Portland has been referred to as fashion’s best kept secret, with its eco friendly designers, innovative style concepts, and fresh design talent emerging every day. I was lucky enough to score an interview with one of Portland’s most creative, fashion- savvy designers, yet. Jeanne Feldkamp is the local sustainable designer of Après Collective and has influenced Portland’s fashion scene with her incredible use of fleece. She has managed to take the fabric from drab to fab, while touching hearts and lives along the way. Check out her inspiring story, below!
Isabelle Craft (Examiner)/Jeanne Feldkamp (Après Collective)
Portlanders are known for their love of fleece and have often been scrutinized for that. Do you think your brand will change this negative outlook?
I grew up in Portland and wore fleece all the time. There’s a lot to love about it–it’s soft, it’s incredibly warm, it’s durable, and it’s easy to take care of. And it’s actually completely recyclable. But no one was using the fabric to make anything other than these boxy, athletic pullovers. I think that’s where fleece got its bad rap–it was about the shape of the garments that are typically made from fleece, not the fabric itself.
I started the Après Collective label based on the idea that fleece and other athletic performance fabrics could be used in new, more fashion-focused ways. At the end of the day, an athletic fabric is still just fabric. You can use it the same ways you would use other similar types of material. I really liked the idea of combining the high-performance aspects of fleece–the softness, the warmth, the durability–with higher-end construction details like ruffles and draping.
It’s tough to tackle all the negative associations people have with fleece overnight, but we’re definitely working on it. I wear the collection when I ski, and a lot of people approach me during après-ski cocktails in the lodge to ask about what I’m wearing. They usually don’t even register that I’m wearing fleece before I tell them. I think that’s fantastic.
What reaction do you typically receive from other designers and faces in the industry?
The reaction to the designs has been overwhelmingly positive. The shapes and detailing we use are fairly unusual for any sport-inspired collection, and they are radically different from any other fleece offerings out there. It’s great that the industry is recognizing the concept as something truly original.
We’ve also gotten a tremendous amount of positive feedback, both from industry peers and the press, on the fact that we design sustainability into our business model. We felt that it was important to look for simple ways to transform waste into resources. So we collect all the scraps generated during our cutting process and use them as stuffing inside a line of fun graphic throw pillows. A portion of the profits from those pillows benefits Bpeace.org–an organization that trains women in the developing world to become entrepreneurs.
Fleece is known for its warmth and softness, but definitely not for its structure. Somehow, you have managed to create sharp lines with the fleece in your designs. What made you think that this fabric could be shaped so beautifully?
I love manipulating fabrics in unexpected ways. I used to make custom red carpet dresses–so I’ve spent a lot of time working with heavy silk crepe, which has enough heft to it to hold interesting shapes but is still soft and fluid enough to bend without creasing. Lightweight fleece has a lot of the same qualities.
One of the best qualities of fleece is its sustainability. The fabric is 100% recyclable which is important here in Portland. Did that affect your decision to use fleece as your fabric of choice?
Honestly, I didn’t know much about the sustainability aspects of fleece before I decided to make it the focus of the winter collection. I chose it initially because–as fabrics go–it was a relatively local option. The high-quality Polartec we use is made at Malden Mills in Massachussetts, so the fabric doesn’t have to be imported from Asia.
But the more I learned, the better the story got. Fleece manufacturing can be a closed loop. The fabric can be made from recycled PET (the same stuff used for plastic water bottles). Old fleece can also be recycled and turned into new PET fibers. So even though fleece is made from polyester and not a natural fiber like cotton or bamboo, the raw materials can be reused over and over again with relatively little waste. Whereas with natural fibers, you need huge amounts of water and chemicals to remake the raw materials into recycled fabric.
What would you consider the number one priority of Après Collective?
It’s really simple: I want to make things that people love. Things that they wear over and over again. Things that become the go-to signature pieces in their closets. When you make something that people love enough to include in their daily lives, that’s when you know you’ve succeeded in creating a great design.
I know that you source and produce your products locally in order to better serve the environment, but it seems to be the more expensive option. Would you say this affects the brand’s growth?
Sourcing materials and doing manufacturing locally definitely costs more than going overseas, and that cost difference has to be reflected in the prices. But until you start getting into some major sales volume, the difference isn’t actually as significant as you might think. I feel good about charging a few more dollars per piece if it means that those dollars are helping to support American mills and factories. And customers seem to appreciate the local production aspect as well.
You have achieved a great deal since starting the brand. What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
I’m really proud of the fact that sustainability is designed directly into our business model, and that our pillows are both a revenue source and a way to benefit a great organization doing good work. Sustainability shouldn’t be a sacrifice a company makes for PR purposes. Profitability and altruism shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. What Blake Mycoskie has done with TOMS Shoes [they give away one pair of shoes to a child in the developing world for every pair purchased] has been really inspirational to me on that front.
Creating and marketing your own brand is quite a challenge. What was your toughest moment during the process?
Once you’ve got the brand DNA worked out, every decision flows from what you’ve established as the company’s overarching set of values. Creating that brand vision and figuring out what it meant in terms of operations was the tough part. Now, as long as we stick to the initial vision, it’s all good.
And, your proudest moment?
There’s nothing like seeing someone you’ve never met wearing one of your pieces on the street. That thrills me every time!
Thanks for the giving us the chance to peek at what’s behind your amazing brand, Jeanne! Now, it’s time for us to put an Après Collective piece at the very tops of our wish lists!