San Jose Fashion Week: When did you first develop a passion for the environment?
Summer Rayne Oakes: I was quite young. My mother would have an awful time trying to get me to come inside. I always had something to bring home- like frogs in my shoes, woolly bear caterpillars, and anything else I could get my hands on. I insisted on bringing nature home with me. I really found a part of myself in nature, which evolved as I began exploring Native American philosophies and getting involved at an early age in the community. I had the ultimate experience growing up because I was given a tremendous amount of freedom and responsibility- from organizing steam quality tests, designing and managing a coal reclamation site, and acquiring tree replanting grants for the local parks.
SJFW: And when did that passion first begin to include fashion?
SRO: Not until university. Second semester. As much as I believe in research and the scientific process, I knew that if I wanted to inspire and empower change in a big way, I'd have to step outside the science circles and cast a wider net.
SJFW: Where do you think the fashion industry as a whole stands on going green?
SRO: Phew, it's been a thousand-pound gorilla for the industry. So much production has moved overseas, so addressing and managing sustainability is complex. It's moved simply from environmentally preferable materials to consideration of energy efficiency, corporate governance, fair labor and waste. There are challenges on all levels - from small independent designers to larger manufacturers. Luckily, through new materials sourcing businesses like C.L.A.S.S. and trade shows like Prêt a Porte, Designers & Agents, Ethical Fashion Show, and Estethica, materials and designers are easily accessible, which wasn't the case even three years ago. I still do believe that innovation is largely happening at the grassroots level with independent designers, but that's not to say that tremendous movement is happening on a more commercial level with the likes of players such as Levis, Nike, GAP, H&M, Timberland and others. We're seeing a good dialogue and exchange of collaborative best practices there, which we also didn't see three years ago.
SJFW: And Payless!
SRO: Yes, and Payless.
SJFW: I am personally very excited about your affordable line of "green" shoes, Zoe & Zac™, coming to Payless this March. How did this develop?
SRO: My agency set up a meeting between me and the heads of Payless. They [Payless] identified diversity and sustainability as their two key areas that they wanted to focus on. After a couple conversations with their team, it was clear they were on the right path and now I've come on as their sustainability strategist and spokesperson. It's very hands on. That's how I like to work.
SJFW: What can shoppers expect?
SRO: The Zoe & Zac™ line is pretty sweet. We've taken popular, best-selling styles at Payless and on-trend looks (like ballet flats and wedges) and began integrating more environmentally preferential materials, like linens, hemps, organic cotton canvases, nickel-free metals, water-based glue, recycled rubber, eco-foam (a material similar to Kevlar) and recycled packaging. We're starting with women's casual shoes in eight different styles and a myriad of colors and patterns. But through the seasons we'll be introducing kid’s shoes, women's dress, and eventually men's, all for under $30. Looks will change frequently, a few times a year, to keep it fresh and new, and we'll also have accessories, like bags and jewelry. We're also partnering with an environmental organization to introduce Payless customers an easy way to give back.
SJFW: What is your favorite thing about what you do?
SRO: I love that I never repeat the same day twice. There's always something new going on. It keeps it real and vibrant. I can wake up every morning and look forward to what's on my plate. I think that's when you know you've found your life's work. "Retirement" is a made-up word to me. I could never do it. I'm committed for life. And the people I work with and surround myself with are passionate people. The ability to find inspiration and in turn give inspiration to many of the different people I meet along the way is another plus.
SJFW: What are the greatest challenges?
SRO: Whoa boy [laughing].
SJFW: That many, huh?
SRO: Ha! Well.... I think finding all the right partners for the myriad projects I have outlined. They're not always there, or at least you don't know how to get to them. We're constantly pitching, pitching, pitching. The other challenge is being small and having myriad projects. At the beginning of this year, I outlined which projects I'd need to keep and which ones to put to the side. I asked myself, which ones are resource-drains and which ones are resource-gains? And I'm not just talking strictly monetary resources - I'm talking creative and time resources too. I don't want to be spending 80 percent of my time on a project that only outputs 20 percent of the results. There's too much to do and invent to be jammed up like that. I think the last challenge is having to say "no" to many worthy projects that come my way - and not being able to listen to all the upstart projects that come along. There's just only so much time in the day and one person's only got so much bandwidth.
SJFW: What or who has inspired you recently and in the past on both the design and economic aspects of your career?
SRO: My partners are inspirationally indispensable. Allan Schwarz, the architect/designer/community sustainable development entrepreneur I work with in Mozambique is incredibly gifted in the design work he does because he designs on micro and macro-levels. His knowledge runs deep and I am always incredibly humbled to be around him. If I knew even one tenth of what he knows, my head would explode [laughing]. On the business-front, Alexander Jutkowitz - my friend, business partner, and manager - is my mentor. Upon starting my company, he reached out to me and we immediately started working together. It came at the right time in my life and now we've built up an amazing series of businesses, from consulting to new website ventures to a host of other projects in the works. He's my go-to guy for advice and he helps temper - well maybe temper is not the right word - he helps harness my energy, which is necessary because if it were up to me, I'd be doing a million things.
SJFW: Do you hope to inspire others?
SRO: Oh absolutely. I've gotten some amazing letters from all sorts of people with all different backgrounds who have felt the need to write because they've been inspired. That's incredible.
SRO: Yah! Bona fide handwritten letters! I know, a near-extinct form of communication. I love it. I send handwritten letters back, but it just takes me a while to respond. But yes, I hope to inspire in my work. Especially peers and young people who have struggled.