I think the best friends are the ones that challenge you to be better – they accept you as you are, but also bring out the best in you and encourage you to grow; they inspire you and teach you and make you want to try new things. I’ve known Kori, the owner of La Vie en Orange since high school (which is increasingly distant) and we have always bonded over creativity – whether it is shooting black and white photos or having a modge-podge or sewing nite. So when Kori started talking about her dream to start her own business making underwear from recycled tshirts, I was totally on board. But I also really didn’t have any idea what she was talking about. She explained to me what she would do and how she would do it, and I really just didn’t understand it…because I couldn’t visualize anything but raggedy, droopy drawers. When she finally got the ball rolling over a year ago, and I saw an Upitee for the first time (up, like upcycled + tee, like tshirt), it finally made sense, and there was nothing raggedy or droopy about it. I’ve literally watched this business grow from a little seedling of an idea to an actual licensed company with website, shop, and worldwide clients – and it has been tremendous to watch the product, the business, and my friend grow.
I grew up being pretty green – we composted and recycled, shopped at local stores, my mom made a lot of our own clothes and we grew a lot of our produce during the summer and fall – so I thought I was pretty savvy when being green (in the non-Kermit-the-Frog-way) started to become really popular in the last few years. But when Kori started launching her business in earnest and doing more and more research, I realized just how much I didn’t know, especially about clothing and sustainability. I know it can be daunting – more information to read and research, more decisions to make – but like anything, it’s a habit, and the more you do it, the better you get. And like going indie, supporting sustainability doesn’t have to be about perfection, just making informed decisions, doing a little bit, a little better every day.
Kori and I couldn’t look more different – standing us next to each other is like looking at a string bean and a weeble-wobble (and I’m not the vegetable…). So our shopping and clothing experiences have never had a whole lot in common – our sizes, shapes, and styles don’t often overlap. The evolution of Upittees and La Vie en Orange has given us some really awesome common ground in that department – she has gotten to see/hear what it’s like for people of different shapes/builds (like me) to try and find clothes that don’t necessarily fit the standard mold, and I’ve gotten to see the kind of work that goes into building something outside of that standard mold. The result has been some really great conversations, and I think an education for both of us that women – who come in all shapes and sizes – all have insecurities about their bodies, and no matter how skinny or curvy, we all have a hard time finding clothes that fit just right and make us feel good about ourselves. In a social environment where women are frequently hostile toward each other and everyone is critical of women’s physical appearances, it’s refreshing to see just how much we all have in common. The girl who is 30 lbs lighter than you that the media has trained you to loathe, or the one that you despise because of her sensuous curves – she has just as much trouble standing in front of the mirror as you do. I think the model that Kori is working on creating has a lot of potential not just for more comfortable and more sustainable clothes, but for a new and better way of thinking (for women, especially) about our clothes and our bodies. Not everyone is a size 2-10, and no two women of the same size are exactly alike, and that’s okay. Neither is right or better, just different and beautiful. Kori is working on expanding her sizes to accommodate different body shapes and I think the results will be amazing. I think when we can start shifting our focus from the negative, start looking and how things make us feel, celebrating where we are at, and being empowered by making socially responsible decisions (even with our underwear!) some great things are going to happen. That’s not to say I’m not excited for the different lines that Kori is coming out with, but I’m especially proud of the work she has done and is doing for women’s clothes, the conversations she is starting, and as always, she continues to teach and inspire me, like only the best friends do. She happens to be in town from Seattle this weekend, and we are having a glorious time Check out Kori’s post to see what we’ve been up to.
How did the idea for your business come about?
It was really kind of a long time coming. After I graduated from college, I spent a couple of years with multiple seasonal part-time jobs that I loved –I worked on an organic farm and helped seeds go from the greenhouse to the farmers market to your table, I taught a beginner’s French class at the university level, I worked as an after-school-program coordinator. I also sewed on the side and did alterations and even made wedding dresses. I loved every minute of what I called my “gypsy life.” :) But sometimes I had more money than others, and sometimes I needed underwear and didn’t have a lot of money. Okay, maybe that only happened once before I realized I could make my own. :) And hey, wouldn’t some of my old tshirts be great for this? Although some of my choices in the moment were motivated by frugality, I also got really excited about recycling my tshirts and giving them a new life. It was always kind of in the back of my head that I could sell the undies, and then after I moved to Seattle a couple of years ago, I really started looking for something to make a new place feel like home. I decided last year that it was time to put down some roots and set up shop!
Tell us something about your business/product that people may not expect/know.
I get almost all of my tshirts from thrift stores, launder them with natural soaps, I cut them out (into undies) – you can make 2-3 pairs of underwear from ONE tshirt (depending on sizes). I then screenprint them by hand with fun designs, sew them together, photograph them, and put them on Etsy for you to take home.
How did you decide on underwear?
I feel like the underwear decided on me. :) I needed them, first and foremost, but I really like them too. When I wear them, I feel sporty and fun. And when I started talking to my girlfriends and whoever would listen about undies in general, I started learning about all sorts of fit issues – mostly just that it is super difficult to find a pair of undies that make you feel good and that fit well. I thought I might be on the right track, thinking about making and selling undies…
What are the unique challenges of the work you do? The rewards?
