Stephanie Strasburg is buzzing around a cordoned-off room in the Pittsburgh Glass Center, between racks of clothes and women with extreme, structural hairdos and heavy makeup. The models are just about to stomp the catwalk at Petal to the Metal, the eco-fashion show component of April's Geek Art and Green Innovators festival.
Strasburg's helping them into lingerie and drapey dresses, in earth tones and poppy fluorescents, all by Jonano, a locally designed contender in the hot field of eco-fashion. Strasburg, a spokesperson/sales rep/gal Friday for the line, herself looks pretty fly in a slightly deconstructed white Jonano halter top with blue piping set off by a thick brown leather belt. The dresses, high-fashion as they are, would work at work or running errands.
The word Jonano is from the Sami language, spoken by Scandinavian reindeer herders. It means "live well," according to Bonnie Siefers, the line's owner and chief designer. "They live in a symbiotic relationship with nature," she says of the herders, sipping coffee while dressed in a slim-cut long tweed jacket weeks after the show.
Siefers calls herself a "serial entrepreneur." She began Jonano five years ago. "This really came from a desire to do something that wasn't just a means to an end but fostered my calling," she explains. "I wanted to incorporate a giving back."
She cites her mother as a creative influence: Growing up in Wexford, Siefers was encouraged to make her own clothes and follow her own ideas on fashion. She also honors her mother by setting aside a portion of Jonano's profits to fund breast-cancer research.
It was crucial to Siefers to create clothes with consciousness -- everything from ecologically sourced fabrics and fairly paid tailors to low-impact packaging.
The collections -- up to several a year now, one of which showed recently at New York's famous Fashion Week -- include basics like tanks, but also clothes that don't demand to be worn one way or another: dresses that can be draped many ways; asymmetrical hems without a clear front or back; cowl necks that float differently on different bodies. They're like apparel Rorschach tests.
In addition to organic cotton, the line uses bamboo, one of the superstars of organic and eco-friendly textiles. The plant grows so quickly that it's hard to deplete, and it can help mend erosion and poor soil quality. But it's not without controversy -- last August, the Federal Trade Commission charged Jonano and three other companies with making deceptive claims about just how eco-friendly their bamboo textiles were.
Strasburg says the company agreed not to discuss the episode publicly. But according to news website www.environmentalleader.com, the FTC disputed the companies' claims that the fabric was 100 percent bamboo fiber. The fabric, FTC says, is rayon, even though it's bamboo-based. And rayon requires processing. So the companies can't claim all the benefits of pure bamboo -- biodegradability and anti-microbial properties, for example. And, the FTC says, though bamboo is green, turning bamboo into rayon fabric isn't.
Jonano settled, and now labels its product as "viscose from bamboo."
The distinction isn't stopping consumers.
"As soon as people touch it, they're like 'Wow!' It's an everyday basic turned into a luxury," says Tanya Kavalkovich, manager and buyer at the South Side's E House Company, which has carried the line for yearss.
"It's about the material. People really love that -- it's so flattering on everyone," echoes Alissa Martin, owner of Pavement, a Lawrenceville shoe and clothing boutique. "We're carrying the halter dress [$65] which you can wear like 16 different ways -- people are buying it if they're planning to attend a number of more casual weddings -- and a skirt with an asymmetrical hem [$58]."
Kavalkovich says that there's been a real awakening recently about eco-fashion -- especially now that it doesn't look like hemp sacks your hippie aunt sewed.
"It's really come a long way -- the feel of it, the look of it," she says. "People who are actually designers are taking the fabrics."