Behind the Seams: Stewart+Brown

Photo: www.stewartbrown.com

Karen Stewart is half of the husband-and-wife team that started the California-based Stewart+Brown in 2002. Our Green Living fashion correspondent, Victoria Everman, spoke with Karen about the company.

After the birth of their daughter Hazel, Karen and Howard combined their professional experiences from companies like Patagonia, Urban Outfitters and Microsoft to create a company with an organic brand.

Dedicated to timeless design and sustainable, American-based production, Stewart+Brown quickly became a pioneer in the fashion field. They continue to lead the way in using sustainable fashions like the Mongolian cashmere in their luxury goods. Other fabrics in the women's line include organic cotton, hemp, linen and surplus fabrics from other companies. The company also donates a minimum of one percent of all sales to non-profits via the 1% For the Planet program.

When were you first introduced to fabrics like organic cotton?
I was first introduced to organic cotton in the early 1990's. I began working with it in 1998 when I was designing for Patagonia. During the time I worked with them I attended, in the summer of 2001, a tour of California's organic cotton farms, including an optimistic and inspirational visit to the Sheppard's Ranch. The Sheppard's farm is 550 acres in Madera County and at the time they were leaders in the industry. The Sheppard's admit that their entry into organic farming began as a personal decision. At the time they made the switch, Linda was pregnant and asked Claude not to spray pesticides. He subsequently found that his fields yielded nearly the same as the previous year. They admitted they were "completely amazed at how well it worked." Claude also noted, "After that, there was no turning back -- we ended up going completely organic. We stopped using commercial fertilizers and herbicides." The Cotton Tour, a day of visiting sustainable and organic farms, education and networking is organized by Sustainable Cotton and CAFF.

Was the decision to donate one percent of your profits to charity (via 1% For the Planet) a goal from the start? Is there any one charity or cause that has gotten your attention as of late?
Yes, from the beginning it was essential to our overall concept to donate as much as possible to non-profit environmental and social welfare organizations.

Our favorite charities that we work with and support are Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment and Teens for Safe Cosmetics (formally know as "Marin Cancer Project"). The reason we love and support these two charities is because they like the health and wellness of humans to that of the environment, which we feel is critical in understanding the need to cultivate sustainable lifestyles and behavior.

What do you see as the biggest roadblock for getting green fashion to consumers of all financial backgrounds?
The biggest road blocks are: supply chain/sustainable resources and delivering quality at an affordable price without compromising the eco-integrity of the product.

The Stewart+Brown website features images of your sketch books. Were you excited or self-conscious about showing the world your creative process?
I was very selective about what pages from my journals we would show; we intentionally picked very benign imagery so as to not give any ideas away. The "working pages" and "product sketching" I do in my journals is where my ideas come from and I'm not ready to show that to the world yet. I have dozens of journals and have been keeping them for years...lots and lots of creative stimuli in there!

There is no denying that Stewart+Brown is one of the most well-known sustainable fashion brands, having been featured in countless major magazines. What has been the most memorable moment for you since starting S+B in 2002?
Our most memorable moment since launching Stewart+Brown was giving birth to our daughter Hazel. Second to that would have to be meeting and chatting with Prince Charles, Meryl Streep, and Al Gore at the Harvard Center's dinner last year...my husband Howard almost spilled a Gin and Tonic on Yoko Ono which, I think, may have been his most memorable moment other than Hazel, of course. Other things that we derive great pleasure from is being able to hire and employ really great people that we love and love to work with; these people are very tangible and integral to our lives and brand. All of the wonderful press we receive is great but very abstract and has nothing to do with our day to day existence.

For your cashmere creations, you work with a Mongolian co-op; how has your involvement with them helped to sustain their heritage and community?
To fully answer that question would take a whole other interview! Our cashmere comes from Outer Mongolia which is an independent nation as opposed to Inner Mongolia, which is occupied and oppressed by the Chinese, similar to what has happened in Tibet. This is a very important distinction. Ninety-five percent of the world's cashmere supply comes from Inner and Outer Mongolia. There is a controversy around Chinese cashmere and that's why our Mongolian cashmere program is so important.

The short answer is that the Mongolian herders (which are families) that we buy our fiber from receive top dollar from us and are able to make a living and continue their way of life instead of abandoning it to look for non-existent jobs in the city. The knitters, who mostly live around Ulaanbaatar (the only 'real' city in Mongolia) are able to also make top wages while working in a fair trade environment (all of our hand knitted items are done in the knitters homes which in many cases are gers/yurts) and support their families even through the unbelievably harsh Mongolian winters when many jobs disappear until the spring thaw. Ulaanbaatar / Mongolia has a MAJOR unemployment problem which I believe is around 30 percent.

Stewart+Brown's Spring/Summer 2008 collection was inspired by your travels to Portugal. What elements about the country and its culture drove to the line's creation?
We were smitten; Portugal was fresh and new to us and we were completely inspired by everything we saw, did, ate and drank. We spent most of our time in an area that the kingdom was founded, which was off the beaten path a bit and has a tremendous sense of history. Portugal also has an incredible textile industry which is dying off due to Asian manufacturing so they view sustainable/organic as their niche for survival.

Are there any plans to expand the line with offerings for men and/or children?
Yes, we will be launching a mens' and kids' collection. I have a history of designing both; I did mens' collections when I was at Urban Outfitters and kids' at Patagonia. My husband has also worked on mens' collection before so it's a no-brainer for us.

Are there any plans to expand the use of other sustainable fabrics, such as hemp or bamboo?
We use quite a bit of hemp already and are introducing a new premium hemp collection for Fall 2008. We love hemp. We wouldn't touch bamboo textiles in their current state as it does not meet our sustainable criteria...in other words, don't believe the hype. (Editor's note: read more about this in our article: How green is bamboo fabric?