Is ‘slow fashion’ speeding up in Charlotte?

Stan Fraser at his work table at Anarke Jeans/Straight Stitch & Co. in Charlotte.
Stan Fraser at his work table at Anarke Jeans/Straight Stitch & Co. in Charlotte.

Stan Fraser slices his scissors through dark indigo selvedge denim made 90 miles away, working for a customer who lives mere minutes away.

In his Cedar Street studio, he’s making belt loops out of Greensboro-based Cone Mills denim. He’ll place them when his Charlotte buyer comes in for the second fitting of her custom jeans.

In east Charlotte, Corey Dergazarian is sewing tweed to leather in the studio where she makes her Sans Map bags, and over in Plaza Midwood, Scott Hofert’s ColsenKeane Leather studio is buzzing as leather workers fill holiday orders.

This is what slow fashion looks like these days in Charlotte.

If the now-famous slow food movement aims to replace fast-food drive-throughs with farmers-market meals, slow fashion aims to wean us from cheaply made, high-volume, fast-fashion brands.

Slow Food’s gist (a la Michael Pollan): Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Slow Fashion’s: Buy clothes. Not so many. Made better, and responsibly.

Instead, proponents would have us stock our closets with a modest amount of high quality, long-lasting garments, made in a way that doesn’t hurt the environment – or the workforce creating them. (Locally made, from locally produced materials, is even better, but not required, say supporters.)

“I think we are indeed in the midst of a grass-roots revolution in fashion,” says New York journalist Elizabeth Cline, who wrote the 2013 book “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” and still tracks the concept. Americans buy on average 68 garments a year, according to Cline, with only 2 to 3 percent of clothing sold in the United States made here.

Fast fashion – in which trends began going from runway (costing thousands) to chain-store-at-the-mall in weeks – meant nearly anybody could chase trends, she says: Cheap pieces didn’t need to be well-made, they only needed to last the few weeks until the next trend. And that led to millions of pounds of discarded clothing.

“Consumers are very wary and fed up with the fast fashion system – because they now realize that it’s bad for the environment, and when (apparel companies) make a $5.90 dress, they’re not making sure that the process takes care of workers and the environment.”

Steven Barr, retail and consumer leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers, agrees, and points to millennials as a driver: “This is a generation that cares deeply about the planet and people. ... Millennial shoppers are making their own choices.”

Slow is catching on

Envision, if you will, a cotton T-shirt. Solid color, single pocket on the front.

You can find one for $6.99 at one of the fast-fashion retailers around town. Or you can pay $36 for one from Zady.

Italian journalist Carlo Petrini jump-started the slow food movement when a McDonald’s opened in Rome in 1986. Slow fashion borrows from the idea, trying to slow down the ‘what’s-in-what’s-out’ fashion cycle, and produce clothing ethically.

Online, the shirts look alike. What you’re paying for with the more expensive shirt, say slow fashion proponents, is partly knowledge and partly geography: New York-based online retailer Zady uses Texas-grown cotton for its “.02 The T-Shirt,” and produces them in North Carolina: The cotton is spun in Thomasville, knit in Lincolnton, cut and sewn in Morganton and printed in Burlington.

The rest of what you’re paying for? Zady says it will last longer, look better and feel softer than $6.99 counterparts.

Charlotte shoppers seem increasingly interested in the idea.

Thousands packed the Fillmore last month to shop for locally crafted clothes, accessories and home goods during Vintage Charlotte’s winter market. (Sellers of vintage goods – also a component in the slow movement – were also numerous at that market.) In Ballantyne Village, a storefront called “the 3H Shoppes” (Homemade, Handmade and Homegrown) opens every Tuesday and Saturday to give local artisans a place to sell directly to shoppers.

The first thing people say is, ‘Wow, it’s made right here!’ People from Charlotte, they want that.

Stan Fraser

Vintage Charlotte is hosting a pop-up market uptown Dec. 11-20 at 100 East Stonewall Street that features 85 vendors from across the region selling handmade and vintage items.

Watch Instagram and you’ll see new local makers of apparel, jewelry and accessories materialize almost monthly. Some are sold in brick-and-mortar stores or pop-up shops, while others sell mainly online through websites like Etsy, an e-commerce website that focuses on handmade items.

And not all slow fashion in North Carolina happens on a tiny scale.

Maxine Bédat, co-founder and CEO of Zady, shares her company’s .02 The Shirt as evidence of North Carolina’s thriving – and slow-fashion friendly – textile production.

“North Carolina is awesome. We didn’t know that it was this hotbed of emerging production, but it is,” Bédat says. North Carolina has “an amazing history of apparel production and it’s been really cool to connect with some of those producers who have survived the massive offshoring and are representing the next generation of manufacturing.”

Slow fashion isn’t a one-size-fits-all theory. Some makers source items locally, with a commitment to North Carolina materials. Others use goods from other states or overseas, but from sources they say are ethical and eco-friendly. Some come with a high price tag; some items are similarly priced to their mass-market counterparts.

The common thread: Shoppers can know more of the story of how what they’re wearing came to be.

Sourced here, sewn here

Perhaps the best-rounded slow fashion brand currently in Charlotte is Fraser’s Anarke Jeans brand, which he makes at his studio and shop, Straight Stitch & Co., in the shadows of Bank of America Stadium. Fraser produces much of his Anarke brand custom and bespoke jeans from selvedge denim made by Cone Mills in Greensboro. (He sources some denim from Japan – “they’re more edgy with their styles; they have a heavier look” – as well as Italian and Turkish denims, but the majority of the denim he works with comes from Cone.)

