The 21st century seems like a mess so far. Gridlock in Washington. Rising seas. Corporate domination. Kardashians. But if you’ve been paying attention, you know that there are positive things happening all over the place as well, and with accelerating frequency. Consider the clothes you wear. While mass-produced, polluting sweatshop apparel isn't going away overnight, there are people all over the world—from Portland to Brooklyn to Addis Ababa and, yes, China—who are trying to make style sustainable.
This winter I went on a mission to find young companies that are focused on crafting quality apparel. Slow Fashion, some call it. You know the concept: Pay a premium for a really well-designed and responsibly manufactured jacket or pair of pants; love it and live in it for three times as long as you thought you would. Voilà: By shelling out more up front, you saved yourself money.
The best news for all? These progressive clothiers are making stuff built for adventure: new technical fabrics that transition easily from workplace to workout; cycling garb that looks as good in a coffee shop as it does on a bike; thermal jackets that appear on the trail Saturday afternoon and at the bar Saturday night.
The 15 companies here are not doing their world changing somewhere else—they’re all based in North America. That means onshore jobs, local economies, and community building. It’s enough to make you think the future’s gonna work out after all.
Wyoming-based Aion emphasizes fair wages for the workers it partners with in Bali to make its earthy beanies, hats, shirts, and hoodies for men and women. The company has been at it for only three years but already has a store in Jackson Hole and is partnering with a group on the Indonesian island of Sumba, where they’re helping save the lives of children born into the deadly presence of malaria.
We Like: the Mélange Patch Hoodie ($118), a zip-front fleece sweatshirt that’s luxuriantly cozy but cut well enough to wear around town.
This year-old company out of Cottonwood Heights, Utah, donates at least 10 percent of profits to a wide variety of humanitarian endeavors all over the planet. High-quality, performance-ready packs, jackets, and T-shirts for men and women are made in closely monitored, fair-wage-paying factories in Southeast Asia. Cotopaxi sells online only, and each product is directly linked to a particular cause, like bringing clean water to villages in India and training midwives in Guatemala.
We Like: the Pacaya Insulated Jacket ($199), a clever mashup of durable, water-repellent nylon hoodie, superlight Polartec-insulated coat, and performance wear with stretchy underarm panels for ease of movement.
A mom-and-pop concern based in Calgary, Dolly Varden is still just ramping up with a small selection of men’s and women’s shirts and pants. All its products are made in a factory in Los Angeles, with a rustic design sense built around (obviously) fly-fishing and an emphasis on technical fabrics that make it more practical to adventure and look good doing it.
We Like: the Roaring Fork Shirt ($109), a sweet design of overlapping white and blues, with zippered pockets and quick-drying, UPF 30, odor-repellent, moisture-wicking fabric.
While it bills itself as “mountain bike wear,” you wouldn’t assume that Petaluma, California–based Kitsbow was anything but a classically inspired designer brand. It sources its wool from Australia and New Zealand and sews it in Europe and America. Craftsmanship is where they put their attention, and their array of baselayers, bike shorts, and even ridable jeans show it.
We Like: the Icon Shirt ($195), an über-warm Pendleton Wool shirt with a little stretch in the shoulders for a freer ride, and bold, abrasion-resistant Schoeller arm patches, in case you should spill.
Ministry of Supply
A three-year-old crowdfunded startup in Boston, Ministry creates shirts and jackets that meet your office’s dress code but, on the inside, are built for movement. The designer-caliber duds are breathable, full of stretch, moisture-wicking, and—the most intriguing—sewn with JAVAFresh, an element in the lining that uses reclaimed coffee grounds to absorb odors. You may not do parkour on your way to work, but it’s nice to know that you could.
We Like: the Aviator Jacket ($278), a sharp single-breasted blazer fit for any business meeting—especially if your meetings take you all over town. In the rain. It’s breathable and water repellent.
Mott & Bow
This two-year-old startup from New York City makes designer-caliber jeans in a well-conceived variety of styles, using irresistibly soft Turkish denim that goes through a meticulous finishing process involving resin rinses and oven curing. The vertically integrated company sells online only, allowing it to price every pair at a ridiculously affordable $96.
We Like: the Mosco ($96), a slim (but not skinny) pair that has clean lines but leaves you room to breathe—and are just stretchy enough to wear on a bike or hike. Named (like all their models) after the street in NYC.
Portland’s Nau began in 2007 and has been a perennial favorite of ours for its success in marrying technical outdoor apparel with cool urban design. Nau sources its materials all over the world, but with strict oversight, and the company promotes sustainability as a social imperative as well—2 percent of sales go straight to a handful of partners that champion leadership, environmentalism, and human rights.
We Like: the Checkmate Long Sleeve Shirt ($98), a soft, wear-everywhere checked shirt made of organic cotton, with a side-zippered chest pocket. Wear it with the $100 Utilize Pants, an equally comfy pair of cotton pants with articulated knees for easier movement and reflective tape that you reveal by turning out the cuff.