Unique challenges? I run into some really common challenges, like marketing my shop, getting my name out there – there are a lot of factors that go into running your own business, it’s a steep learning curve. I also run into challenges trying to get photos of my product, because it’s hard to find people that are comfortable strutting it in their skivvies in front of the camera on a shoestring budget. It’s also a challenge to win people over into buying something on Etsy that may cost a little more but is made really well and will last longer – that stands for something better – but doesn’t come in a cute plastic bag or on a hanger.
The rewards are incredible. I’ve met so many women who are thrilled that there is an option that is eco-friendly/flattering AND covers all your lady bits, and is cute! It’s also been really rewarding to get to know some of my clients – one woman trusted me with 5 of her tshirts and we got to talk about what they meant to her and transform them into something new that she tells her friends about – another had to send hers back when her dog ate them. It’s a privilege to connect with people over something so personal and intimate. I have a client with a medical issue that causes underwear to be uncomfortable – but mine aren’t! I have clients whose significant others are jealous of their underwear and want to know when my men’s line is coming out, I’ve had transgendered people talk to me about their unique fit issues, and it’s really awesome to have found a niche where I can help people with these really unique, outside-the-box issues. I love that I’ve created a conversation – there isn’t usually a conversation involved when you buy underwear; underwear can be a topic that makes people squirm, and I love helping people smile or giggle or become more comfortable with the topic.
What are some things you think more people need to know about the ecological effects of fashion?
Wow. Where to start?
Fabrics: I think we should remember that manmade fibers (polyester, spandex, elastine, nylon) are all made of petrolum. Basically oil. So in the same way a car has emissions, so does making polyester. Natural fibers are tough too- conventionally grown cotton is debatably one of the most water intensive, pesticide dependent crops on the planet! Go for organic cotton when you see it! :)
Processing fabrics can use a ton of bleach and the scraps from the apparel industry just fill landfills – so it’s important to reuse fabric and use all of the scraps. For example, American Apparel makes headbands out of tshirt scraps, there is a Zero Waste movement in fashion that is made without producing scraps, which is definitely a different type of fashion, but it’s a move in the right direction.
There are also issues with where clothing is made – whether the workers are children or not, and whether they are making a “living wage” – basically are they being paid a reasonable amount for the work they’re doing, can they actually support themselves from that work. Personally, I look for clothes made in the US when possible, and that’s one of the reasons I am really proud to be making clothes in America.
[It’s just important to read your labels, do your homework, and make conscious decisions - which as an indie shopper, you know how to do already! Kori has a manifesto on her blog, which explains more about sustainability and her commitment to supporting it, along with some great source articles, check it out here. Also check out these articles on fashion sustainability: NIH, Fibre2Fashion, EcoFashionWorld, Guardian ]
What are some simple ways that people can be more green with their clothing?
I think first and foremost, keep what you’ve got. Get what you have repaired or altered to increase longevity. Then, as you take new pieces in, do so thoughtfully and with an eye to the future. Will it go with what you already have in your wardrobe? Yes! Is this part of trend that might disappear in three months? Maybe worth reconsidering… Here’s a link from LearnVest Daily, that rates popular clothing companies on their labor/sustainability practices; and another link from the same site that gives you 10 ideas for making your clothing last longer!
How are you launching an underwear revolution?
It’s a bold statement. :) One my best friend (you) came up with and I loved. I am launching an underwear revolution by making a broad, broad range of sizes. I am launching an underwear revolution by being true to my little tree-hugging heart. I am launching an underwear revolution by keeping my sense of humor and meeting people where they are (“Is the crotch piece new?” “No, I thought about it, but decided that as long as everything was laundered and clean that since the armpit is usually the worst part of an old tshirt, that as long as I stay away from there, we’re good.).
What are you most proud of about your business and why?
I am most proud about the service I give to my clients. I love connecting with them, and hope they love connecting with me. It’s easy to giggle when you’re talking about something as unmentionable as your unmentionables and I hope they giggle as much as I do. :)
What is the best part about being indie? The most difficult?
To be honest, I always think of indie as being way cooler than me – I’ve never thought of myself as indie.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?
I knew it would be a ton of work and years of learning – I have been fortunate enough to keep my “day job” and afford various trainings and online courses to help me learn and save me from making lots of mistakes. My advice would be know that if you’re starting your own business it’s a f&%$-ton of work, and there is no way around it. There are free resources for everything – God bless the internet – but a lot of time, if you’re a one man/woman shop, it’s worth it to pay for mentorship/training/information that you don’t need to search and hunt for and then piecemeal together. You can make it work with whatever means you have, but when deciding about how to invest the resources you do have, I would encourage you do invest in yourself – through training, etc. – as a better use of your time.
How does your personality come through in La Vie en Orange?
From the bright colors to the zig-zag stitching, all of the screenprints I use are my artwork (but I can and have left original designs/words on a shirt when I recycle it), all of the product descriptions are really silly, but there’s also a lot of care and thoughtfulness put into everything I do and make. I think if you look at the product, you might not know exactly who I am, but you get a pretty good idea of who I’m not.
What is coming soon for La Vie en Orange?
What isn’t? More size options and styles (briefs and maybe thongs) in women’s underwear, men’s underwear (briefs and possibly boxers), toddler undies are in the pipeline, and then transgender undies too! And sleep. If I’m lucky.