Sep 16, 2007
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Urban chic : green, ethical T-shirts with a message

Sep 16, 2007

PARIS, Sept 16, 2007 (AFP) - Once cheap and often nasty, T-shirts are back on the streets as ethical message-carrying PC wear that comes with a sizeable price tag for the high-end urban chic.

"Absolutely everyone is making T-shirts nowadays," said Guillaume Salmon, a spokesman for Paris' trend-setting Colette concept store. "You can wear them anywhere with anything nowadays, at work or at night, like jeans -- and they allow people to express themselves."

At the Paris Pret-A-Porter salon this week, a normally frivolous fashion event, staff unusually were turned out by the organisers in T-shirts that loudly proclaimed "No More Fashion Victims."

The work of veteran British designer Katharine Hamnett, a top-end stylist turned radical activist in the 1980s, the eye-catching block-lettered T-shirts are part of a campaign to clean up the clothing industry by the so-called "high priestess of ethical and environmental fashion."

And at the salon's special Ethical Fashion presentation, environmentally-friendly T-shirts made of organic cotton and toxic-free dyes, each conveying a political or artistic message, were the talk of the town.

Ethical fashion, said France's Junior Minister for the Environment Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet as she fingered the T-shirts, "helped give a contemporary image" to the environmental cause.

"Conventional cotton farming," designer Hamnett told AFP, "kills 20,000 people a year through pesticide poisoning." Organic cotton farming not only saved lives but helped improve work conditions and increase incomes in developing countries, she said.

But not all organic T-shirts carry holier-than-thou slogans.

Made from cotton sown in Burkina Faso and Mali but designed on the Internet, T-shirts by "Monsieur Poulet" (Mister Chicken), a clothing firm set up by two young Frenchmen, promotes young artists and in just a few months has made waves on the Paris scene.

Artists submit their designs on www.monsieurpoulet.com where anyone surfing the web can vote for their favourite. Twice a month the company produces the two T-shirts carrying the two designs voted most popular.

"We make an ethical product for fashion boutiques and a fashion product for ethical boutiques," said founders Rachid Baalla and Emmanuel Pierson. "We get up to 1,000 votes a day and each T-shirt is signed on the back by the artist." "The only constraint is that each design carry no more than four colours."

Colour is the theme of a new line of ethical T-shirt for top-end hipsters -- at 75 euros (100 dollars) a shot -- from France's Bluebretzel, which was set up this year but is already to be guest of honour at London's upcoming Fashion Week.

Made of organic cotton from Mali and spun and dyed in France, founder Jean-Gabriel Causse's T-shirts, produced with the help of an ex YSL/Hermes/Vuitton designer, come in seven state-of-the-art colours.

Using photographic research by Konica-Minolta, the company reproduced the exact camel-brown colour of Mona Lisa's eyes for one of its seven shades. Others come in the colour of Beluga caviar or the white sand of Hyams Beach in Australia.

"Rather than using slogans, our T-shirts tell a tale through colour," Causse said.

With message-bearing back in vogue as world citizens worry about the future of the globe, Hamnett attended the Paris salon for the first time to promote her PC line.

She made headlines in 1984 when on meeting Margaret Thatcher she surprised the prime minister and press by suddenly opening a jacket to unveil a T-shirt emblazoned "58 Percent Don't Want Pershing," a reference to an anti-nuclear campaign.

Touting messages such as "Choose Life," "Clean or Die" and "Peace," Hamnett's trade-mark garments are sold by the thousands to Japan, are stocked at London's trendy Selfridges, and at top French department stores at around 35 euros a piece.

"What's strange is that many of these slogans are 25 years old but even more topical today," said the willowy 60-year-old.

On the PC front too were fair trade T-shirts from Brazil's "Tudo Bom," each garment sold with a label carrying the name of the woman who made it, almost like a work of art.

Set up in 2005 with eight seamstresses, the firm now works with 33 women who enjoy steady pay, micro-credit and welfare benefits that meet the standards set by sustainable development goals. Its line currently is distributed by leading French mail-order firm La Redoute.

French firm Ideo, set up in 2002 by a pair of fair trade believers, has its green T-shirts and their soft political messages -- "Look at the World Differently," "Citizens of the World" -- on racks in 250 boutiques worldwide.

Said co-founder Rachel Liu: "We used to sell to specialist green boutiques but now we have a wider audience."

by Claire Rosemberg

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