New Orleans needs to start taking sustainable fashion seriously, local designers say.
It’s an uphill battle in the world of fast fashion and trends that are often quick to fade, but it’s become her life’s work.
Maria Sandhammer was studying fashion design at the Savannah College of Art and Design 10 years ago and remembers a life-changing conflict with the administration.
She already entered school as a staunch environmentalist and students like her were eager to get into sustainable and recycled materials as a solution to fast fashion. But several professors didn’t see that as a viable alternative.
“I remember thinking, that’s absurd,” Sandhammer says. “I remember feeling a little bit angry and thinking, ‘I accept that challenge.’”
Sandhammer took that challenge with her out of college and now, a decade later, she makes sustainably sourced Mardi Gras-inspired sleep masks for her company Sleephammer —complete with beads, tassels, and often with embroidered eyes so no one sneaks up on you in your sleep.
The port city of New Orleans is known for its hospitality, food, parades and other celebrations. It’s a city at the bottom of the high-traffic trade route of the Mississippi River, Mardi Gras beads drape from tree branches year-round, and trash accumulates on tourist-packed Bourbon Street and along parade routes during Carnival. This all speaks to the carefree atmosphere of living in the moment—sometimes without considering consequences for the future.
However, some conscientious local vendors think we can both embrace the creative, freewheeling atmosphere while also reducing waste. One aspect that helps—if we put just a little more effort and thought into it—is pivoting away from fast fashion and moving toward sustainable fashion.
“I try to do everything I can as just one person to not make garbage,” Sandhammer says in terms of her designs, although she admits it’s not foolproof. “But everybody makes a little bit of garbage.”
Fast fashion can be traced to the invention of the sewing machine, which undoubtedly made stitching fabric more efficient for the masses. But all too common today is clothing made quickly for the sake of ephemeral trends: often in poor quality, all to keep up with what’s in style.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, online shopping increased in popularity, and fast fashion retailers such as H&M and Zara began to overwhelmingly appear in most shopping outlets. The demand for fast fashion continues to grow to this day and in 2020 the industry was worth $31.4 billion. As recently as the mid 2010s, the average American buys around 68 pieces of clothing per year.
Items that fall into “fast fashion” are made using cheap materials and underpaid, exploited workers who often work around the clock in deplorable conditions overseas, where labor laws are lax or nonexistent. Clothing ends up polluting the earth in landfills—all for fads that often last less than a month.
Sandhammer, who switched to making face masks during the pandemic, says that she often lets trends roll by. She prefers classic styles anyway, but she also prefers to use recycled materials and items from thrift stores to reduce waste and harm.
She even prefers using biodegradable shipping items, like paper instead of plastic when she mails orders to non-local customers.
Sandhammer says fast fashion is an industry that only focuses on keeping up with fleeting trends. And by doing that, companies churn out mass-produced, low quality clothing that will soon be thrown away due to wear and tear.
“People buy fast fashion knowing that the garment is going to fall apart in three months,” she says.
Sandhammer hopes her impact on New Orleans helps inspire people to be more thoughtful.
“Most times people will buy the thing that I make and they give it to somebody,” Sandhammer says. “And giving gifts makes people feel good—it’s kind of a cute talking point. So in that way, I feel like it’s enriching to people in New Orleans.”
Tabitha Bethune is a local designer who began her fashion business in 2008 because she was tired of seeing people dressing exactly alike. She wanted to create a brand that encouraged individual expression, with customized, limited-edition styles.
Bethune acknowledges how widespread fast fashion is, but she does have optimism that some people are slowly starting to move away from it.
“If people knew where their clothes came from, they wouldn’t wear so much of it,” Bethune says. “But what I found is that a lot of people don’t care where their clothes came from. They just want to look like someone else.”
She thinks people are starting to become more conscious and deliberate with their fashion choices, especially young people because they are starting to branch out with different styles.
Bethune prioritizes sustainability and says that she likes to make things well-tailored in order to make a smaller ecological footprint and to avoid her creations ending up in landfills.
It’s fairly simple math, she says: the better an item fits, the less fabric she has to use.
Bethune believes that the world could adapt to getting dressed without donning items from fast fashion industries.
