“Imagine that you knew it wasn’t going to be economically viable for the first seven years…would you still follow that career path?” Summer Rayne Oakes says to me. “For you, with your writing?”
Oakes is sitting across from me in a café with walls lined in chalkboard menus and the glass coolers filled with too-pretty tarts and cakes, making it feel more like Paris than Brooklyn. But this is shabby-chic Williamsburg, after all, and in her leopard print hat and wooly poncho, she fits right in. I realize she actually wants an answer, even though I’m the one who’s supposed to be asking the questions.
I’d still do it, I assure her.
Satisfied, she launches on. “I cannot even tell you how I worked so hard,” she laments. “I heard the word ‘no,’ and I thought, ‘fine I’ll go through another door.’ ”
Oakes is a model. That sure isn’t an easy career path to break into, but Oakes isn’t talking about her trials and tribulations getting fashion gigs. Instead, she’s talking about her constant fight to get the fashion world to take note of her efforts to green up the industry. Oakes isn’t just a model — she’s a self-described eco-model. With a degree from Cornell in natural resources and entomology, she has the brains to back up the title. Standing at a willowy 5’10” and possessing an impressive ability to march in heels, Oakes certainly looks the part. But she only models for designers whose environmental standards align with her own. She’s also a prolific writer (author of Style Naturally and an editor-at-large at Above Magazine), designer (she worked on a sustainable line of footwear for Payless Shoes and also has an eyewear line), and entrepreneur. In October 2010, Oakes co-founded Source4Style, a company that connects designers with more sustainable fabrics and materials. She’s been named a “Global Citizen” by Vanity Fair and was one of CNBC’s “Top 10 Green Entrepreneurs of 2010.”
Oakes says she originally entered the fashion world not as pretty face looking for a break, but as an undercover means of getting involved in an industry she desperately wanted to change. During her freshman year of college, she had been working as a research assistant contributing to scientific papers at Cornell’s Department of Waste Management, or as she brightly calls it, “researching sludge.” Admirable as it is to be published at such a young age, Oakes realized there was something missing. She was living with four guys at the time, “none of them environmentalists,” and they “didn’t get what I was doing,” she says. That her friends didn’t understand her work bothered her so much she decided to bring her environmental passion to a more mainstream industry.
“I said, ‘OK, what industry is the one that is furthest away from sustainability? That’s fashion.’ ” But she didn’t know how to enter that world, lacking “any kind of credibility whatsoever.” So she came up with an unlikely plan to get a look at the industry from the inside…as a model. When she first started, she didn’t make a big deal of her frequent trips to New York. “She was a natural resources major and modeling was one of three jobs she did,” explains Cornell scholarship advisor Beth Fiori, who helped Oakes successfully apply for a Udall Environmental Scholarship.
Toward the end of her freshman year, she planned a trip to New York to make her case as an eco-model to as many people as would listen. “I set up at least 50 meetings,” she recalls. “Do you know how hard it is to get around New York? I had no clue.” During that weekend she met photographer John Cooper, who was working on a series, Organic Portraits, which used nature-inspired modeling portraits to raise money for sustainable fashion efforts. Oakes joined the effort. Though the project never “took off” in the way Oakes hoped, it put her in contact with the right people — people she still works with and models for today (she only tries to model for companies whose morals she already knows she’ll agree with).
“I thought I could enter in as a model, because of my stature, not because it was a desire of mine,” Oakes says. Such unabashed honesty about her obvious good looks is typical of Oakes; her beauty is simply a means to an end — getting people talking about sustainable fashion. Which was not something that very many people were doing in the early 2000s.
“I realized pretty quickly that the fashion industry really didn’t give a crap…there was no value system within fashion,” Oakes said. “You just did whatever job paid you and if that job represented luxury or sin or sultriness, that’s what you represented.”
Outdoors companies like Patagonia were attempting to be sustainable, some smaller designers always have tried, and organic cotton was on the rise, but mainstream and high-end fashion was not clued in, Oakes says. She rattles off the eco-history of the fashion industry at the same breakneck speed with which she had earlier informed her intern that rayon isn’t always made from bamboo and lyocell wood pulp isn’t always sustainably certified. The intern was working on an article for the Source4Style website, attempting to explain the eco-friendliness of rayon and its derivatives, and it was obvious that she’d exhausted her own research capabilities and turned to Oakes’ brain as a substitute encyclopedia of information.
Oakes is hoping to use her cranial encyclopedia to help the fashion industry take less of a toll on the overall health of the planet. This means paying greater attention to where the components of every piece of clothing comes from, how it is grown, dyed, manufactured, shipped and cared for. Her hard science background is invaluable to her work.
“When you’re trained as an ecologist, you’re trained as a systems thinker,” she says. When Oakes thinks about a fabric, she sees the plant that originally produced it, and knows how that plant affected the earth. Is it grown in a monoculture? Did it require lots of pesticides? Did it leave the soil depleted? In designing the Zoe&Zac shoe line for Payless, she used recycled rubber, organic cotton and hemp. Oakes also uses her ecology background to provide tips to help everyday consumers learn to be a little greener — by not washing your jeans, for example. This background allows her to clearly assess the carbon footprint and impact of the materials she promotes on Source4Style, allowing designers to be greener without having to put in tons of their own time or labor. Tara St. James, a Brooklyn-based green designer, says she often uses the site as her middleman, calling Oakes a “superwoman,” of sustainable fashion.
Oakes is also starting to plot a way to get her message on sourcing and sustainability into fashion schools by creating a model curriculum to distribute. Oakes is starting to accrue more and more fame in the fashion world — she has graced the pages of several magazines, is a go-to source for sustainable fashion news and was even the muse for the latest Prius model. Source4Style is gaining users, having launched its “2.0” site just a few months ago.
For now, the company is still in start-up mode, and is temporarily based out of Oakes’ sunny Williamsburg apartment. Swatches of fabric and large handwritten to-do lists share space with an indoor hammock, more plants than are worth counting, and a collection of insects (Oakes’ pets).
“I devote most of my life to my work,” Oakes says. “My life is my work.”
For now, Oakes is devoting most of her time to Source4Style, and remains upbeat about the fashion world’s slow-rising interest in the Earth. Surrounded by her plants and her fabrics, she seems content that the world she has chosen to inhabit is finally taking notice of her passion for sustainability and not just her pretty face.