New Year’s resolutions, as well-intended as they are, often come with a shelf life. Days, weeks, maybe even months if we’re lucky. But for local fashion designer Daphne Orlando, a resolution to stop buying conventional cotton didn’t just stick; it sparked a new way of life.
“My introduction to organic started out like it does for many others: through food,” Orlando says. Shopping at places like the Wedge and other area co-ops piqued her interest in the benefits of organically grown food. “I can remember my dad once half-jokingly asking, ‘What’s the difference between an organic and regular banana? It has a thick skin [either way],’ which actually is a good question!” she laughs. “And it served as another prompt for me to find an answer.”
An avid knitter, she wondered if the wool and cotton used in her creations underwent the same treatment as agriculture for food. “As it turned out, I discovered there’s a lot of maltreatment and poor labor practices involved in the production of fiber,” she says.
Bringing It Home
Things came full circle for Orlando when she attended a speech by Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who discussed the plight of native peoples and shared a heartbreaking story about watching her brother die in a cotton field. As an adoptive parent of a son from Guatemala, Orlando was touched by the stories of conventional farming and labor practices in that country.
“I thought I can’t knowingly participate in a system that causes these circumstances while simultaneously benefitting from having this beautiful child,” she says. That was the moment when her resolution took form.
Launched in April 2015, St. Louis Park-based EcoPetites is an eco-friendly clothing line that caters to petite women like Orlando, who stands 5 feet tall. “Few people realize how many women fall in the petite category,” says Orlando. “Forty-seven percent of American women are 5’4” or shorter.” EcoPetites offers sizes ranging from XXSP to XLP petite for women 4’11” to 5’4” in height.
Since the line is primarily a one-person operation, Orlando is responsible for turning the garments around, from sketch to shop floor. “I sketch more ideas than I can use,” she explains. “Then I’ll take a sample of the fabric and test it.” The telling indicator is in how the fabric washes and how much, if any, shrinkage has occurred. “From there, I try sewing the sample,” she continues. “What I sew in accordance to what I sketch is kind of like the first shot; I’ll take my favorite and try it.”
The properties of the fabric direct what she does with it. “Playing with the fabric and sketching is not very linear; it’s a back-and-forth process,” she says. “I totally work by myself so I have to think about not only what I want and what flatters my figure, but what I think would flatter most petite women.”
From Sketch to Sample
Once she settles on a design, she’ll bounce it off the folks at Clothier Design Process for feedback and the feasibility to produce. “They take in my garment and create samples,” she says. “It usually takes between one to three samples before it’s ready for production.”
The process then volleys back to Orlando. She orders all the necessary fabrics, and determines the need for thread, plastic, or snaps. “And then I pick up all the supplies and haul them in the back of my car!” she says with a laugh.
The fabrics are sourced from California-based Pickering International, a major wholesaler of organic and sustainable fabrics in the United States. Organic cotton is the common element in her designs, usually blended with other fibers such as hemp, soy, and bamboo.
“I usually buy already-dyed fabric because of the quantities I’m producing at this point,” she says. “But hand-dyeing some of the garments gives them more color variation instead of a flat, solid color.” Her hand-dyeing process involves using fiber-reactive dyes where the pigment actually bonds to the fibers in the cloth, avoiding the need to use strong mordants, as is often the case with natural dyes.
The line is punctuated with muted tones and vivid brights to create a colorful equilibrium for a style that can best be described, as Orlando puts it, as “casually classy clothing suited for a professional setting, for yoga class, or even spending time with family.” Each piece is designed to multi-task, to fit and flatter through the changing course of the day.
For now, the business runs out of Orlando’s home in St. Louis Park, e-commerce style, with no brick-and-mortar placement—yet. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t already amassed a fair share of followers. EcoPetites customer Mimi Bitzan says, “Her styles make me feel artsy and professional at the same time. The quality is great, the fit is great and I have recommended her to a number of my friends who are petite.”
For those who are looking to make more conscious choices about clothing, Orlando has advice on getting creative with a lean wardrobe. “Think beyond all classics or basics,” she says. “Your wardrobe doesn’t have to be all neutrals in order to be versatile. Rather than thinking, ‘Will this top go with everything I own?’ think, ‘Can I go everywhere in this top?’
“And check for the gaps in your wardrobe. For example, if I repeatedly pull out a skirt in the morning and not wear it because I don’t have the right legwear or the matching tights are in the hamper, that tells me I need more legwear.”
You could say that identifying a need and filling it is something Orlando knows a thing or two about.