Style meets social conscience on The Commons
It’s amazing to think that Manhattan and Ithaca are both in the state of New York, yet have completely different cultures. New York City is famous for fine dining, huge Broadway productions, celebrities, night life, and, last but not least, its fashion. Far from the flashy and glamorous New York Fashion Week lies the humble and happy city of Ithaca, complete with Birkenstocks, thrift-shop sweaters and oversized beanies. But the crunchy-granola vibe isn’t a lack of style; it’s a presence of conscience. The distinct Ithacan look is defined by values of environmental sustainability and social responsibility. It’s the product of caring more about a shirt being made in fair-trade conditions than if it made the cover of Vogue.
Ithaca’s fashion isn’t particularly high-end, dressy or runway-trendy. Instead, the look is low-key and earthy, much like the lifestyles of many of the town’s inhabitants. This style showcases the causes that Ithacans hold close to their hearts, such as eco-consciousness and a commitment to locally-produced goods. The fashion of Ithaca is more than just hemp ponchos, flowing dresses and bulky scarves: it reflects a popular lifestyle that is relevant to college students and locals alike.
As a major college town, one aspect of Ithaca that is hard to overlook is the number of young people in the area. The town’s median age is 26, and that population is composed mainly of college students for more than half the year. However, Ithaca’s spirit of eco-consciousness and activism is evident in the style of both permanent residents and college kids. A combination of vintage shops, sustainable designers and shoppers who care about their clothing’s impact on the world around them has helped to develop a distinct local style based on more than just the latest runway trends.
One of the forces helping to shape Ithaca’s street style is Olivia Royale, designer and owner of The Art and Found, a sustainable clothing store on The Commons. Royale, who also runs two sites on Etsy (one for knit goods, the other for clothing), founded the shop when she won Downtown Ithaca’s “Race for the Space” contest, where her business pitch successfully won over the minds of bankers, landlords and the Downtown Ithaca Alliance with her idea for an environmentally sustainable clothing store, which opened in September of 2012.
Selecting organic products whenever possible is another eco-friendly behavior popular among Ithacans. The movement started with food, but the organic lifestyle doesn’t just pertain to eating anymore. Local clothing shops on The Commons have an emphasis on natural, organic clothing, and the trend has taken off. Organic crops are grown without the use of toxic pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, and when used in clothing, this process is believed to make the material healthier for both your skin and for the earth.
“Recycled material is usually my first choice”, Royale said. “I say, okay, what am I going to use to make this out of? Do I want to recycle something? Do I want to go and buy the material from Sew Green, which is a local nonprofit supply store? Do I want to look up organic fabric online? Most of these decisions are based on what I can afford, and recycled [material] is the easiest thing to find and take apart, and it’s pretty cheap. What I learned is that it makes something more one of a kind so that the customer gets something that no one else is going to have anyways, and I really like that.”
Aside from selling clothes and art, Royale also hosts workshops so that people in the community can learn how to make their own sustainable clothing at home. “It gets us [The Art and Found] out there,” she explains. “It’s really hard in your first five years for people to know you exist, so by having that educational component or some social element to it, it allows people to come and see what you’re all about, but not always have to be in a shopping mentality.” She has vendors who sell their artwork or fashion in her store, as well as staff and tons of people around the world. In addition, she also has goods made by nonprofits to help them raise funds. Royale deals in fair trade and uses fair wages so that everyone is being paid properly for their craft.
Although Ithaca’s eco-fashion scene is becoming popular, there are many problems it faces in continuing to grow and gain momentum. Recently, greenwashing has infiltrated the fashion industry. “Greenwashing” is a marketing gimmick where companies deceptively use green marketing in order to be seen as environmentally conscious, but the company lacks sufficient evidence to prove so. Examples of greenwashing tactics include changing labels on products to evoke a more natural product, or million-dollar ad campaigns to promote high-polluting companies as eco-friendly.
