Apr 4th, 2018, 11:36 AM

Sustainability Series: Hand Dyed to “Wabi Sabi” Perfection

By Sanna Rasmussen
Image Credit: nytimes.com
A Los Angeles based brand pioneering the future of garment dying using anything natural, from coffee beans to Hibiscus flowers.

Based in sunny Los Angeles, Olderbrother is a gender-neutral clothing brand that emphasizes sustainable practices with their materials and dyes. Inspired by the “slow food” movement happening in the US in recent years, two Oregon natives contemplated why those same concerns were not being applied to the fashion industry. Since their meeting in 2013, Bobby Bonaparte and Max Kingery have set out to produce clothing that is sustainable, environmentally friendly, and aesthetically pleasing.

Before Bonaparte and Kingery met, both were working separately in the clothing industry, and found that conventional dying practices were extremely harmful to the environment and the garment workers. Aside from this, the chemical dyes’ origins were hard to track and often resulted in buying from developing parts of the world.

Because of their negative experiences with chemical dyes, Olderbrother set out to create garments using only naturally sourced dyes. In an interview with inhabitat.com, the founders said, “We emphatically agreed to take the same level of consideration of the ‘slow food’ movement and bring it to clothing with our own light-hearted spirit.”

Image Credit: Olderbrother

However, with using natural dyes, the hand-dyed garments are never uniform. In the same interview, the founders remarked, “Aesthetically, when we began naturally dyeing, each batch would come out different, with light and dark marks across the garments. Instead of getting frustrated in search of cookie-cutter perfection, we embraced the uniqueness of every piece.” The Japanese term for this acceptance of the imperfect is called Wabi Sabi, and according to the founders is the guiding principle for their work in fashion.

According to their website, all of the natural dyes they use are free of salts, heavy metals, and toxins, which allow for the garments to be buried and organically decomposed once they have been “loved to death”.

Another unique quality about Olderbrother is that they choose one natural dye to use per design season. Past seasons have included a Spring/Summer line produced with only hues originating from the hibiscus flower, and a Fall/Winter line made only from hues derived from coffee beans. As opposed to creating collections with differing themes each season, Olderbrother creates line that work in harmony with one another and can be paired together season to season.

Image Credit: Olderbrother

The textiles used by Olderbrother are eco-conscious and range from organic properties to renewable plant-based synthetics. As their headquarters and factory are in Los Angeles, they primarily use cotton grown in California, under the Sustainable Cotton Project Program. This program involves a community of local farmers in the Fresno, Madera, and Merced counties of California, who produced a fiber that is categorized by the USDA as “cleaner cotton.” According to their website, this fiber is considered to be cleaner, as it eliminated the 13 most toxic chemicals used in growing conventional cotton.

Because the cleaner cotton is coming from the Sustainable Cotton Project Program, all participating farmers are paid the premium, as opposed to co-ops which involve a third party. Each bale of cotton is tracked from the field to the spinner using the USDA Permanent Bale Identification barcode and date.

Image Credit: Olderbrother

Together, Bonaparte and Kingery design each collection and choose where the dye inspiration should come from. According to an interview the founders did for the NY Times, they explained the name ‘Olderbrother’ as the idea of older brothers/sisters passing down their clothes to younger siblings. Olderbrother also has a line titled “Hand Me Downs”, which pulls from unsold merchandise that is re-dyed, distressed, or re-patched.

Although Olderbrother sources their textiles locally and from a community of farmers who are paid fairly, the cotton is not organic, and therefore is not completely free of harmful pesticides. This criticism is well-noted by the founders, and their response is, “We’re not perfect but our compass is pointed towards improvement.”

As Olderbrother grows, they hope to start growing their own cotton to sustain their operation, but until then they receive their textiles locally, and their dyes from around the world, all while cutting, sewing, and dying their garments in Los Angeles.