The focal point of Jeff Garner's Franklin design studio is an 1862 gown, displayed on a dress form, that he reworked for a runway show at London's Fashion Week. High-necked and made of plain black silk, the dress is austere — yet its wealth of construction details seems wildly luxurious by today's standards. Multiple seams shape an hourglass bodice; miniscule pleats gather the fabric at the waist, creating the volume needed for a full skirt, sustained with a crinoline. It combines sturdiness with a bold silhouette, in a way Garner clearly admires.
"Back in the Civil War days," he says, "the women would take apart their dresses and make them into a new dress in fashion. They had to — it was out of necessity. It's a different mentality, and you just hope people will gravitate back toward that."
The gown combines two of Garner's passions — high style, and the reuse of existing materials. Both will be on display Friday night, when Garner's work is the focus of an offbeat runway show downtown. On a stretch of Rosa Parks Boulevard where the height of retail fashion is usually the NFL jerseys at Walter Nipper's Sporting Goods, the internationally recognized designer is transforming the sidewalk into a catwalk — a high point not just for organic style, but for the Nashville fashion scene.
The idea came together when Garner got chatting one night with Joshua Smith, owner of the antebellum restaurant and social club The Standard — a hangout, Garner says, for "plastic surgeons and senators and that scene." "What if we put on a fashion show right here in the middle of the street?" Smith wondered. The idea snowballed, and now no less a figure than James Cameron, the maverick Avatar filmmaker and tech explorer, and his wife Suzy Amis Cameron will host.
What's more, the event will benefit MUSE, a green nonprofit elementary school in Topanga, Calif. Proceeds from the evening should be robust, since The Standard is offering VIP guests the chance to have dinner with the Camerons for $300. (Tickets may also be had for considerably less, and people can watch on the street for free.)
Garner and his label label, Prophetik, are enjoying surprising success. After eight years in business, they debuted at London's Fashion Week in March, have been filmed for an as-yet-unreleased documentary by Lani Netter, and gotten press from big-name publications like Elle. All this glamour could inspire conspicuous consumption. But that's not what Garner wants.
By promoting the conservation-conscious mindset of the 1860s, Prophetik is trying to set an example for an industry that often doesn't care where clothes come from or how fast they get tossed, as long as buyers keep coming back for more.
While the average consumer is at least dimly aware of the issues surrounding organic food, shoppers rarely consider the real costs of clothing while browsing Target. Pesticides used in growing fibers contaminate the groundwater. Toxic runoff from dyes pollutes waterways. Factories use sweatshop labor, while transporting goods from overseas contributes to global warming. The customer saves at the cash register, but pays exorbitant hidden premiums in the long run.
Prophetik aims to make every step of their production process ethical and sustainable, from the co-op grown hemp to the Tennessee factory that manufactures them to the certified organic dyes that color them. Clothes are even transported by Prius.
Garner makes an appealing spokesman for his cause. His laid-back manner and tan good looks make him look the Malibu surfer he was before moving to Tennessee eight years ago. He has dazzlingly white teeth and carelessly unwashed blond hair, and his own fashion sense skews toward leather boots, worn black jodhpurs and a thin gray T-shirt. His studio, a second-story room accessed by metal spiral stairs, is furnished with antique chairs and tables, tapestries, chandeliers, a coat of arms, a sword, fashion sketches, and photos cut from magazines. Natural light streams in.
The designer first got into the entertainment business with an acting job for Mattel, playing Barbie's pal Blaine. This modest start set him on the circuitous path to starting a fashion label. After launching his line, the native Tennessean moved back to his family farm in Gallatin, a pragmatic move intended to keeps costs down. "Guys in the industry will call, they'll be like, 'Is that a chicken?' " Garner says.
But the rural life suits him, allowing him to exercise daily on horseback. He cites this as one reason he's able to stay focused, along with his radically simple diet: the same mixture of yogurt, granola and acai berries for every meal. "I don't know many people who — I don't know anyone that does it, honestly," Garner says. "But it works for me."
Garner's earthy-crunchy inclinations could make him appear a naïve idealist, if he weren't so realistic about a business that green-washes without conviction yet rewards careless consumption. He understands that buyers are reluctant to change their habits, and why.
"It takes a conscious person to go that route, because right now everybody's addicted [to cheap clothes]," Garner says. "We have a throwaway society that buys from H&M, Target, etc. It's cheap, it's trendy, it works, it satisfies an emotional feeling, and then it's done."
Impulsive fashionistas, however, might be won over by the charms of Garner's collection. While most organic fashion is "the kinda hippie, hang-loose, hemp stuff," he says, his designs have a sophisticated edge, taking inspiration from the clean lines of Civil War-era garments. Racks in the studio hold his most recent pieces; these include colorful sundresses, knit separates and appealingly tailored pants, jackets, vests and frock coats.
Some of them smell faintly of the plant-based dyes they've been soaked in, such as indigo. They look like age and wear would only improve them.
"The reality is, everybody has a clothing budget, so you can create a product that is sustainable and eco-friendly that fits within that budget," Garner says. "So maybe they buy less, which is great, but then have stuff that's made well."
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