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Green is the trend for UW design students

February 11, 2009 By Jenny Price

With the economy in recession and consumers looking to cut costs however they can, it may not seem like the best time to focus on fashion and design.

Samples of students’ apparel projects are displayed during a sustainable design class in the School of Human Ecology. The class, taught by senior lecturer Jody Fossum, incorporates the concept of sustainability and encourages the class to develop new textile designs and products using recycled, reused or reconstructed materials.

Photo: Jeff Miller

But students in the School of Human Ecology are doing just that in a course focused on creating products and apparel that are not only sustainable, but people actually want to buy.

“I think the situation we are in will totally inspire us,” says instructor Jody Fossum, who launched the class — Design Studies 501: Globally Sustainable Textile and Apparel Design — last spring after teaching a more traditional apparel and design course at UW-Madison for nearly two decades.

“This class is now more important than ever. It’s really not just about ‘green.’ It’s about saving resources and using what you have already,” says Fossum, a graduate of the program who is director of product development for Fair Indigo, a Madison-area-based fair trade clothing retailer.

The 10 students enrolled in the course this semester will have to think of ways to create their vision by reusing and recycling fabrics and other materials rather than starting from scratch. The goal is to inspire students to influence an industry known for promoting consumerism.

A survey released in January by a prominent market research firm predicted the market for sustainable products would grow to $410 billion by 2010, nearly double its 2005 level.

“We cannot continue to generate new,” Fossum says. “People are not buying, they are over-bought.”

She also asks her students to look at the life cycle of a product — such as a basic cotton T-shirt — and figure out how they can reduce its environmental and human impact. It takes about one-third of a pound of pesticides and fertilizers to grow enough cotton for just one T-shirt, according to the Organic Trade Association.

“It’s not necessarily that green of an industry,” says Mandy Larson, a second-year design studies major taking the course this semester. “That was definitely eye-opening.” Fossum’s class shows students there are alternatives in the industry to the traditional means of manufacturing apparel and textiles, Larson says.

Fossum wants her students to push the envelope as they design a line of products using reclaimed, recycled, organic, or long-lasting materials. Creating an organic cotton T-shirt won’t be enough. Last spring, Fossum’s students created designs using everything from old sweaters to fabrics left over from their other school design projects.

Larson plans to create hooded ponchos or capes for children, made from recycled wool coats she finds at St. Vincent de Paul’s Dig and Save store in Madison.

Both the economic recession and changing attitudes could present an opportunity for designers who create products from recycled or sustainable materials. A survey released in January by a prominent market research firm predicted the market for sustainable products would grow to $410 billion by 2010, nearly double its 2005 level. And that survey found 70 percent of Americans are more likely to support companies that take care to minimize their impacts on the environment and society, which means designers who subscribe to those methods could stand out.

“The industry will need to become more sustainable and ‘green’ just to stay viable,” says Diane Sheehan, chair of the Design Studies department. “I think we see a return to the consumption of fewer items of much higher originality and quality than has been the case over the last 20 years.”

That includes more than just the materials students use to create their designs, but also generating awareness of the impact textile and apparel industries have on the economy, the environment and on the lives of workers, Sheehan says. Most of the courses in the design studies major touch on issues of sustainability — a subject students are avid about — and the school will continue to increase awareness and course content going forward, she says.

Sheehan says she hopes the young designers will “have the option of producing hand made, limited edition, high quality articles of clothing and home furnishings as an antidote to mass produced products manufactured by low-paid laborers in other parts of the world.”

Meg Koglin, a third-year design studies major, decided to take Fossum’s class because it fits perfectly with her career goal: to be a creative, successful apparel designer while maintaining a small ecological footprint.

“I am highly interested in reusing and reinventing second-hand garments because not only does it makes use of unwanted existing garments to produce a new item for the consumer, but reusing materials also does not add to the environmental burden of producing new fabric,” says Koglin, who will also earn an associate degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York next year as a visiting student.

For her final project in Fossum’s class, she is weighing the possibility of reworking secondhand slips she purchased at Ragstock into dresses or lingerie, which represents a chance to reinvent existing undergarments most women no longer rely on.

“The average adult consumer does not shop at thrift stores for a variety of reasons … they don’t think they can find quality, contemporary styles,” she says.

Ultimately, some of the most important lessons students get from Fossum’s class are creative problem solving, understanding the industry, learning how to work in groups, and taking and delivering criticism.

“The chances of them working individually would be really remote in this industry and they need to learn that,” Fossum says. “In the design world, you get criticized so much and are so exposed to other people criticizing your work that you really need to learn now. Just (to) start learning to get that tough skin at a fairly young age is really important.”