“The first thing people say is, ‘Wow, it’s made right here!’ People from Charlotte, they want that,” Fraser says. “I’ve been here two years and I’m steadily getting new customers. I’m still seeing new faces.”

How do we know slow fashion is catching on nationally? Mass marketers (Banana Republic, H&M) are rolling out new initiatives, from educating workers to more environmentally friendly sourcing. And Amazon has launched an Etsy-like component, Handmade at Amazon.

He stocks some off-the-rack jeans, jackets and more, but his main business is custom and bespoke jeans for men and women, and they run $300 to $600. The cost is about 10 times the price of a mass-produced brand like Levi’s, but in line with high-end off-the-rack brands like Tom Ford.

To customers with sticker shock, he says that selvedge denim has a tighter, heavier weave that far outlasts traditional denim counterparts. You wash the jeans less frequently and they develop creases unique to their wearers – a look selvedge-jean-wearers love. He’s had a pair of his own for about eight years, he says.

Fraser says he’s tickled, but not surprised, at how enthusiastic customers are to be intimately involved with the making of their jeans. They select their own style, fit, pocket placement, fasteners, etc.: “It’s like Build-A-Bear,” he says. “They come in and build their jeans, and I sew.”

He estimates it takes about three to four days, or a total of more than 20 hours, to create a pair of custom, bespoke jeans, and he usually asks customers to come in for three fittings. (By contrast, Fraser says his ready-to-wear jeans take about two hours to sew.)

Customers often pop into the shop to watch Fraser sew their jeans and take photos of the process. That artisanal pride can be a key part of slow fashion.

One-of-a-kind, for more than one generation

Scott Hofert has a Jerry Maguire-esque manifesto on the website for his Plaza Midwood-based, custom leather goods company, ColsenKeane Leather:

“When we transcend surrounding ourselves with disposable nonsense and create pieces of value and travel companions, if you will, the patina of our lifestyle allows the well-made items we own, wear and carry to rise in value. If wine took the form of an accessory, we’re setting out to create it.”

Hofert, a husband and father of two young sons (the company’s namesakes, Colsen and Keane), was working a desk job with a nonprofit company five years ago when he bought a hide of leather for fun and, unable to find a nice case for his new first-generation iPad, made himself one. Compliments poured in, so he made a few more and put them on Etsy. They sold within minutes.

When he took the leap to move into making bags full time, he created a website where people could get to know the process behind their bags.

“Sometimes we have to tell people, ‘It’ll take us three weeks to get (a custom) order to you.’ They don’t mind,” he says. “If I tell them, ‘We can send it out today,’ they’re almost disappointed.

“What people are buying, in my mind, is the narrative. I can walk into a big box store and buy something, or I can be part of the story.”

His customers pay upwards of $500 to $2,000 for the leather duffles, totes and satchels that are handmade in his studio, but he says he expects them to be handed down for two generations – or more. Because his goods last so long, makers like Hofert need a constant stream of new customers. So he has a huge online presence, and says he’s constantly filling orders from all over the United States and overseas.

A lot of our clients are consumers in a different way. (They’ll say) ‘I want just one of everything – but I want it to be nice.’

Scott Hofert of ColsenKeane

“A lot of our clients are consumers in a different way,” Hofert says. It’s not uncommon, he says, for clients to say, “I want just one of everything – but I want it to be nice.”

Waste not: Upcycling

You won’t find Corey Dergazarian ordering bolts of fabric for her handbag company, Sans Map.

She scours thrift stores, estate sales and leather industry remnant sales for textiles that speak to her, aiming to give new life to the best garments from yesterday by turning them into high-quality, intricately stitched bags.

For some bags, she takes leather trench coats she finds in resale stores, cuts the lining out, and washes the leather on a gentle cycle in a washing machine, then puts it in the dryer on low, until it has a fabric-like quality. Some leathers wouldn’t do well in the wash; for those she uses leather cleaner on them until they feel good to the fingers.

She still sews on a vintage Necchi sewing machine she found when she and her husband lived in his native France. She uses an industrial machine for leather and tougher fabrics.

“I like the fact that something has a story behind it. Who wore this? Where did it go? With vintage things, there’s a certain quality that you just don’t find with store-bought fabric,” she says. Even when scouring thrift stores, she looks for items that have a story. “I wouldn’t cut up something from Banana Republic – it just doesn’t give me any inspiration, it doesn’t feel unique.”

Her company’s name, Sans Map, is the fusion of the French word for “without” (pronounced as if you’re saying “song” but stopping before the g) and the English word “map.”

The result: Bags that are clean-lined with classic styling. They’re available through her website, Etsy and locally in Frock Shop, a shop that sells both vintage and new items on Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood.

Trendy brands can be slow fashion

So slow fashion leans toward the timeless and away from the trendy or transient.

But hot brands can still be slow.

Since their rustic-style jewelry business began landing in national magazines and more than 150 boutiques worldwide, Charlotte sisters Jacquelyn Stafford Buckner and Elizabeth Stafford White have seen growing demand from trendy women who crave their pieces.

But they have kept production in Dilworth, where they and a small team of employees (three full-timers and five part-timers) hand-brand leather straps and string together antlers from the American West alongside wooden African trade beads from Mali, Nigeria and Ghana and shells from the Philippines and Florida. Prices range from $35 for a girl’s necklace to $250 or more for women’s necklaces. (They’ve recently added home goods and accessories.)

They started in 2013 and say retailers quickly asked about big orders. The two stepped up production, but say they refuse to ramp up so much they’d have to rely on machines or send production overseas. They say they vet suppliers to be sure antlers are naturally shed and beads are carved by fairly paid workers.

“Our products take time to make,” Stafford Buckner said. “Quality is worth waiting for.”

The Detroit Free Press contributed.

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