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Summer Rayne Oakes: Green Never Looked So Good

Summer Rayne Oakes
Q&A with the environmental scientist-turned-fashion model who prefers insects to outfits and thinks we should all buy fewer clothes

For a lanky brunette from northeastern Pennsylvania, walking the runway during New York City's Fashion Week might seem like a dream come true. But when Summer Rayne Oakes propels her 5-foot-11-inch frame down the catwalk, she's working for a much bigger agenda -- creating a sustainable planet -- and fashion is just her means to that end.

What other model has published papers on sewage sludge, attended the Copenhagen climate talks, and raises insects in her apartment? As an author, television correspondent, consultant, and independent businesswoman, Oakes relentlessly pursues her mission to promote a culture of sustainability. We spoke with her on the eve of Fashion Week.

What are you doing for Fashion Week? I hear it's going to be a carbon-neutral event.

They're doing a few different things to bring some sustainability into the mix. Aveda's doing a big water campaign, eliminating bottled water and supplying reusable aluminum bottles filled with tap water. They're serving local food and shuttling people around on pedicabs. I'm doing some behind-the-scenes coverage for Modelinia Fashion Week TV as an environmental correspondent. I'm going to attend some of the Green Shows, which happen at the same time as Fashion Week. I'll also be walking in the deux fm show and in Ekovaruhuset.

What are you going to be wearing?

I actually don't know, I haven't even been for a fitting yet. I don't get to see what I'm wearing until the last minute. I'm also about to launch a new project in March, so I really haven't been paying attention.

What's the new project?

It's called S4 Style Inc., a business-to-business online marketplace that allows designers to purchase and compare sustainable materials, like organic cottons and recycled polyesters. We're doing a private beta launch on March 1 with 30 suppliers and 1,000 items.

What prompted you to get into Internet commerce?

I wanted to figure out a way to help designers become self-reliant and source things more sustainably. We want to reduce the research they have to do and spend more time designing. There's no Coco Chanel of the green world yet, because materials aren't easily accessible. The industry hasn't come together as a community, and designers haven't been informed how the supply chain integrates with design.

You launched a shoe line, Zoe and Zac, with Payless last year. Did that experience help inform your business?

Working with them has been wonderful. They have an incredibly well-versed sourcing team that's been around for about 50 years now. When they approached me, it was their excitement that got me, and the idea that we'd be reaching out to an audience that's not normally informed on environmental issues. That's always been the core of my work.

You refer to your modeling work as "cause-related modeling." Is that a term of your own making?

I started using that, or "values-based modeling," as an alternative to "eco-modeling," which the press uses. It really bothered me. I was a serious scientist and wanted to be taken seriously, and "eco-model" just doesn't command that.

What's your scientific background?

I graduated from Cornell with degrees in environmental science and entomology.

Why entomology?

I love insects. I've been raising them since I was 9 years old. I didn't pick that major at first, but I had a class with a cool professor, Cole Gilbert. He always dressed really nicely, in these bright Hawaiian shirts and khaki pants and loafers. We were walking around a lake on campus on a spring day with collecting nets, and all of a sudden he just hurls himself into the lake chasing whirligig beetles. And I thought, if someone gets that excited about a bug with a bubble on its ass, that's where I want to be.

What insects are you raising now?

Right now I have a handful of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, red-backed darkling beetles, and blue death-feigning beetles. When you scare them they roll over with their legs up in the air, and you can stack up them up like chairs.

Do they have names?

I always have a Hercules and an Attila the Hun around.

How did a budding scientist get into modeling?

I realized as an undergrad that university research was only going to get me so far. I had been doing sewage sludge research and had a paper accepted for publication, but I knew it wasn't going to change federal regulations or even land use permits. I decided if my work was going to get to a wider audience, it had to be somewhere other than the environmental industry. The most achievable thing to me seemed to be fashion.

Why did fashion seem achievable?

Maybe it was naïveté. I had nothing to lose. I didn't have a clue as to what was possible or impossible. One day I got on the bus from Cornell to New York City, stayed with a friend and started meeting folks, telling them what I wanted to do. Later on I met John Cooper, a photographer doing a project with models in natural elements, and he asked me to join. We turned it into a project about sustainable development. A lot of things broke off of that. I started a curriculum, Ecofashion101, for 1st to 12th graders. I started writing a series of sustainable fashion editorials for Lucire, a global fashion magazine in Australia and New Zealand. It was really empowering doing all this while in university, laying down tracks and defining what this was all about.

Was it a natural fit, or do you feel like an outsider in the fashion world?

You dip in and out of it, like a wet washrag in a pail. I feel I've come into fashion through a strange, secret garden path and defined myself within it. Some people look at it from the outside and say you're a model, you're in the core. But you choose the folks you hang around, how you spend your life. You have to move in and out fluidly. Same with the environmental movement; I dip in and out with the different projects I marry myself to.

British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood recently told people to stop buying so many clothes. Do you agree?

Yeah, I'm not really a shopper. I don't get enjoyment out of purchasing stuff. Once in a while I do. I went to Eco Citizen when I was in San Francisco and got some really nice stuff that I will enjoy and wear for quite some time. But I never really understood even as a kid growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania when kids would walk around the mall and buy stuff. I never got that as an activity. Also living in my New York apartment with a small closet, my wardrobe has to be edited. Less is more for me. I probably wear the same damn thing six days a week.

How do you reconcile that ethic with your involvement in the fashion world? You're out there pushing product.

You have to meet people where they're at, and if it's someone who needs a pair of shoes or is buying something for their home, that's the hook where you can bring them in. If you can tell your story through fashion, humor, media, consumer goods, food or technology, those are the tools we can use to connect back with something much greater and motivate people to do something greater. My passion has never been the fashion angle. It's just a communications tool.

Do you think people are still receptive to the idea of sustainable goods in this economic downturn? Will big brands continue to pursue a more sustainable ethic?

The downturn has been a sobering experience. So much of green fashion was made up of these independent small boutiques that got hit hard in the downturn and couldn't hold on. But the industry is inevitably moving toward a focus on sustainability. Women's Wear Daily just did a survey with senior executives in the apparel supply chain, and 89 percent said the most important thing in global sourcing is sustainability. Whether they like it or not, they're moving.

As more big corporations start talking about sustainability, do you think there's a bigger danger of greenwashing?

I don't think it's that easy to greenwash any more. There are a lot of watchdog groups out there that keep people in check. Some people maybe don't purposely greenwash, but need to stay away from vague language. Sustainability hasn't been defined, and it's part of the industry's responsibility to do that. I'm part of the Eco Working Group for the apparel industry, and we're shaping that language, but it's going to take a few years.

Do you plan to go back to science at some point?

I crave it, to be honest. I deeply crave it. Lately I've been more of a publicist than a practitioner, and now I'm craving that practitioner role. It's hard for me. In many ways I still operate as an environmental scientist. Maybe I'm in denial. It's like my body exists in New York City, but I operate as if I'm in a small cabin in the woods somewhere.

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Shanti Menon juggles freelance writing and motherhood in New York City. She writes about science, the environment, travel, education, and the antics of her two small children. Her work has appeared in Discover, Yoga Journal, The New York Post and oth... READ MORE >

I can't believe they going to push tap water down people's throats. It's filled with a most deadly poison called fluoride!!! My goodness, what is going on here? They should be using filtered water and glass bottles, if anything.