Utne Reader visionary
More than 8,000 chemicals were used to make the clothes in your closet. Approximately 1,800 gallons of fresh water were used to manufacture the jeans you’re wearing right now. All-too-commonplace numbers like these make it clear that the fashion industry needs an eco-makeover. Natalia Allen is up for the challenge.
A 2004 graduate of Parsons the New School for Design, Allen calls herself a surfer who runs a design firm in her spare time. Modesty aside, this surfer was the recipient of Parsons’ prestigious Designer of the Year award (an honor she shares with the likes of Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford), was chosen by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader, and was named one of the Top 25 Women in Tech to Watch.
And that design firm she directs on the side? Design Futurist, an eco-innovative New York studio that Allen founded just a year after leaving Parsons, has already advised numerous high-profile clients—including Calvin Klein, Quiksilver, and Donna Karan—and was declared by Fast Company one of the country’s 10 Most Creative Small Businesses.
Allen’s passion for environmental responsibility springs from both her love of nature and her up-close-and-personal relationship with clothing and accessory production. “Many designers are behind a computer and never see how their designs are made,” she explains. “I, however, spent time on the factory floor.”
Confronted with the appalling practices of the fashion industry—the use of toxic chemicals, the exploitation of labor, the waste of water and other natural resources—Allen was inspired to facilitate change. “I could not look away,” she says. “I had to do something.”
Design Futurist teams with already-successful brands and helps implement sustainable methods and materials, working on product development from beginning to end. DKNY recently recruited Design Futurist to reinvent the waterproof jacket using non-petroleum-based materials; Calvin Klein enlisted the firm to create a line of men’s jeans using proprietary dyes and finishes.
Wary of the “gimmicks and greenwashing” that saturate the market as companies scramble to jump on the green-living bandwagon, Allen is dedicated to using materials and technologies that will benefit society today and for generations to come. “Sustainability is more than a buzzword,” she says. “It’s a way to live.” Respectful of the health of her customers and the environment, she favors organic fabrics and dyes as well as unconventional fibers such as hemp, flax, and color-grown cotton. “I’m also working with recycled plastic materials and researching nontoxic synthetic fabrics that can be recycled easily into new products,” she says.
Allen’s forward-thinking design practices have gained worldwide attention, earning her speaking engagements in the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, China, and elsewhere. This year she launched a workshop series on sustainable fashion with the Pratt Institute in New York City to spread the gospel of the green fashion revolution. In addition, Allen is developing her own line of sustainable clothing.
Despite her busy schedule, Allen is never far from nature for long. “Designing from the beach is simply fantastic—only made finer by surfing breaks!” she tweeted one sunny day last summer.
Watch Hub Culture interview Allen about her inspirations, thought processes, and future goals concerning Design Futurist, or read a more detailed conversation between Allen and a staff member of Groovy Green. Explore the discussions Allen participated in as a Youth Global Leader during the World Economic Forum 2010, an annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland designed to promote intelligent discussion about the most urgent issues facing our planet. For more timely updates on Allen’s insights and endeavors, follow her on Twitter.
Read more: 25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World