Greenwashing has come to Ithaca’s fashion scene as well. Royale has experienced this both personally and within her business. “I recently had a baby and they say buy the organic formula, and as a mom I look at both labels but I see that they’re written exactly the same, the organic formula is a marketing technique.” Other local shops on The Commons post skepticism regarding their true adherence to social and environmental responsibility. “10,000 Villages presents themselves as a little fair wage store, but they’re actually a huge corporation. There’s a lot of question as to if their people are being paid fair wages, or if they are buying outright in third world countries and selling them in the US,” Royale points out.
The two stores are just several storefronts apart on The Commons, a key part of Ithaca’s downtown area that provides the perfect place for the small business owner to really get to know his or her customers. Stores enjoy serving a community of “regulars” and customers enjoy getting to know the people and stories behind the stores that they do business with.
Also nearby is Petrune, a store that sells vintage and vintage-inspired clothing. The store’s owners moved to Ithaca from New York City about ten years ago and take a big-city approach to cultivating an eclectic selection, as store manager Lucy Carey (an Ithaca College graduate herself) described, Petrune’s vintage and vintage-inspired look is a popular one amongst Ithacans.
“Being an Ithacan myself, I can’t deny that the local population is eclectic and interesting, and because of this, the locals understand vintage clothing. Ithaca has a stable population of people who share the same values, which allows them to understand and truly appreciate vintage.”
In recent years, shopping at thrift, vintage and consignment shops has become increasingly popular, both for the practice’s sustainable benefits and the unique, treasure-hunting experience of searching for the perfect vintage piece. Thrift stores don’t just let us save money; they also save the environment. According to the Huffington Post, it takes 400 gallons of water to make a single cotton t-shirt.
When asked what makes selling vintage so much more successful here in Ithaca, rather than in other cities, Carey responded, “I really think it’s the students. The students and young people are definitely a driving force in what makes Petrune so successful. They want to take risks, and they want to have fun in clothes, and there’s a lot of fun with vintage clothes. We love them dearly, and we see a lot of students who come in who have never shopped in vintage that come to really love our store.”
That close-knit relationship was a major part of why the owners of Petrune were inspired to begin selling vintage clothing.
“Petrune’s owners found a lot of pleasure in finding vintage clothing, and the customer interactions that take place– both selling vintage clothing and how the customer wears these vintage pieces– is a beautiful thing. Vintage boutiques are about fun, and having a pleasant shopping experience, and that’s what we strive for,” said Carey.
However, this culture of eco-friendly and fair-trade fashion also faces challenges: there’s constant conflict between what is morally right and what is financially more efficient. Fair trade, living wages, US-made products and organic fabrics cost much more than outsourcing to a third-world country, but the products in third world countries are often assembled by children working in deplorable factories for a fraction of the cost.
“When you’re an independent designer or small business owner, you don’t have a lot of money to invest into your product. There’s also a lot of competition in fashion. There’s Urban Outfitters that can make things in a third world country, and sell it easily because they have tons of magazines with their products in it, and the average buyer will shop there. The most common thing I hear in my store every day is ‘Where is Urban Outfitters?’ It’s definitely hard to compete against corporations in the fashion world,” said Royale.
In general, fashion is always traveling into uncharted territory, and if one thing is true about Ithacan style, it’s that standing out is embraced here. Eco-fashion is on the rise, and Ithaca has provided a hot spot for those trends to grow. Ithaca’s rich culture, including its environmental and social responsibility and its young and vibrant culture, has shaped the way the locals dress. While the streets of Ithaca don’t look a thing like New York Fashion Week , the mentality behind the town’s unique style goes beyond “looking good,” and reinforces the idea that we should feel good about the sources and stories behind the clothing we wear.
Sara Elwell is a freshman CMD major who’s on the hunt for the perfect pair of Birkenstock stilettos. Email her at selwell1@[at]thaca.edu.