Jenni Avins

The Fashionista’s Dilemma, Marie Claire, February 2011


This article was published in the February 2011 issue of Marie Claire.

The Fashionista’s Dilemma
Who says you need to be a Patagonia-clad tree-hugger to build an eco-friendly wardrobe? Green is chic, baby.
By Jenni Avins

I love clothes. While my foodie friends taste summer in a perfectly ripened tomato, I prefer the pleasure of cotton voile on salty sun-kissed skin. For most of my life, my relationship with fashion was uncomplicated. Then I moved to New York from California and realized that loving clothing, like loving food, isn’t always so simple. In 2003, I was hired by a designer to manage the production of her collection in the city’s Garment District. I spent my days running between fabric shops and factories, and my evenings – and paychecks – stalking sample sales. Nothing to wear tonight? No problem. My commute marched me past massive chain stores with slinky shirts and perilously high heels at unbelievable prices. I was a kid in a candy store, and I binged. Before long, my dresser drawers were too stuffed to shut, and my wallet withered. Those tiny price tags, it turns out, add up.

Meanwhile at work, I sealed cashmere coats and silk blouses into boxes to be flown across the country. It was inefficient and wasteful, especially when we were rushed, and started me thinking about all the materials and energy swallowed up by a single garment. Pretty soon, I felt conflicted by the smorgasbord of cheap sparkly tops that I didn’t need beckoning me from store windows. Fast fashion was my fast food; those tops were my French fries.

By then, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s seminal book about the origins and effects of our meals, had motivated a new wave of foodies to swear off McDonald’s, raise rooftop gardens, and revel in CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). This deeper connection to their dinner seemed to make it more delicious. Why, I wondered, should fashion be any different?

So, I took a page from the Omnivore and began to invest my time and money more mindfully. Now my wardrobe isn’t so different from one of those rooftop gardens. It requires some upkeep, to be sure, but it rewards me with richer results—outfits that make me look and feel good, minus the guilt.

Consider your essentials—handbags, coats, and boots—as deliberate indulgences. Once you’ve made the investment, protect it as such. My aunt recently sent me a Louis Vuitton duffel that she stored in a dust-bag for years. The bag was in beautiful shape, except for the zipper, missing several of its antique brass teeth, and fraying along its brown fabric tape. So, I took it to a one-man workshop in my neighborhood where I asked the owner to use a zipper equal to the original, to reinforce the bag’s existing heavy yellow stitches, and finally, to re-attach the original puller back to the new zipper. A little compulsive, but I was preserving the bag’s top-notch pedigree, and it only cost me $25.

Shop in other’s closets. No doubt some women find the idea of a clothing swap about as appealing as a candlemaking seminar. What I found instead was a clotheshorse’s cross between a potluck and an orgy—strangers stripped around me as my hostess poured Mimosas. I plucked a black silk bubble skirt from a haphazard pile and pulled it over my jeans. “Wear that with a slouchy sweater,” suggested a rakish woman, catching my eye as she checked herself out in front of a mirror. She was wearing the Loomstate dress I hadn’t worn since 2007, and she looked smashing. Another, less intrusive option:, a free-to-join trading site where I regularly browse the barely worn pieces by Margiela, Missoni, and Marni hanging in members’ virtual “closets.” I snapped a photo of my unworn ACNE trousers (one size too small, if you must know), and was promptly credited $160 “ReDollars” for my honesty.

Check your labels. I love eating local ingredients and organic produce—an ethos I carry over to my closet by checking labels for countries of origin and fabric content. I like the idea of home-grown manufacturers and young designers supporting one another, so I’m happy to pay a little more for “Made in the USA”. Like many American fashion designers, Lauren Manoogian says her knitwear business couldn’t survive without the domestic “boutique” factories that produce her relatively small orders. Lauren chooses fibers like organic linen, which requires less water and energy to process than synthetics. She doesn’t market her avant-hippie sweaters as “eco,” but then again, not everything healthy is “lite”.

If you can’t find the information you need on the tag, try the designer’s website. Smaller designers like Manoogian are usually thrilled to hear from customers; larger labels—Gap, Levi’s and H&M among them—often have entire CSR (corporate social responsibility) departments devoted to sharing information about materials and manufacturing with customers. The one label I ignore? “Dry-clean only.” Dry-cleaning has the heaviest carbon footprint of any care option, and I’ve yet to meet a sweater (or even a silk sundress) that can’t cope with hand washing.

The more bazaar the better. My friend Jocelyn has the enviable job of stocking San Francisco’s Global Exchange store with so-called “fair-trade fashion”, which means the artisans who make the shop’s blouses, bangles, and bags are all paid fairly. I used to think of these stores as more “fair trade” than “fashion,” until Jocelyn bought me an Indian cotton scarf last year. She said the technique used to print its blue fish-scale pattern was a thousand years old. Maybe so, but it made my button-downs and patterned dresses look modern., and I twisted it into a turban for Fashion Week, and have never gotten more compliments.

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