All That Glitters Is Green
Eco-stylist Danny Seo has charisma, a fabulous new line of hipster clothing, a reality-TV show in development, and a posse of hot young actors swooning over his righteous aura. Meet the guru who's transforming America one earth-friendly Hollywood makeover at a time.
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SWAG, SWAG, EVERYWHERE SWAG!
Danny Seo: Environmental Lifestyle ExpertDanny Seo: in his 1832 Reading, Pennsylvania, farmhouse, set of Supernatural Style with Danny Seo
Danny Seo: Environmental Lifestyle ExpertMixmaster: a Seo “wall quilt” using wallpaper swatches from an old sample book
The streets of Park City, Utah—scene of the annual media-entertainment-industrial-complex hootenanny known as the Sundance Film Festival—are awash in booty. Everybody wants some. Don’t you? Word bleams through the cell phones of scruffy indie filmmakers, Pomeranian-toting starlets, deadbeat journalists, hip-huggered publicists, and tanned, Ray-Ban-wearing movieland robotrons.
Bleedeleedeleet—They’re handing out free TiVo subscriptions at the Chrysler House, on Main Street. Hurry!
Bleedeleedeleet—Self magazine is giving away yoga kits!
Bleedeleedeleet—How come I didn’t get one of those brown suede Kenneth Cole duffels from the Sundance Channel, crammed with $3,000 worth of stuff plus a year’s membership to Crunch, goddammit?!
And high above town, in a vacation-home development near Deer Valley Resort, where the houses are of the nouveau-giganto Lincoln Log architectural school, sits Danny Seo, 26-year-old Korean-American environmental-lifestyle expert, Organic Style editor-at-large, and soon-to-be star of his own eco-themed TV show. Danny and his friend and publicist, Claudine Gumbel, 28, have secured a room in the Seven House, so called because it’s been commandeered by jeans company Seven for All Mankind and turned into a combination comfort suite, chill zone, and, most important, dispersal point for product. Upstairs, Seven is fitting celebs into “luxury denim,” and M.A.C., the cruelty-free cosmetic company, is doing makeovers. “It’s like a marketing machine here,” Gumbel confides. “The basic thing is, they”—actors, media people, industry volk—”like free stuff.”
Yes, free stuff! If you shill it, they will come.
This afternoon, Danny’s handing out rinky-dink rhinestone necklaces with FF pendants and navy-blue ski caps embroidered with shiny green FF’s. The FF stands for Fur Free, just one of his many earth-friendly projects aimed at hooking celebs—and thus the conspicuously consuming American public—on hip eco-style.
Danny is the consummate soft-sell pro with a hard-sell attitude. He’s five foot nine and wears black-rimmed glasses, which only make him look more earnest when he says something like: “I believe that every person in this world has one really good thing that they’re good at. I think I’m really good at recognizing opportunity.” He’s stylishly hypercasual—today he’s in jeans, V-neck sweater, and black canvas-and-shaved-rubber high-top sneaks by designer John Varvatos. His delivery is straightforward and almost endearing, especially when he slips into an acquired Valley-guy accent that makes him sound like he just got off his shift at the Orange Julius in the Sherman Oaks Galleria. He’s spent the past 14 years fighting environmental battles, but now he’s got a new goal: capitalizing on the coolness of going green.
To do this, he needs media exposure, and Sundance is nothing if not a harmonic convergence of medium and message. If stars are photographed wearing Seo-conceived eco-baubles, and the pictures run in People or InStyle or Us Weekly or one of the tabloids, then his message will seep into the soft gray cerebrum of the American consumer.
“I believe in the tipping point!” Danny announces with something approaching religious fervor, as a throng of starlets and paparazzi tramp through the room. “If 100 people wear these things, it can help reach critical mass.”
But not just any 100 people. They have to be “the right people.” Young, heat-seeking celebs who set off a certain Pavlovian response in most newsrooms. People like… Britney Spears. “I had lunch with Britney Spears yesterday,” Danny says. “I mean, it was ridiculous, but we talked about ‘green’ fashion and the Fur Free campaign.” Later, she was photographed wearing an FF necklace. Photos are evidence. Score!
