Green is the colour

Even 'natural' cotton clothing is full of chemical nasties, discovered Gabriela and William Lana. So began their dream of producing organic clothing that is neither hairy nor hippie. Hester Lacey meets them
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ORGANIC clothing. Big, hairy, misshapen sweaters, hand-woven by Ecuadorean peasants? Scratchy, fibrous, floor-length tunics apparently made from unprocessed bits of stick? Nothing suitable for anything more formal than tending the compost heap? Or: smart and durable, wear-it-anywhere, made from the best quality natural fibres? "If you eat healthily, people think it isn't supposed to taste nice, it has to be like bird-food," says Gabriela Lana of Greenfibres, a newly-launched mail order company. "In the same way, if you want to buy organic clothes, nobody thinks you might want a work shirt - it's as though people who want organic fabrics can't possibly work in offices."

This is something that Greenfibres is setting out to change. The company trades in garments that are ecologically-friendly and produced without exploitation of those who manufacture them - and at the same time are a far cry from anything hairy, itchy or hippie (Gabriela is wearing an elegant cream skirt with a cream-and-rust sweater and a bright orange silky scarf, while her husband William sports a smart, button-down collar cream shirt with dark green trousers).

Gabriela, 30, and William, 29, started Greenfibres in August last year, but the project has been two years in the planning. They run the company from their home in Greenwich, south London - a tall, narrow house, cheerfully cluttered with books, photographs, plants, plus toys belonging to their two small children, Megan and Max. "I have been buying organic clothes for about nine years now," explains Gabriela. "I started with organic foods, but then I started wondering where my clothes came from." Cotton, she thought, had to be a "natural" fibre; so she was amazed to find that about 12 per cent of the world's insecticides and 26 per cent of the world's pesticides are used on cotton crops, and that cotton-growing has laid waste to large tracts of Turkistan and Uzbekistan and caused damage in India and Africa. When she started looking for organic clothes, she found that the market in her native Germany was far in advance of anything to be found in Britain. Also the range available in Germany was far more suitable for office wear (both she and William spent some years working in financial services, where clothes of the tie-dye, unbleached kaftan ilk are definitely not acceptable). Hence, the first germ of the Greenfibres idea. Greenfibres clothes are sourced mainly from Germany and the US, and have impeccable credentials. "We try to find things that are as environmentally responsible as possible and produced in a socially responsible way - without exploitation, without using child labour, and where everyone involved is paid a fair wage," explains Gabriela. "Our products are produced organically where possible, and everything that is not organic is untreated - they aren't coated in chemicals, as most textiles are."

All Greenfibres textiles carry internationally-recognised certifications that they are free of chemicals. All are untainted by lindane, formaldehyde, organochlorine pesticides or organophosphates - chemical baddies which have been implicated in health and environmental problems. This is not only good for the ecologically concerned, but for those with sensitive skin or complaints such as eczema. The Greenfibres range, made of pure cotton, wool, silk and linen, includes dresses, T-shirts, beautiful heavyweight cable-knit sweaters, shirts, chino-style trousers, underwear, baby clothes and nappies. Also available are belts, scarves, bags, blankets, wooden and stuffed toys, including an adorable polar bear hand puppet and a fat and cuddly lion. Apart from the scarves, all the clothes are undyed, and come in subtle shades of beige, russet, grey and cream; buttons and fastenings are made of recycled rubber or metal, or natural materials such as mother- of-pearl or "vegetable ivory", derived from nuts. And all are beautifully made, with buttons that won't twist off, seams that won't unravel, and hems that won't come down.

Sadly, such quality doesn't come cheap. A heavy-knit unisex cotton cable- knit sweater is pounds 57; a cotton sweatshirt is pounds 38; cotton/silk mix T-shirts start at pounds 29; a hemp button-through dress is pounds 115 and men's hemp jeans are pounds 96, with shirts at pounds 89. "If you look at price tags in the high street, our clothes are definitely more expensive," says Gabriela. "The difference is less for cotton. But if everyone is paid a fair wage down the line, that has to show somewhere. The manufacturers we buy from are not in business to make a quick buck - they care more about sustained profit."

The Lanas have carried their organic principles through into the way their business is organised - like those they deal with, they are not expecting to make an overnight fortune. Banks are extremely conservative, and although they drew up a detailed business plan, which was praised by those they took it to, not one would offer any backing. "We raised our finance personally, through savings, our family, and remortgaging," explains William. "We believe the business should start small and grow at its own pace; we didn't want to dump in lots of borrowed money and bite our nails for six months."

They are proud to point out that their level of repeat business is already higher than the mail-order average. "We are optimistic, because this company feels like the right thing to do," says William. "That feeling carries us through financial difficulties. Our customers are very positive, we get lots of letters and suggestions, and that makes us feel that we're not odd-balls - there are other people who feel the same way as we do. Or if we are odd-balls, well, at least there are other odd-balls out there."

Greenfibres, 49 Blackheath Road, Greenwich, London SE10 8PD, tel 0181 694 6918 for enquiries or catalogue