Mindful Retailing Beyond Urban Zones: Part 1

Goodlifer: Mindful Retailing Beyond Urban Zones: Part 1

The wonder of the Internet is no doubt linked to the freedom it affords us as we search and connect with like-minded organizations and individuals, and it probably goes without saying that forays in the online retail realm are bolstered by this activity. I am not a big shopper myself, so I am thankful that the e-boutiques of the web allow me to thoughtfully browse at my own discretion and comparison shop in ways that I have never before been able to.

As some one who grew up in small town America, I also know how vital it is to cultivate a connection with brick-and-mortar retailers on Main Street as a means to insure economic vitality and sustainable zoning options within local communities. With this in mind, I decided to reach out to several eco fashion retailers who have consciously set up shop in locales that are a bit off the beaten track as sources for sustainable style offerings. Each is an outpost of smart curation, Goodlifer attitude, and inspiration for personal activism.

What do Charleston, WV, Chatham, NY, Hyannis, MA, and Portland, ME all have in common as Northeastern U.S. locales? They all are hosts to beautifully curated shops that feature state-of-the-art fashion collections and artisan-made labels. These businesses are also run by amazing women who have become leaders in their communities as outspoken advocates for green living, fair trade practices, animal rights, and what one even might call, ‘mindful retailing’. Each of the following parties also view themselves as being educators in the dissemination of information that is vital for decoding sustainability issues and style that leads to change.

Cow Jones Industrials in Chatham, NY

Cow Jones Industrials, Chatham NY.

Cow Jones Industrials, Chatham NY.

Cow Jones Industrials is located approximately two and a half hours north of NYC, and as a store that could potentially be the most influenced by an urban center, it thrives as a uniquely rural boutique nestled in the world-famous Hudson River Valley. Donna Oakes, the founder and creative force behind Cow Jones’ vegan clothing and accessories offerings, is committed to highlighting the best names in this niche, and her following is a devoted one. I am particularly in awe of Donna’s bold vision of bringing sustainable brands to Chatham, NY as I recall just how slim the pickings were while growing up on my family’s farm just one county south.

DeNada cowl web scarf, handmade in Peru using vegan-friendly acrylic yarn.

DeNada cowl web scarf, handmade in Peru using vegan-friendly acrylic yarn.

GL: How did you get involved with eco fashion retailing? Tell us more about the “mission” of Cow Jones Industrials.

CJ: When I first opened my shop close to three years ago, I did not really think of myself as an eco fashion retailer. At that point in time, I had been a vegan for almost 20 years, and I knew first hand how difficult it was to find beautiful, quality vegan shoes, handbags, coats, etc. I do not have a background in fashion, but I love the idea of clothing as a form of body art. I strongly believe that what we opt to wear is not at all trivial.

My “mission” is still evolving. First and foremost, it would be that I aim to show that veganism is not about deprivation – that is, the choice to not wear products from animals does not doom you to a dull life of canvas shoes and shapeless clothing. I really enjoy educating my customers about sustainable fashion, and I am especially thrilled to be able to support ethical, independent designers who use eco-friendly materials and are committed to fair labor practices.

GG2G Fortune Cookie Clutch, made out of recycled vinyl from restaurants.

GG2G Fortune Cookie Clutch, made out of recycled vinyl from restaurants.

GL: Who is your typical customer? How do they typically find out about Cow Jones? Do you also sell to tourists/out-of-towners? If so, what sorts of comments do they make when they come across your boutique?

CJ: It’s hard to pinpoint who my typical customer is. There are women who love my shop strictly for the aesthetics of the products. For them, the ethics are secondary, or in some cases, not even a factor. I have a number of customers who visit regularly because they are vegan/vegetarian and are so appreciative of having a shop where they do not have to inspect the labels. These are the customers who will travel distances to get here.

Tourists and out-of-towners are often surprised to find my shop in Chatham, NY, and they occasionally comment that it is something that they would expect to find in NYC. A number of customers come in and talk about how some one in their family is vegan and how much that person would like my boutique. Sometimes it is this visitor’s first up-close look at vegan products, and they are genuinely amazed by what they discover – especially when they learn about Cri de Coeur and olsen Haus footwear.

Cow Jones vegan shoe designers, olsen Haus and Cri de Coeur.

Cow Jones vegan shoe designers, olsen Haus and Cri de Coeur.

GL: Do you ever feel that there is resistance to what you are trying to do in your community?

CJ: I have received comments about the prices, but this gives me the opportunity to explain why the products cost what they do. When people hear that many of the products are made in the U.S., it makes them quite happy. They also especially like it when the materials used are from recycled sources.

The most expensive styles that I have had to date were the winter coats from Vaute Couture’s first collection. The price tag was higher than most people were used to seeing for a winter coat, but when they heard the story behind it, they loved it, i.e. the contest that Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart set up for the designs, the voting, the search for warm and sustainable fabrics, the manufacturing in Chicago at a living wage, the portions of proceeds going to Farm Sanctuary. Even if the customers could not afford them, they really enjoyed learning the back story. It is one thing that differentiates an eco-shop from just another store. We are full of stories about wonderful people doing wonderful things in the fashion world.