Now here’s Dominique Swain, the 23-year-old actress (Lolita) and PETA spokesperson, who gladly accepts a necklace. And there’s Rachael Leigh Cook, of Josie and the Pussycats. She’s 24, a vegetarian, and into being fur-free. And that’s Anna Paquin, 21, co-star of X-Men and The Piano. She’s a vegetarian, loves Organic Style and, yes, will wear the FF! Wait, it’s Robert Downey Jr.—he’ll take a cap. And how about a pendant for Rosario Dawson, co-star of Men in Black II…
Dawson lingers and picks up a copy of Danny’s book Conscious Style Home: Eco-Friendly Living for the 21st Century, which is leaning against the window. Conscious Style Home is his manifesto, a simple but zealous attempt to convince the masses not just to adopt a stance against furriers but to embrace an entire eco-chic worldview, starting with your own abode. “Never sacrifice style for environmental reasons,” Danny writes. “You deserve a living space that is gentle on the planet, and looks cool, too.”
Suddenly, Dawson realizes that the Fur Free guy and the author are one and the same. “Oh my God! That’s you?!” she blurts. “I got your book for my birthday. Dude, you fucking rock!”
DANNY SEO’S MASTER PLAN turns on a rather simple idea: Create a green marketplace—clothing, accessories, home decor, food, mega-sectors in which billions are spent each year—that appeals to our desire, not our guilt.
“I see a bigger picture here,” he says. “People understand that they need to be concerned about the environment, but we’re asking them to change the way they live their lives. So this is really a lifestyle movement. If I can make ‘eco-friendly,’ you know, chic, then hopefully it can trickle down.”
How to achieve this? First, you become a pop-culture omnivore. (Access Hollywood is a surprisingly good source, he says.) Danny does his own trend forecasting and plays the angles for as much exposure as he can give himself and his causes. Over the years, the media has taken note: People named him one of its 50 Most Beautiful People in 1998, and both Variety and the Los Angeles Times have recently paid homage to his eco-lifestyling prowess.
Next, spend a lot of time on the road. Danny travels between his home near Reading, Pennsylvania, where he grew up, and both coasts, charging hard on three fronts. To wit:
Fashion! Last September, he launched Veteran, his own men’s clothing line, which will be carried by “e-tailer” PurpleSkirt.com and in stores in Japan. The threads represent a kind of funky Frankenstein chic—trench coats stitched together from old oxford-shirt swatches, shorts made from unbleached Home Depot canvas cloth—all culled from thrift stores and rag warehouses, sliced up, and integrated with material like Tencel, a biodegradable fabric that’s made using tree cellulose.
Activism! After getting the Fur Free movement rolling, Danny designed another choice piece of conceptual agitprop—an airsickness bag stamped with the slogan WHAT’S GOING ON IN CANADA WILL MAKE YOU SICK, which the Humane Society of the United States sent out to travel agencies and college campuses this January as part of its campaign to shame the Canadian government into abolishing the harvest of fur seals.
Media exposure! Bigger than Fur Free, bigger than Veteran, bigger than fur seals even, will be his life-improvement television show (working title: SuperNatural Style with Danny Seo). The pitch: Danny inhabits a farmhouse on an organic Christmas-tree farm outside Reading, and each week we tune in to learn some new trick to take our pets, gardens, furniture, travel, cooking, fashion, entertaining, and community service to the next eco-friendly level. The final details are still being hammered out, but this much he can tell: Hearst Entertainment and Danny Seo Media Ventures will co-produce the show; the Ford Motor Company is considering signing on as the title sponsor, a nice bit of synergy timed to the summer rollout of the hybrid Escape SUV; and the initial plan is to shoot 13 episodes that will be on the air, it’s hoped, by late summer 2004.
The show is Danny’s most serious bid to become the Martha Stewart of the 18-to-34 set, and it’s got people at Hearst excited.
“There’s nothing like this on television right now,” says Jerry Shevick, executive vice president for reality programming at Hearst Television. “And I thought, ‘Jeez, it’s such a huge movement.’ It’s bigger than anybody thinks. It goes from people embracing yoga to Frito-Lay launching an organic-snacks line.”
