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Oregon Fashion Designer Chooses a Road Less Traveled

Oregon Fashion Designer Chooses a Road Less TraveledFounding my business, Sympatico Clothing, was the logical outcome of a lifetime passion for designing and sewing women’s clothes combined with my convictions about environmentally sustainable business. I recognized that in designing and crafting clothes here in the U.S., I was bucking a trend in which most of our apparel manufacturing has moved offshore in search of lower costs. As a designer in my sixties, I also observed that women in my age group are largely ignored by the fashion industry. With these ideas in mind I set about launching Sympatico Clothing with $6,500 in startup capital and a conviction that there was a niche waiting for me to fill.

In keeping with my sustainability convictions (and a thriftiness inculcated by my parents) I geared up with mostly used and reconditioned equipment. Taking a start-small-and-go-slow approach, I focused on scaling my business appropriately. This conservative approach reflected my experience in running another enterprise in the 1980s and ’90s—a cottage industry that employed a network of 50 home-based stitchers making cotton clothing. In that business I saw the advantages of taking a slower approach in learning what worked and what didn’t on a smaller scale. By venturing slowly into the business, the inevitable mistakes I made were less costly financially while still helping fine-tune my processes. This approach has been true of every aspect of the business from designing and manufacturing to marketing and customer service.

Oregon Fashion Designer Chooses a Road Less Traveled

Rose Gerstner

In designing the Sympatico Clothing line, my primary concern was creating women’s clothes that are easy to wear and care for in styles destined to become perennial favorites with my customers. Unlike most conventional fashion houses that are focused on momentary fashion trends, my aim is to create designs that my customers will come to treasure for their versatility and timelessness. My designs are based on real-world bodies as opposed to the leggy looks of rail-thin runway models.

Recognizing that conventionally grown cotton is an environmental disaster given the large quantities of synthetic fertilizers and highly toxic pesticides used in its cultivation, I began seeking an alternative fabric that was attractive, durable, and most importantly, sustainably produced. While hemp filled the bill on most of these counts, many hemp fabrics are rather stiff and do not drape well. In time I found a 55%/45% hemp/Tencel blend that perfectly matched my requirements. Hemp is usually grown with the use of little or no synthetic nutrients and the use of pesticides is unnecessary. Its natural durability and anti-microbial qualities are big pluses. Blended with Tencel, a fiber sustainably produced from farmed eucalyptus trees in a closed-loop system results in a linen-like fabric with the supple drape of rayon.

But unlike rayon production, which has a host of negative environmental impacts, the Tencel manufacturing process that was developed in England recaptures virtually all the potentially harmful chemistry used. I have posted an article about this fabric on my website. You’ll also find an article about the environmental benefits of my hemp/Tencel fabric here.

Oregon Fashion Designer Chooses a Road Less TraveledWhile developing a small collection of women’s tops, jackets, pants and skirts, I was also educating myself in the realm of web commerce. I took a class in HTML and joined several groups of entrepreneurs with shared goals. I picked the brains of experts about my color selections, search-engine optimization and many other questions. I learned all I could about garment dyeing, web marketing, bookkeeping and host of other skills needed to run an initially small, one-woman enterprise. Rather than build a complex and expensive web commerce system with elaborate shopping-cart functions, I opted for simpler, “out-of-the-box” solutions at first. Using PayPal’s web commerce system to handle Internet orders was an interim step to building and maintaining a more robust and customizable shopping site.

In order to gain insights into my potential market and get first-hand feedback about my designs, I decided to focus my marketing efforts around showing my line at craft fairs and festivals likely to attract an audience attuned to Sympatico’s products and processes. This opportunity for face-to-face interactions with my customers has proven invaluable. Seeing how my designs and sizing schemes work on a wide range of bodies has proven to be an important way in which to refine and expand my styles. Though this approach is rather labor intensive involving a lot of time and travel, the immediate feedback I have received from prospective customers has been tremendously informative. As I begin to venture further into the world of web commerce, the shows I sell at continue to be the marketing backbone of Sympatico Clothing.

Oregon Fashion Designer Chooses a Road Less Traveled

Rose Gerstner

In the late 1970s, when I first became involved with making natural-fiber clothes on a professional scale, clothing made with polyester and other synthetic fibers was the norm. Our cottage industry and the cotton apparel we produced appealed to counter-cultural types. Today however, the environmental concerns that informed that demographic has spread to the population at large. My customers come from all walks of life. They are seeking comfortable, attractive women’s wear that is made with care for the planet and that works with their figures and lives. I get a lot of satisfaction from hearing how my designs and approach to clothing production match up with my customers’ fashion needs as well as their eco-friendly convictions.

Fashion designer Rose Gerstner creates her eco-friendly Sympatico collection in a workshop perched high atop Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains. In past incarnations she has coordinated a network of more than 50 home-based stitchers, designed professional uniforms, created theater costumes, and taught sewing. She feeds her cutting-room scraps along with household garbage to an army of red worms who convert what would otherwise be waste into high-powered plant food.

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