Vegan winter coats from Vaute Couture.

Vegan winter coats from Vaute Couture.

GL: How do you connect your business to the eco-activist and/or animal rights community beyond the walls of Cow Jones Industrials?

CJ: I frequently donate products for silent auctions at fundraising events sponsored by organizations such as Equine Advocates, Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, Mercy for Animals, and Vegan Outreach. This year I am one of the sponsors for the vegan fashion show at the Albany Vegetarian Expo in October. I also maintain a table of brochures from various animal sanctuaries, along with a mini “library” of books (such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals) that customers can freely borrow.

Mission Savvy in Charleston, WV

Sustainable fashion on the racks at Mission Savvy.

Sustainable fashion on the racks at Mission Savvy.

One cannot discuss vegan fashion retailing and animal rights activism without checking in with Jennifer Miller of Mission Savvy in Charleston, WV. Though less than a year old, Mission Savvy has done a national trunk show tour with their eco fashion offerings and just recently set up shop in downtown Charleston. Jennifer had some very interesting things to say about the challenges she faces as an independent retailer with a rather compassionate outreach mission.

Sexy Scoop top by SUST & Alder Dress by Eco Skin.

Sexy Scoop top by SUST & Alder Dress by Eco Skin.

GL: Tell me more about the “mission” in Mission Savvy.

MS: Mission Savvy pairs a range of eco fashion designs with pressing issues in animal welfare/rights to create an “expressive style” where consumers can feel comfortable and stylish about their clothing choices as well as confident as advocates.

Our featured designer collections each represent a different animals rights issue: Dream, Compassion, Freedom, Instinct, and Voice.

My personal goal for Mission Savvy is to try very hard to be an out spoken, though approachable, encouraging, honest, and a realistic representative for animal welfare issues. (And when I say try, I really mean it, because it does not take a lot to get my blood boiling if I sense an ounce of disrespect for the lives of animals.)

Alaya Halter Top by Alchem1st & Leslie top by Toggery.

Alaya Halter Top by Alchem1st & Leslie top by Toggery.

One of the reasons I chose to operate in a small town like Charleston, WV, is because of the pressing need for improved legislation, lobbying, and education surrounding these issues. The local community currently has no available resources for increased protection. I basically decided to create a store that would provide me with the platform (and pay) to be an active community leader, lobbyist, and on-call “wildlife expert.”

I have a personal relationship with all of the designers I offer, and this is very important to me. I need to feel like we are working together and can have open dialogue about joint challenges and successes. Environmental awareness and animal welfare do not always go hand in hand, so the fact that all of the designers I buy from are excited about the idea of Mission Savvy using their designs to represent issues in animal welfare is HUGE for me.

Mission Savvy's in-store fiber and textile display.

Mission Savvy’s in-store fiber and textile display.

GL: Do you ever feel that there is resistance to what you are trying to do on Main Street Charleston and beyond?

MS: I have a large, growing network of support here in Charleston. The community loves local, new ideas that bring inventiveness into the State and fosters an environment for creative ideas that can help the community catch up with the rest of the nation.

West Virginians are very proud of their State, which makes it very difficult to move away from traditional notions. There is a strong working class here, and a growing young professional group that wants to improve the way we do things, i.e. the way downtown looks (bring in more artists, loft living spaces, green roofs, etc.) as well as recycling initiatives, but there is very little support for the funding of these new ideas.

Mission Savvy designer trunkshow.

Mission Savvy designer trunkshow.

And we don’t get tourists here, so I really must generate a local following as well as cultivate relationships with like-minded individuals in the eco fashion community at large. What I love about being here, though, is connecting with the everyday person who is doing amazing things for the environment and for animal advocacy, and encouraging them to continue with their efforts and activism.

Continue reading part 2 of our survey of Mindful Retailing Beyond Urban Zones here.

Top photo: Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart of Vaute Couture, racks at Mission Savvy & shoes by Cri de Coeur.

About author
An internationally exhibited fiber and environmental installation artist, Abigail’s eco-textile artwork is featured on Greenmuseum, Art Cloth Text, Landviews, the Textile Arts Center blog, and in the handbook, Green Guide for Artists. She has been a regular contributor on sustainable style and textiles for EcoSalon, Ecouterre, HAND/EYE magazine and her own art and fashion blogs, Ecco*Eco and Lost in Fiber. She is also a curator of exhibitions and events related to ideas about “fashioning self and the environment.” Future dreams of melding art, family, and sustainability include the thrifty recycling of textile scraps from her domestic sphere, teaching family recipes to her twin toddlers, and building a house from scratch in the American Southwest with her very resourceful and dashing husband.
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