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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Summer Rayne Oakes: Fashioning a More Sustainable World

Hippies and clothes-horses, beware! If you still believe sustainability can't be stylish, or style can't be sustainable, fashion model Summer Rayne Oakes has a message for you: "If you're a fashionista, you can't see beyond your Spring collection. If you're an environmentalist, you can't see past your own back yard." Such directness is typical of this 21-year-old Cornell graduate who's taken on the challenge of proving to the fashion and media worlds that the newest look doesn't have to involve environmental degradation or exploitative labor practices. In pursuing this mission, Oakes weaves the roles of student, educator, diplomat, entrepreneur and model into a unique professional identity: "Traditional ways of doing business need to be breached, and innovation needs to allow for bridge-building between corporations, non-profits, and governments. It is necessary to be 'multi-lingual,' metaphorically speaking, for spontaneous cooperation to occur.... That is where I see my role coming into play -- this 'multi-lingualist' that bridges the gap between stakeholder entities in order to create a 'spontaneous collaboration for sustainability' as it relates to the fashion & beauty industries."

"Multi-lingualist" may be a phrase that your computer's spell checker doesn't recognize (not yet, anyway), but Oakes has already established herself as a fluent translator of several professional "languages." She recently published a cover story in Yogi Times entitled How Fashion Got Its Soul Back" in which she demonstrated her virtuosity both with a keyboard and the multiple disciplines underlying sustainability. She also writes a monthly column called "Behind the Label" for international fashion magazine Lucire. She created EcoFashion 101, a "conscious curriculum with style," that engages middle and high-school aged students with the concept of sustainability through fashion and popular culture. She's involved in Organic Portraits, an effort to promote ecological knowledge and raise funds for the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, Mexico, through avant-garde photography and sustainable fashion. Finally, she's on the road participating in both ethical fashion shows and interactive workshops on sustainable style.

While just reading about her range of activities may bring on a spell of fatigue, Oakes has been a multi-tasker from a young age. Raised in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, she notes that her parents supported her early interest in the natural world. At the same time, "my mother fondly pushed me into activities that I probably would have never pursued: tennis, ballet, piano and art." At her small high school, Oakes pursued growing interests in social causes, and served as an HIV/AIDS peer educator, a tobacco peer educator, a state environmental competitor, and a peer mediator. In her senior year, she introduced her school to the Yellow Ribbon Project, a suicide prevention program. In college, she continued her environmental education by pursuing a major in natural resources, and after watching a gleeful professor jump into a lake to capture whirligig beetles, she added a second major in entomology. She notes that all of these experiences contributed to her current activities: "My passion for bringing upbeat social and environmental ventures to the fashion and media industries has been an evolution of all my past experiences, including getting down and dirty with some six-legged creatures."

Despite her success at a young age, Oakess eclectic past keeps her philosophical about the direction of her unique calling. "Though I have clear ideas of my own, there is no telling where my current work will take me. I can say, however, that it has been one heck of a roller coaster ride thus far. When you are paving a new way for change, you hit a lot of bumpy roads, and it's never without a lot of ups and downs." So far, though, Oakes has demonstrated that bumpy roads can lead both to changed minds in established industries and more sustainable efforts to keep the world stylish. For the latest on Summer Rayne Oakes' projects, visit http://www.summerrayne.net/news.htm.

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg
Guest Columnist -- Greener Magazine

Photograph by Storm Williams.