Saving the planet one organic corn chip at a time is laudable, but Danny aims to go further. “I want to give people an alternative that, if at all possible, is identical to what they’re already doing but better,” he says. “What I need to do is, like, go in deeper to people’s souls or consciousness, get in there and go, What really impacts their buying at the store?”
“He really believes the message that he’s sending,” says Debbie Levin, president of the Environmental Media Association (EMA), a group that works with Hollywood and the environmental community. “Which is, you don’t have to sacrifice your environmental consciousness in order to be very cutting-edge. It’s coming from a genuine place.”
APPEARING GENUINE—wait, rewind: appearing legitimate—is everything in the world of eco-hipster marketing. And Danny Seo’s legitimacy can be traced back to his birthday: April 22, 1977—Earth Day. Hard to get more auspicious than that. It’s nothing less than a sign, the entry point for a tale of ambition that Danny tells with such droll self-awareness that when he veers into seriously geeky concern for some enviro issue, or drops names faster than Liz Smith, you stick with him.
And why not? His legend’s got legs. Take, for instance, the Genesis component. On the eve of his 12th birthday, Danny watched Morton Downey Jr. shred PETA cofounder Ingrid Newkirk on his talk show. The next day, at his birthday party, he returned his friends’ gifts and informed them that he was starting an environmental group for kids. The only gift he wanted was their support.
It worked. Danny started Earth 2000, which over the next six years grew to 25,000 members and actually accomplished a few things, like saving a forest area outside Reading from real estate development, initiating boycotts of seafood from the Faroe Islands (where whaling is still practiced), and getting Eddie Bauer and the Limited to stop selling fur. (“I hear it’s back,” he chuckles.)
By 18, he had dissolved Earth 2000, but his days as an activist weren’t over. He skipped college and set to work on two books, Generation React: Activism for Beginners (1997) and Heaven on Earth: 15-Minute Miracles to Change the World (1999), while holding down a day job as a lobbyist for Save America’s Forests, a legislative organization that works on forest-protection bills. He lived simply, figuring out ways to soup up his apartment, or those of his friends, with recycled furniture, thrift-store finds, and minimalist utilitarian objets that looked cool and had an environmental slant. The more he focused on his home life, the more his budding career as a professional activist began to bore him.
“The weird part was, I didn’t want to be an activist anymore. I kept feeling like I was wasting my time, like there was something more that I could contribute, something bigger?” he says, that little Orange Julius interrogatory uptick creeping in. “I was thinking about that, and I go, Is it me or does, like, this green-chic lifestyle have potential to it?”
Time to get reborn. Danny incorporated Danny Seo Media Ventures in 2000. His first project was Conscious Style Home, which he pitched to a number of publishers before St. Martin’s bit, and even then he had to convince them it wasn’t simply a “niche” idea. Once he clued them in to his high concept—how to “create a comfortable, elegant living space without harming the planet”—and the growing green market, they got it. “It was a real test for me,” he says. “I think I was doubting if I actually had the talent to pull it off. Because the book was solely about taking a home—my parents’ home—and renovating it.”
Danny woke up every morning at 4 a.m. to lay sustainable bamboo flooring, till the gardens, research deer-resistant plants and energy-efficient appliances, slather the walls with volatile-organic-compound-free paint, and reupholster the furniture in hemp fabric. And he wrote all the copy himself, a point of pride. “That was my transition to lifestyle, but it was also my transition into the whole concept of authenticity,” he says. “Authenticity is really important to me. I don’t want to pretend to be something, because it’s going to catch up to you.”
Even before Conscious Style Home came out, in September 2001, he was using it as his calling card to establish relationships in Hollywood. He introduced himself to Debbie Levin, and she invited him to a Vanity Fair party that year, where he got to know actress Amy Smart, an EMA board member and “seriously environmentally conscious girl,” says Levin.
Danny had already established street cred through his involvement with the cooler-than-thou fashion label Imitation of Christ, known for its creative reuse of thrift-store duds, and pretty soon Levin had him set up as a style consultant for the presenters at the annual EMA Awards. “He dressed Amy, he dressed Wendie Malick, he dressed me for two years,” she says.
