cheap fashion juggernaut and the genuine prices—both emotional and financially—we pay for inexpensive, imported clothes.

According to Cline, Americans buy 20 billion garments a year. That breaks down to 68 pieces of clothing and seven pairs of shoes per person or every person in the U.S. buying more than one clothing item a week.

“Fast fashion is ultimately a waste of money,” says Chicago-based fashion designer Maria Pinto. “Owning things that are beautiful, made from exceptional materials and with fine workmanship, maintains the integrity of having great style.” As for the approach that we shouldn’t repeat outfits, Pinto says, “I would rather see someone in an exquisite garment again and again than see her compromise every time.”

So how to move to slow fashion? “It’s like being a detective,” says Bethke, “finding the right people who make the right clothes.” There are a number of ways to ease into your transition.

First, try to buy American made clothing. According to Julie Reiser, the president of Made in USA Certified, the company behind the tags you find in clothes certifying that they were made in this country, small businesses are responsible for two out of three jobs created in the U.S. Buying American is a way to support those businesses. Various websites keep updated lists of American-manufactured clothing.

Also, you can research brands, pinpoint which ones are made in the U.S., and then find them either in nearby stores or on the internet. Designers Nanette Lepore, Nicole Miller, Jason Wu and Thom Browne all offer American-made designs. The fashion of Rag & Bone is made in the U.S., too. Other American-made brands include Spanx, Jack Rogers sandals, New Balance sneakers, Pendleton wools and American Apparel casual wear.

Don’t forget that denim jeans are an American invention. So look for someone carrying on the tradition of making them in this country. J. Brand, Imogene & Willie and 3x1 all sell jeans made in the U.S.

If you shop online, you can put “Made in the USA” in the search engines for Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus to find all the American-made clothing they sell.

Buy locally. The best route is often through small boutiques. The owners tend to have close relationships with the designers of the clothes they sell, so they can give you advice on who is a local designer. “For my clothes, I try to source all my fiber buys through U.S.-based mills,” says Chicago-based designer Lara Miller. “All my sweaters are hand-loomed in the city. And I try to use Jimtex, a recycled cotton yarn when I can, too.”

Julie Statler, the owner of Byrd Style Lounge, evolved into the "redistributing couture," business from a regular retail apparel shop. Statler resale operation now has a lively web business in addition to the store in the St. Louis, Missouri area. "We sell a lot to the coasts," she explains, "L.A. and New York...and Texas.  And those shoppers have clothing that we wouldn't be able to get here.

"We started running into women who have really horrible shopping problems and I was offering a service to re-design their closets. I kept running across these things that still had the tags on them, so I said, 'Let me see if I can sell this for you." And the business just took off!  We're a small store of about 1000-square-feet but stuff moves through here really fast. We were going to change gradually but this business just took off and now we hear from suppliers whose stores are closed or who have things that just aren't moving in their area. 

"It's just so much more fun. We never knew," Statler enthuses.   

Local design schools are a font of information about current students and graduates who are making clothes nearby. Todd Hancock, whose company Tenden is based in Grand Haven, Michigan, has a “Made Here” sale quarterly at his studio. “I always showcase two or three other designers at these sales, too,” he says.

Another source for locally made clothes is the online boutique Etsy, where you can browse by putting your location in the search engine.

Buy vintage. Many vintage clothes sport better craftsmanship and higher quality materials—that’s why they are still around when so many recent fast fashions have been consigned to the rag pile. Even wedding or cocktail dresses can be secured this way. “So many brides now want an unique look and we can offer that through our vintage gowns,” says Liz Miller, owner of Silver Moon, a Chicago store that specializes in wedding gowns and cocktail dresses. With her staff of three seamstresses, Miller can customize a dress for someone wanting a one-of-a-kind look. “The laces and the silks of the past decades are superior to the kinds of dresses made today,” she says. And a custom wedding gown will cost approximately $1200 compared to $8000 for a new gown. The cocktail dresses, spurred in popularity thanks to Mad Men, offer a singular look for $125 to $300.

Vintage means well-preserved, curated clothes. Thrift stores offer everything that’s been donated, so you have to slog through them to find some gems.

“I love thrifting,” says Bethke, “it’s the slowest form of fashion. If you play your cards right, you find things that on one else would ever have.” When Bethke’s year of slow fashion is up, she says she won’t be changing her fashion choices, just renaming her website to Slow Your Style. As she is proving, those can be words to live—and dress—by.

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