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FIT Tour Looks Back at Garment Industry Before Going Green was Fashionable

By DNAinfo Staff on August 16, 2010 5:20pm

By Tara Kyle

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

CHELSEA — At a time when many emerging fashion designers are turning to eco-friendly practices, the Fashion Institute of Technology's museum is looking back at 250 years of environmental successes and failures in the industry.

The "Eco-Fashion: Going Green" tour emphasizes not only that 21st century fashion is about more than just organic fabrics, it describes some past disasters that every green-conscious fashionista should take to heart.

For example, poisonous arsenic and other harsh chemicals were used to make trendy fabrics in more vibrant colors during the 1860s. But the process used to make the fabrics was harmful to workers and to the women who wore the garments as well.

Still, gowns produced in the late 18th century were “an early model for sustainability,” said Colleen Hill, co-curator of FIT’s exhibit. The use of silk and intricate design work made dresses of this era expensive to produce, so women would save them for generations, reworking the silhouettes as styles changed.

Industrialization brought hazardous work conditions and low wages to the textile industry, harming both human rights standards and product quality — issues that plague the fashion world today.

And current designers are responding in various ways. For some, green-fashion is about waste reduction techniques. For others, it's about incorporating traditional crafts and techniques. Still others look to employ and empower underprivileged communities.

“We’re seeing more emerging designers with this mindset,” said Tomoko Ogura, Fashion Director for Barneys New York CO-OP. “It’s not something we necessarily expect to see on the runways, but when we do and the designs are beautiful, that’s when we get excited.”

FIT’s Eco-Fashion tours require a reservation. Colleen Hill, co-curator of the school's exhibit, attributes the interest in the tours to personal values and the pragmatic concerns of today’s economy.

“It’s not just about purchasing eco-fashion in the most basic sense,” Hill said. “But also purchasing fashion that has more emotional or lasting value attached.”

FIT’s tours are offered a few times a month until the exhibit’s close on Nov. 13.