He quickly learned how to leverage publicity into a respectable revenue machine. He charges $2,000 a day to style an event, earns $15,000 per speech on the lecture circuit, and resides comfortably in the six-figure salary range. To explain how his eco-makeover schtick caught on, Danny invokes the tipping point again. “So I dressed Amy for an awards show and it got all this press,” he says, referring to Smart’s Trash-à-Porter recycled-cashmere top and vintage denim skirt. “And then more celebrities called and asked me to style them. And then, like, stories were written about it. And then they get forwarded. And then publicists and agents and managers talk. And then I just have to answer my e-mails.
“I don’t want people to think I’m a starfucker,” he adds. “They call me.”
THERE IS SOMETHING inherently ironic about trying to raise eco-consciousness in, and via, Hollywood—generally accepted as the global capital of avarice and gluttony. Danny recognizes this, but he wants to harness this far-reaching economic force for the greener good.
“The reality is that celebrities and the things they use do impact everything else in this country,” he says. “I work with stars in Hollywood who embrace this idea already. If there are celebrities with excess and waste and horrible reputations, so be it. I’m not here to reform Hollywood; I’m here to work within Hollywood.”
He’s not without help. Some quadrants of corporate America are working hard to achieve eco-consciousness. Patagonia has turned organic cotton and fleece made of recycled plastic into high-end outdoor wear. Global brands like Frito-Lay, Heinz, and Kraft have launched organic snack foods, and Honda, Toyota, and Ford are banking on hybrid cars. In fact, the eco-market has grown large enough that it’s been slapped with its own acronym: LOHAS, or lifestyles of health and sustainability. Natural Business Communications, a consulting firm based in Broomfield, Colorado, that focuses on the LOHAS consumer, estimates that 63 million American adults spent $226 billion on green goods in 2000.
Danny has an analogy for his place in the current scheme of things: yoga. “I think yoga’s reached critical mass,” he says. “But the thing is, the results are paying off—it’s legitimate. I think when something’s legitimate, people will embrace it as a lifestyle choice for the rest of their life. When it’s something that is unproven and is disappointing and difficult and unachievable and negative, people may fight to try it, but if they’re meeting resistance, they’re going to give up. My job is to make it easy and enjoyable and, if I might say, luxurious. And I think that’s when it’s a win-win bet. Does that make sense?”
It does, actually, but it’s still hard to make the end justify the means. Yet he keeps hustling. In January he was back at Sundance, bringing his save-the-fur-seals message to the horde. In February, he’ll be whisking celebs to the Oscars in hybrid “limos,” part of an Organic Style cross-promotion. And soon there’ll be the exciting debut of SuperNatural Style with Danny Seo. But to really get a taste of what the eco-lifestylist is up against, you have to see him grapple with the consumptive beast mano a mano—like he did last March at the Sunset Marquis Oasis.
A pre-Oscar orgy of free stuff masquerading as a wellness center set up in a private villa on the grounds of the Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood, the Oasis is a much bigger celebrity hospitality zone than the Seven House. Danny is there to cover the event for his Green Buzz page in Organic Style. The moment he arrives, dressed in khakis, a navy-blue T-shirt, and J.Crew flip-flops, Clara Moore, director of entertainment marketing with Terry Hines & Associates, grabs him and they plunge in, dodging steel tubs full of Dannon Lite ‘n Fit Smoothies on their way to the Swatch suite.
“I have two theories,” Danny tells Clara after listening to the pitch for the new Swatch Skin, the thinnest watch in the world. “Swatch is going to come back in a big way, and so is”—he lowers his voice for effect—”vintage Ikea furniture.”
Clara: “Is there vintage Ikea furniture?”
Apparently, but that’s not important now; ogling the Caraucci jewelry display is. “I’m shooting Daryl Hannah for the magazine,” Danny says, handling a chunky garnet necklace. “It’d be perfect for her.”
“She was here yesterday and walked right by us,” says the Caraucci PR chick.
Clara to PR chick: “Do I have green in my teeth? I feel like I do.”
PR chick to Clara: “No. Do I?” She grits her teeth.
“OK,” Danny announces, “this is the best suite, hands down.”
Eventually, he makes a break for the backyard, where he runs into another flack. “You got the best press at Sundance,” she says excitedly, noting that The Face, the British pop-culture mag, ran a full-page photo of Dominique Swain wearing her FF necklace. Evidence! For today, his work is done.