By JAKE SMITH
The ‘80s changed Melanie Grace — she got into punk rock and recycling.
The North Idaho designer was raised in Great Falls, Montana, but now operates a small clothing design studio in Careywood, about 30 miles north of Coeur d’Alene. Grace ships sustainable clothing domestically in the Pacific Northwest and internationally.
Like her mother and grandmother, she learned to sew.
This background along with those interests helped birth the foundation of her small business, Melanie Grace Designs — self-expression, female empowerment and sustainability, a practice that is gaining prominence in an industry predicated upon waste.
“Any time you buy a new article of clothing, there’s a footprint,” Grace said. “I think creating sustainable fashion is looking at every step along the way and what impact we’re having on the environment and trying to reduce that impact.”
Grace said she weaves sustainability into every clothing item she designs, prototypes, produces and ships in her studio — sometimes with the help of her husband Chad, a woodworker whom she taught to use industrial sewing machines.
She said she does this through slow fashion, a process of constructing high-quality garments made to structurally and aesthetically withstand the test of time and combat the idea of disposable trends generated by fast fashion companies.
“Mostly, it’s just attention to detail. I’m making each garment, so it’s not a production situation. I’m making each piece by hand, looking at every seam,” Grace said. “I also work with a lot of activewear fabrics, because
those are super comfortable and super-functional. For those, I often source from deadstock.”
Deadstock textiles are leftover designer surplus fabrics that are not being used and are not being created new specifically for a designer’s products, she said.
When Grace does order new fabrics for her pieces, she said she analyzes the printing process to ensure they are environmentally friendly.
She relies on sublimation printing, which is less toxic, creates less waste and everything from the process can be recycled.
“Sublimation printing is a digital print that is used for synthetic fabrics,” Grace said. “The print is actually - instead of going onto the fabrics in a liquid form, it’s printed onto a piece of paper, so there’s no waste or runoff, and then that paper is heat-transferred to the fabric and all the product left in the end is paper, which is recyclable.”
Printing is a sustainability factor that Coeur d’Alene designer Kenna Smoot prioritizes in her clothing as well.
In 2015 Smoot started Bitchy and Kitschy, an ecommerce business that sells vegan clothing with a focus on sustainability.
She said her apparel, primarily shirts, is intended to be a non-aggressive way to promote a plant-based lifestyle through trendy, fashionable design.
She said she sources production of her shirts to a facility in Guatemala that emphasizes fair wages and education for its laborers. The shirts are then shipped to AHA! Creative, a Coeur d’Alene graphic design company, to be screenprinted by Ali Koski with Smoot’s designs.
Smoot said sourcing manufacturing to facilities that focus on sustainability and high quality construction increases her total operating costs, which has posed a problem for scaling her output while keeping costs down.
She said she stands by these practices, however, despite the price.
Her definition of sustainability is based in ethics and quality.
“Personally, I think sustainable clothing is clothes that are produced ethically, not using slave labor, paying people well and then also making sure that it’s manufactured in a facility that isn’t polluting the environment and that isn’t made with toxic chemicals,” Smoot said.
For Grace, who puts out two collections a year and started in 2003, sustainability is also measured by the connection between the consumer and the designer, thereby increasing the personal value of the garment.
She said she is in the unique position of developing a discussion and interpersonal connection with her customers, given that she sells a large amount of products at juried art shows throughout the Pacific Northwest.
She said she feels fortunate to meet the women who buy her clothing, and hear their stories of how her clothing transformed their personality, lifestyle and self-worth.
For Grace, the role of sustainability is translated beyond the seams of her garments to the longevity of the clothing as a part of her customers’ lives.
“I think I want to create garments that last. They are not disposable. They’re the kind of things that you won’t get rid of and if you do you’re going to hand them down to someone you really care about because you love them and you value them,” she said.