For Carol Young, sustainable fashion isn’t about a movement or a soapbox; it’s simply a byproduct of good design. It was a part of her thought process years before she even began her line. In fact her label, Undesigned, comes from the title of her graduate school thesis on using post-consumer recycled clothes in the design process.
A staple on the eco-fashion scene, Carol is creative yet practical—probably due, in part, to her training as an architect. Most people coming into her Los Feliz store don’t even know that the clothes are eco-friendly, and that’s exactly how she wants it.
Yogi Times talks to her about her line, her philosophy, and her advice for other designers thinking about going green.
Yogi Times: Undesigned has received a lot of press in the last couple of years, and you’re clearly one of the pioneers of eco-fashion in LA, if not the country. Do you think green fashion is here for good?
Carol Young: It’s something you worry about, because in the ’90s, there was a trend/fad—especially the anti-fur stuff. Within two years, however, people were showing fur down the runway. All the same people that were anti-fur were suddenly wearing fur on the runway.
Now it’s a different time, especially because of the global warming issue and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. I think it’s more in the forefront of what people are thinking.
When I started, that was my intention. If I were going to do this kind of design, especially if it was fashion, which is so consumer-based and wasteful, I would have to do it in a way that made me feel better.
In the ’90s, when I was in grad school and researching this, I was looking at the different eco companies, and there weren’t very many. Esprit was doing some really interesting stuff back then, and I was wondering what happened to it. Apparently, it just wasn’t selling. I think people weren’t ready for it.
I finished grad school around 2000, and I was looking for fabrics and all I could find was this hemp and cotton knit. It was kind of cool-looking, but it had holes in it. So I stitched on top of the holes. I wanted to make it look more interesting and I thought, why is it like this? What was available around 2000 is so different from what’s available now. I think that really helps.
YT: Your studio is in the back of the store, and that’s where you do all the cutting. Everything is made here in LA too, right?
CY: Yes, I have one contractor who does all the sewing. She’s in San Bernardino.
YT: So you knew you wanted to go in this direction while you were in grad school?
CY: I did a whole thesis on it. I was working with different advisors about what’s an eco-fabric. My main thesis advisor didn’t want me to use hemp, because it was associated with pot. She didn’t care about the pot, she just didn’t want some hippy-dippy thing. Even if it didn’t look that way, her whole argument was, how different is hemp from flax or linen? So I decided to use recycled clothing. I took a socio-anthropology class and I came across this article about used clothing in Zambia, and how it devastates their textile industry because there’s such a flood of clothing made overseas.
There’s also this whole idea of bricolage. A bricoleur is a French term for a kind of handyman who takes whatever scraps he can find and makes use of it. So from that and seeing that there’s so much excess clothing out there, I thought, why not have that be the fabric to use? So that was kind of the idea, the big picture.
YT: So given that research, how did you approach designing the line?
CY: Starting the line, I decided I wanted the same customer—the “Urban Nomad”—but I didn’t necessarily want to do used clothing because I didn’t have the means to do all the washing and all that. So I decided to start with activewear fabrics. It’s not that I prefer activewear fabric, but there’s a reason for choosing it. Like the meryl nylon, it’s really durable, and it’s drapey, comfortable and whisks moisture. And I wanted to do travel wear.
So I started choosing fabrics that I could get a hold of and that could do what I wanted.
Each season I try to find at least one or two more eco-friendly fabrics.
YT: So you start with the fabric and then you design from there?
CY: Usually you look at the fabric and the fabric tells you what it wants to be versus trying to have some set design and then looking for the fabric. I need to see what I’m working with—have a conversation with the fabric. I think it’s also an architect thing.
YT: What do you have lined up for fall and beyond?
CY: For spring ’08 we’re using this hand-dyed shibori-ish fabric from Africa (shibori is a method of dying cloth by binding, folding and twisting it, similar to tie-dye). Some of it’s organic cotton, and some of it is just regular cotton. It’s all this beautiful, handmade stuff. It’s all Fair Trade and it’s really expensive, so I’m not really sure how it’s going to fit in with the line.
For fall we found a really nice wool/hemp fabric, and we have more of the soybean/cotton knit jersey. Also for fall we have more of the recycled, soda-pop-bottle fleece and organic cotton with Lycra from Canada.
YT: I didn’t know soy could be used as a fiber.
CY: It’s from the shell of the bean. After they make the tofu, it’s the leftover stuff. It’s blended with cotton.
I have a lot of people who call up and ask if everything is eco-friendly. I’m not sure how to respond to that, because some fabrics are considered eco, and other fabrics are the activewear fabrics and other fabrics are surplus fabrics from jobbers downtown.
If I have a choice between getting a regular cotton jersey or an organic cotton jersey, I’m going to choose the organic cotton jersey. It’s just what you can get. If I know these things are available, I’m going to choose them over the other stuff. But if I want the microfiber for the pleating, but I can’t find it in recycled microfiber, then I’ll just use the one that I found that works. But I know it’s out there somewhere.
YT: If I were a designer with a small line and I wanted to start going in that direction of sustainable fashion, where should I start?
CY: I would start with the fabric. Definitely choose fabrics that are suitable for your design. Don’t just use it because it’s organic cotton; use it because it works with the design. My philosophy is that design has to come first—that has to be the selling point.
I would definitely look at material, but also, what’s the intention of your design? Who’s your market? Who are you trying to design for? Go in that direction. Don’t be too trendy.
YT: What part of your business do you like the most? Is it the designing?
CY: I think it’s the control. It kind of came out of necessity because I started it doing everything myself. I still do a lot of it myself. You have to have a dialogue with your stores and what people want. That’s what’s nice about having the shop—talking to people about what they’re looking for, what of our stuff has worked really well for them, what’s not working.
I had a friend whose whole idea of fashion was that it’s living art. You’re putting it out there and it looks different on everyone; people interpret it differently and it’s like this living thing. It can get chopped up—you can totally change it. So I guess that’s it.
There are different problems that come up that you have to solve, and you get to collaborate with people on stuff. I think the whole thing has been very serendipitous.
Undesigned Boutique 1953 S. Hillhurst Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90027 undesigned.com