Everyone knows "farm-to-table." Local is the trend with so many restaurants, it's hard to find one that isn't shopping locally. For our own tables, many of us now shop at farm stands and buy meat direct from farms. We care — and care deeply — about what we put into our bodies.
But what about what we put on the outside of our bodies? What about our clothes? Here in the Southeast, there's a growing movement to change the way we shop and dress — from farm to hanger, so to speak. And local designer Heather Rose Johnson of the Charleston Garment Manufactory (CGM) is leading the way. She's spent her design and clothing production career working with locally-sourced, recycled materials and is trying to help spread the word.
CGM exists to support local designers as they put their ideas into production. If a designer can sketch a dress, Johnson and her partner Camela Guevara can put the garment into a small run of production. They make patterns, sew samples from muslin, and create tech kits for designers to carry to bigger production spaces in New York and Los Angeles. Johnson also works with individual clients, designing and creating custom clothes for them. Some are people with non-traditional body types or conditions, like scoliosis, that require clothes to fit in non-traditional ways. Others are clients who want higher quality clothing and a more socially responsible manufacturer than a sweatshop overseas. They get that from CGM, where materials are recycled or repurposed, and locally sourced whenever possible.
Add to that the fact that CGM hosts public sewing classes, teaching others how to make their own clothes, and you'll find that Johnson and her team do a little bit of everything, adding their own flavor to the eco-conscious side of Charleston's fashion world.
It's a growing trend, this eco-conscious way of looking at the clothes we wear. Up in North Carolina, a company called Cotton of the Carolinas believes wholeheartedly in their motto "from dirt to shirt." All the cotton used in their T-shirt manufacturing business comes from local farmers, and all of their supplies come from within a 600-mile radius. They employ more than 500 local workers, and their organic cotton is shipped to dozens of other local companies.
According to Eric Henry, president of TS Designs (they're the company behind Cotton of the Carolinas) much of the local-first attitude in clothing manufacturing began in the '90s after NAFTA passed and it became cheaper for clothing companies to send their production business overseas. There, poor regulation has resulted in low-quality clothes made from low-quality products made by thousands of people working in terrible conditions for less than 25 cents per hour. The social and environmental impact of NAFTA is still being felt around the world, and companies like Cotton of the Carolinas decided to fight back and make their own impact: a positive, socially and environmentally responsible impact.
This is a sentiment echoed loudly by Johnson at CGM, and her business is growing and changing to help make an even bigger impact. This coming winter, Johnson and CGM will partner with Rachel Gordon of One Love Designs on Upper King Street. The two businesses won't merge exactly, but CGM is moving in, taking over a piece of One Love's building to set up a new production space.
Like Johnson, Gordon has always believed in local-first clothing. Her high-end custom wedding gowns feature vintage lace and silks, and she says she works "using every little scrap to the end, not creating any waste." Last year, she created Charleston's first-ever eco-conscious bridal guide, compiling lists of local vendors who share similar beliefs about social and environmental responsibility. In her store you'll find accessories made from reclaimed leather, jewelry made from recycled metals, and candles made in local shops.
"I think it's a beautiful thing," she says of the growing slow-fashion movement here in Charleston. "We're in a city known for being awesome and unique. People are spreading the word and asking for more eco-friendly clothes."
Of course, all this custom designing and locally sourced clothing won't come cheap, though it may not be quite as expensive as you'd expect. The clothes offered via CGM and One Love Designs are, according to Johnson, "more expensive than Target, but less than what you can get at [retail store] Ready to Wear." Average prices for a single piece of handmade, locally sourced clothing will run about $100. Pants at a higher-end mass-market fashion store run at least as much, and dresses at a place like Ann Taylor are often twice that.
So why not pay $100 for a piece of clothing that's been handmade here in Charleston by people earning an actual living wage? Why not fill your closet with a few high-quality pieces, instead of 17 shirts that won't last a single season?
When asked about her own personal wardrobe, Johnson laughs. "You know the joke, the cobbler's kids have no shoes? I shop at thrift stores and consignment stores. I stick to the philosophy of 'fix it, wear it out, or do without.' There are lots of clothes in the world that could be recycled and given a longer life. I love updating and altering vintage clothes or pre-existing garments to make them my own."
It's a paradigm shift, for sure, but a worthy one. And as more local designers and stores embrace this change, it'll get easier and easier to support our local economy, our environment, and still dress ourselves in beautiful, high-quality clothes.