“But [overall] they won’t,” she says. “It’s a wicked world that’s driven for power and to make money. Clothing producers often don’t care who it hurts through the process.”
Corporations may not care, but along with Bethune and Sandhammer, another local designer puts great effort into harm-reduction and creating — rather than stripping away — opportunities from overseas workers.
Katie Schmidt, the owner of Passion Lilie, focuses on Fair Trade business practices to help artists in India.
Years ago, she saw there was a lack of sustainable, ethically sourced products that were certified Fair Trade, affordable, and high quality in New Orleans. It didn’t sit right with her, so she sought to fulfill that need with her fledgling business. Now, Schmidt designs, sources and distributes dresses, tops, skirts and other colorful, high-quality items in a variety of patterns to boutiques around the country. In the process, she has built a local, loyal customer base.
“I don’t want to create a product that is going to harm the environment or people,” Schmidt says. “It’s not an easy process, but it’s important. If I’m going to make something, I want it to be something that is going to have a positive impact on the world.”
Fast fashion is simply not necessary, Schmidt says. She embraces the idea of creating an ethical business without creating harmful products solely for the sake of profit.
Schmidt feels she has a significantly lower carbon footprint and a better aim to be carbon neutral than any fashion mass producers.
Passion Lilie is a small business and it produces in small batches, which helps with its carbon footprint. But she still receives shipments from India.
She’s very happy that her business is in the city of New Orleans because it represents the city favorably.
“There aren’t any other Fair Trade brands that are dividing and manufacturing in our manner that are in New Orleans or even in Louisiana,” Schmidt points out. “I think New Orleanians are very conscious consumers. They appreciate products that are ethical and sustainable.”
Bethune, meanwhile, has made many outfits inspired by New Orleans’ culture — like her Hurricane Katrina dress that she made out of vintage, repurposed fabrics that were around 28 years old. The gown was made to observe the 10-year anniversary of Katrina and was worn by four different women.
“Anything that can be worn by more than one person, and be shared, is what makes something truly sustainable,” Bethune says.
Despite fast fashion boasting its affordability, Bethune believes that shopping sustainably is not about affordability at all.
“I think the reason why people overbuy fast fashion is because they don’t know what their style is,” she says. “Once you know what your style is, you realize how much money you save and how much you’re saving the environment.”
Cree McCree, a costume designer and the manager of Piety Market in Exile, a monthly art and flea market, has also spent years trying to get others on board with sustainable fashion.
McCree makes wearable assemblage art she dubs “Cree-ations,” which are primarily costumes, headpieces and hats, out of “cool, recycled clothes and accessories” she scores at thrift shops.
During Halloween and Carnival season, she also curates sales that showcase upcycled and handmade pieces by local designers.
Years ago, she started a movement to make accessories out of nutria fur for the now-defunct initiative called Righteous Fur — as a way to help save the local wetlands from the invasive species.
It was the moment that McCree first moved to Louisiana in 2001 witnessed the land loss firsthand that she decided to get involved with sustainability.
McCree says that in order for New Orleans to become more environmentally conscious, the citizens of New Orleans must get serious about recycling.
“Local, sustainable fashion is something to support anywhere, but here in New Orleans where we can practically see the wetlands eroding before our eyes, it’s especially vital,” she says.
Cheap clothing made from synthetic plastics are more harmful than we realize. Once a trend becomes outdated and you throw away your H&M shirt, there’s a high chance that the plastics from that shirt will end up polluting the ocean or in New Orleans’ case, the Gulf. Animals in the environment eat these plastics assuming that it’s food and sooner or later that plastic ends up inside of you.
Louisiana ranks second-to-last when it comes to environmentally-friendly states. But New Orleans — with its emergent glass recycling business and a new generation of environmental activists — is starting to show progress.
Moreover, the local fashion scene in New Orleans has both emerging and established designers and clothing purveyors who want the city to know that fashion is something that can be used as a way of expression without damaging our environment — and that we can be a part of the movement of promoting environmentally friendly fashion.
“A lot of times it’s companies that are in San Francisco, L.A., New York [that are ethical,]” Schmidt says. “And we’re now bringing New Orleans to the table and saying ‘Hey look, we are also a part of this conversation of being sustainable.'”