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Ethical Fashion

Ventura-based Stewart + Brown proves you don’t have to sacrifice style to do clothing right.

By By Allison Costa—Principal Photography by Gary and Pierre Silva

Karen Stewart + Howard Brown, Front Street, Ventura.

 

hen asked what her parents do for a living, feisty and funky seven-year-old Hazel Brown tells it like it is: "Mommy makes clothes, and Daddy makes them look pretty and sells them." Her parents, Karen Stewart and Howard Brown, pioneers in the green fashion movement, own Stewart + Brown, a Ventura-based “ethical fashion brand” that evolved out of the couple’s dream to blend divine design with an environmental conscience. In the last eight years their company has grown, going worldwide and raising the bar for environmentally conscious clothing companies everywhere. But its products are still made right here in the county seat, in a humble little building on Front Street, Ventura.

Karen at her desk, ground zero for all S + B design.

The story dates back to 1993 when the couple met in Philadelphia, kindred spirits and, as Stewart puts it, "two very inspired designers with complimentary skill sets." Even then they knew they wanted to run their own business. At the time, they were both working for Urban Outfitters, Stewart as a designer and Brown as a creative director. Stewart also designed for Anthropologie, J. Crew, and—her final stop before Stewart + Brown—another eco-friendly Ventura-based business: Patagonia.

Both partners grew up in their parents’ businesses, now their own kids are following suit.

As Brown worked with companies like Burton snowboards and ESPN, he began to dream of a more purpose-driven career. Enter Stewart + Brown. In 1999, it was finally time for the duo to go out on their own, because, as Brown says, "No one was doing what we wanted to do." And that was to create clothing they consider "good": high quality, stylish, ethical, and sustainable. They aim to make clothing that people will want and need, clothing that is timeless, and clothing that brings out a woman's inner beauty. "We are in the business of selling confidence," Brown says.

Now a company of a dozen employees, Stewart + Brown clothing is available at high-end retailers such as Anthropologie and Fred Segal. They have showrooms in New York and Los Angeles, distributors in Scandinavia, Europe, and Japan—and they are still growing.

Master tailor Barbara O’Grady instructs up-and-coming seamstress Hazel Stewart Brown.

Though Karen Stewart's job at Patagonia brought her and Howard Brown to the area, they could have started their company anywhere. Yet this duo chose to stay in Ventura, where they had met many people with similar values. As Brown said when he first spent time in Ventura back in 1998, "It just feels so right." And as far as business goes, the proximity to Los Angeles is a bonus as well. They have access to the fashion and design world there, but get to come home to a little town by the beach that fits like a glove.

The family of four also includes young Huxley.

What makes this company green? It's not flashy solar panels or electric cars, just a down-home focus on simplicity and doing right by the environment. Their studio is furnished solely with second-hand furniture, they utilize skylights and natural light as much as they can, and they don't have heat or air conditioning in their workspace. All of their fibers and fabrics are either organic or pesticide-free. When it comes to their sweaters, it's only naturally renewable fibers like merino wool or Tibetan yak. Beyond this, some of their clothing utilizes surplus fabric, yet another way of recycling. And there’s a social component to this ethical fashion brand as well. "We don't want to grow big on the backs of the disenfranchised," Brown says, referring to the company’s exclusive use of fair trade labor. 

Gardenia Convert Dress, $148. Photo by Nancy Neil.

While their clothing is easy on the environment, it is also easy on the eyes and soft to the touch. Buttery soft cottons, cozy Mongolian cashmere, draping hemp, and fuzzy merino dominate their designs, which are often inspired by nature. The result, according to Stewart, is "smart, understated elegance." Their blouses sport ruffled collars, their shirts drapy cowl necks; the T-shirts and accessories are feminine and fun. When asked who she designs for, Stewart answers, "I think of myself and people I know, not some picture of a celebrity." In their design, they aim to be inclusive and accessible. And they want their customers to know the stories behind their products.

Smock Waist Dress, $178. Photo by Nancy Neil.

Even as they face a tough economy, Stewart and Brown vow not to lose touch with their company’s core values. "Being bigger with more product categories is not necessarily better," Brown says. So they will try to balance growth with a responsibility to the environment and their community.  As they do each year, they will continue to give at least one percent of all sales to nonprofit organizations. And if they hit hurdles along the way, this duo is not afraid to roll up their sleeves. As Stewart says, "We don't throw money at problems, we throw creativity."

Mimosa Tunic, $189. Photo by Nancy Neil.

03-01-2010

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