Wear It Well

Goodwill stores offer eco-savvy fashion

Designed by Monique Zhang, this skirt made of recycled neckties was featured in Goodwill's 2009 Eco Chic Fashion Show. This year’s show will be held on October 8 at the San Jose Marriott.

Photograph by Ozan Ulucan; Hair and make-up: Carol Chen Makeover, Ethel O'Yang, Helen Wong, Olga Rybovalova

Perhaps you have closets and drawers bursting with old clothes you don’t wear because they’re out of style, a little too tight,or somehow not quite right anymore. These clothes get passed over until one day you manage to shove them into a large giveaway pile and load the heap into your car. At last, you’re hauling your castoffs to the local Goodwill store.

You drop off the ill-fitting clothes, get your receipt, and drive away with a sense of accomplishment. But once you're home, you realize there is a new, gaping hole in your closet. Now there’s room for new clothes!

Instead of racing to the mall or conducting an online shopping spree to consume brand-new finery, you might consider simply going back to Goodwill. Goodwill stores sell lightly worn clothes that can help preserve your budget while reducing the resource costs of garment production, creating a big benefit for the environment.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw away nearly 70 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year. Clothing and other textiles represent about 4 percent of municipal solid waste, the agency says. Susan Lucas, special events director for Goodwill of Silicon Valley, says Goodwill stores in Silicon Valley handled nearly 14 million pounds of donated clothing in 2009.

Where does most of it go? From the 15 Goodwill stores in Silicon Valley, most of the clothing is sent “to Ethiopia, Morocco, and places in Africa” in huge bundles weighing about 1,000 pounds apiece, says Lucas. The recipients break down the bundles, reusing some of the clothes, and “the rest of it they mill down in order to make their own fabric,” says Lucas.

Lucas has a fashion blog on the Goodwill of Silicon Valley Web site (visit goodwillsv.org and click on the link to “Eco-Chic Fashion Style Tips”) that encourages readers to help both their pocketbooks and the environment by shopping for recycled clothes. She recommends shopping at Goodwill for wear-to-work suit jackets by designers such as Calvin Klein and Michael Kors, and also talks up the convenience for women of wearing dresses to work: With fewer pieces to coordinate, getting dressed in the morning is fast. Summer dresses and a “boyfriend” blazer to top them off can be found at Goodwill, she writes.

“We’re trying to get people to reuse resources instead of buying new,” Lucas says.

Lucas is heading up Goodwill’s Eco Chic Fashion Show in the fall, and hopes for a repeat of the enthusiasm and excitement generated by last year’s show. To develop the show, she works with a variety of designers, including local artist and sculptor Cynthia Woong. The two met in a Goodwill store last year while Lucas was filming a show about Goodwill fashions. Woong just happened to have the products of her hobby in her car trunk: fashions that she had created out of clothes she’d found at Goodwill.

With events like the Eco Chic Fashion Show, Goodwill encourages its customers to embrace recycling in a whole new way.

“It was serendipity,” Woong says. “We felt it was meant to be.”

Right away, Woong and Lucas began pooling their resources to stage a fashion show. Woong pulled in designers who shared her passion for reusing and reinventing clothing.

“I’ve always incorporated ‘finds’ into my work,” Woong says. “I just have fun hunting and finding treasures.”

They were joined last year in producing the Eco Chic Fashion Show by creative director Monique Zhang, fashion stylist Hector Martin, and Jinah Oh, the academic director of fashion marketing and management at Sunnyvale’s Art Institute of California, as well as students from the school. The team helped put on a successful show on September 11, 2009, at the Hayes Mansion in San Jose. Two of the unique pieces featured were a flowing tunic top and a cocktail dress made entirely out of reused neckties.

“It was exciting,” Woong says, noting that attendees were “really interested in new ways to not waste what we have.”

At the end of the runway stood two 250-pound bundles of clothes from Goodwill to help illustrate where the clothes and accessories had come from. “They could see that out of these piles of discarded giveaways came these incredible inspirations for the young students and the accomplished designers,” Lucas says. “We’re repurposing, reusing, and renewing these garments.”

This year’s Eco Chic Fashion show will be held on October 8 in downtown San Jose and will feature different themes, including a “little black dress challenge” and a “mayoral design challenge.” For the latter event, mayors of various Silicon Valley cities each will be given a $50 budget with which to pull together an outfit at any local Goodwill store.

Continuing Goodwill’s tradition of participating in community service endeavors, Lucas has also recruited at least 15 interns from the Green Cadre, a training program for local, low-income, at-risk youth ages 18 to 25. She’s planning to get them involved in the management and logistics of the show, giving them marketable experience in green event planning.

“It’s a great experience for the students,” Lucas says.

With events like the Eco Chic Fashion Show, Goodwill encourages its customers to embrace recycling in a whole new way. While the fashion industry may be known for excess, Goodwill stores are like a shopping mall of sustainable products, where you can both give and take back—benefiting both the environment and your sense of style.   

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