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Making fashion requires creativity, drive, and passion.  The same can be said for making change.  Good thing Karen Stewart and Howard Brown have ample stores of all three characteristics, because together they are responsible for bringing about a level of design and ethics that have blown the fashion industry away.  And they’re not done yet.

 
 

Stewart + Brown:
Pioneers in Ethical Ensembles

by Casey Jay

 

                Stewart + Brown’s beginnings go way back before the company’s incorporation in 2002, when its founders, Karen Stewart and Howard Brown, first met in 1993.  Karen, originally from New York, and Howard, a native of Montana, both ended up working for the Urban Outfitters headquarters in Philadephia.  They started dating and realized early on how well they complemented and challenged each other.  Howard, a nature enthusiast and longtime conservationist, turned Karen on to a love for the outdoors, which is where they spent much of their free time.  They both also shared a strong creative side, and knew that they needed an outlet for it. 

                Although their career paths eventually went separate ways, Karen and Howard remained committed to each other and to their dream of someday creating a business of their own.  In 1999, Karen and Howard cemented their relationship with a wedding, and three years later officially became business partners as well. 

  

                Stewart + Brown was founded to satisfy Karen and Howard’s creative natures and to reflect their values as well.  After working for many years in mainstream fashion, they both knew where the industry stood.  “We worked for profitable companies, but we were really involved in environmental issues,” said Brown.  “We became pretty disillusioned with companies that were only making trendy products.”  He and Karen did find motivation in one company, the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia.  “Patagonia married social justice and environmental ethics, and we were really inspired by that,” said Brown.  He described Stewart + Brown as the essence of Patagonia with more everyday fashion sense.

                To describe exactly how Stewart + Brown earns the title of “green” company requires a brief terminology lesson.  Brown explained that in the United States we hear words like “organic,” “green,” and “sustainable,” but that in Europe, one word covers it all: ethical.  An ethical company in Europe is one that makes every practice of its business environmentally and socially just.  Recycling, sustainability, fair trade, and using surplus and organic materials are all under the ethical umbrella.  “We aspire to be an ethical fashion brand,” Brown said. 

                  From its start, this aspiration was wrought with challenges.  Karen and Howard independently saved up the capital needed to get their company on its feet, all the while facing a lack of support from their peers.  “Nobody believed in us in the fashion industry,” Brown said.  “The fashion industry is conservative and stodgy.  They don’t care about people, they care about money.  The last thing they want to do is change,” he added.  Karen and Howard continue to hit walls today, especially in the wake of the current economy.  “We had to take out a business loan and we couldn’t get one in California,” Brown said.  “We had to go to Montana to get a loan, and to me, that’s disgusting, that short-sidedness of people in the money business.”

“With my two children, I can look them in the eye and say I’m making the world a better place.”

 

                But even greater than all the difficulties of pioneering an ethical fashion brand are all the rewards.  It is fitting that Karen and Howard gave their names to their company, because their business is their life, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.  Howard’s description of what he loves about his job is long and passionate.  “At the top of the list, I feel satisfied that we’re part of the solution and not the problem,” Brown said.  “We’re keeping people employed and doing it in a responsible way, we’re helping to make some good news,” he said.  “With my two children, I can look them in the eye and say I’m making the world a better place.”  Their business also provides the husband and wife team the outlet for creativity they always desired.  Directing shoots, developing the collection and brand, and motivating employees are what Howard said give him a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction where before there was emptiness. 

                The growth of the green fashion movement is also a source of joy and motivation for Karen and Howard.  “Coming to work every day, there is at least one e-mail that says ‘You guys are an inspiration,’” said Brown.  In these tough times, Howard said that positive feedback really keeps them going.  The fact that consumer demand for green products is increasing also drives Karen and Howard to continue, as well as demonstrates that their work is not done in vain.  “I think the consumers get it, they really do,” Brown said.  “Once people learn about it, they believe in it.”  Stewart + Brown’s online sales increased 72 percent from last year alone.  “The people want this,” Brown said.  “They come directly to me.”  With the current economy, buying from Stewart + Brown allows shoppers to make responsible choices without emptying their wallets.  “People might not be able to donate to charity right now, but buying from us they’re doing their part.”  Brown said that in general, he sees an overall increase in public demand for a more ethical and environment-conscious world.  “We go to the farmer’s market very weekend and that place is a busy beehive,” he said.  “That underscores people’s appetites for helping be the agents of change.”

                As for the changes that Karen and Howard would like to bring about, Howard said they have a few.  “We would like to expand to men’s and home furnishings, but we have to wait until the financing is there,” he said of their business goals.  All their other hopes and plans for the future are much more global.  “World peace and weaning ourselves off this horrible petroleum based economy,” Howard said for starters.  “I have a belief were entering an era of new prosperity,” he added.  “The old one was material wealth, and the new one is health and happiness.  Instead of judging others by their house and car and kid’s private school, people will judge by how happy they are and how much they help others.”  Finally, Howard shared a motto used at Stewart + Brown to summarize their ideals: “Be good, be relevant, be yourself.  I think that’s a mantra that everybody should have to be honest.”

 

Images: Stewart + Brown Spring 2009 Collection

Credits
Photographer: Nancy Neil

Stewart + Brown
www.stewartbrown.com


 
 

That Look Models
Elizabeth Grzejka

 

 

   
     
 
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