How can you not love a company that builds a factory in Ethiopia, makes premium-quality casual boots, shoes, and bags—both men’s and women’s—out of free-range African leather and natural rubber, and puts proceeds back into the local community? The only Fair Trade–certified footwear maker in the world, Toronto-based Oliberté is a B Corp that builds transparency into every facet of its operations, and aims to change a continent with 20 percent of the world’s population but only 2 percent of its trade. And they’re already doing it.
We Like: the Adibo ($140), a ridiculously comfortable, well-built, soft goat-leather chukka boot that you’ll more or less want to wear every day for the rest of your life.
Headquartered in Orange County but with values deeply tied to the aloha spirit of the islands, OluKai is celebrating ten years of “sustainability and positive living,” an ethos that earned it B Corp status in 2014. All of which would mean nothing if they didn’t make your favorite anatomically correct, beautifully engineered leather flip-flops, as well as a growing collection of men’s and women’s boots and shoes.
We Like: the Nui ($80), a full-grain-leather sandal with particularly soft cushioning in the midsole and a well built-up outsole that will put up with years of wear on the beach, the sidewalk, and even a mellow trail or two.
Wood-framed sunglasses are a thing these days, but not all of them carefully source their wood from certified sustainable forests. Four-year-old Proof, of Boise, Idaho, does—and they even repurpose maple-wood skateboards into frames and make their plastic models from cotton-based acetate. Proof has a full roster of charitable projects in the works at all times, from building eye clinics in India to rehabilitating child soldiers in Africa.
We Like: the Donner Skate ($120), a maple pair with metro looks, polarized lenses, and spring-loaded hinges that allow the temples to bend in both directions with no ill effects.
Powderhounds of the West have two reasons to love Stio, another Jackson Hole startup, this one from one of the co-founders of Cloudveil. Their full line of men’s and women’s ski and outdoor apparel is well priced, responsibly sourced and manufactured, and designed with a bit of flair. And a portion of every sale goes toward fighting pine beetle infestation, which has a devastating impact on the West’s snowpack, wildlife, and fire conditions.
We Like: the Skycrest Insulated Snap Shirt ($155), a versatile, lightweight synthetic-fill insulated shirt/jacket that you can layer under a hardshell on the slopes, compress down to nothing for a high-elevation summer trek, or wear around town.
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Ten-year-old Swrve got in on the leading edge of the bike-commuter-style trend on the West Coast and has been advocating for unmotorized urban living ever since. Easy crossover appeal is their niche: cool apparel with clean lines that’ll work in most life situations but always functions well on two wheels. All their garments are well made, with technical fabrics, but their new premium _blk label line is produced by a small shop in L.A. that puts extra emphasis on quality control.
We like: the Swrve_blk Lightweight Regular Fit Shorts ($100), the best (non-chamois-containing) bike shorts out there, with quick-drying nylon and spandex that’s reinforced in high-wear areas, a gusseted crotch, a large back pocket that holds your lock, and more rise in back.
Threads 4 Thought
Founded in 2007 in New York City, T4T makes casual clothing with a bohemian bent, using recycled materials when possible and sourcing much of it from a city in China that recycles an astounding 82 percent of its water. They follow ethical manufacturing guidelines and partner with several environmental and social nonprofits—most recently the International Rescue Fund, whose New Roots program resettles refugees in the States and helps them establish community gardens and small-business farms.
We Like: the Sherpa Lined Car Coat ($120), a herringbone jacket that’s 100 percent organic cotton on the outside, with soft polyester lining made from recycled plastic bottles.
United by Blue
This crowdfunded Philadelphia startup makes men’s and women’s shirts, jackets, pants, boardshorts, packs, and duffels. For every item sold, UBB removes one pound of trash from America’s rivers and beaches. In four years of operation, they’ve organized almost 120 cleanups, mostly in the Northeast, and swiped up more than 100 tons of garbage. UBB is a B Corp and now operates a store and café in Philly’s Old City.
We Like: the Ayres Chambray ($98), a sharp indigo blue button-down shirt made from organic cotton. Also of interest is their Ultimate American Sock ($38), made from bison down and quite possibly the warmest socks ever made.
This two-year-old Pagosa Springs, Colorado, company is focused on quality and innovation. They source the merino wool for their midlayers and baselayers from Rocky Mountain ranches and do all their manufacturing in the USA, in small-batch production runs. More exciting is the proprietary tech Voormi is applying to its products. By sewing synthetic fibers directly into the wool, they’re able to create waterproof, breathable fabrics without gluing two layers together.
We Like: the Men’s Access Pullover ($199), which is one part office-casual sweater and two parts technical midlayer, for hitting the mountains when you’ve got no idea what the weather’s going to do.