Five years ago, couture designer Linda Loudermilk seemed to have it all. After interning for Richard Tyler in Los Angeles, she'd been discovered by Autonde, the Italian-based original backer of Belgian designer Olivier Theyskens, now artistic director at Nina Ricci. In 2002, Autonde financed her first collection, and her runway show in Paris was met with wide acclaim.
But after her debut, Loudermilk went back to her hotel room in the Marais district and wept for hours. "My clarity and my joy comes through nature and when I lose track of that, I'm not as grounded," she explains of her postshow misery. "When people need a break, they go to the beach; they go to the mountains. It became my mission to show people in our daily living how to show respect and integration with nature."
Today, Loudermilk is considered the founder of the eco-couture movement. But these are no shapeless hemp dresses. She pioneered the use of 100 percent biodegradable fabrics, like vegan silks and organic lace. She sells $350 sweaters made from cashmere and spun milk (yes, milk) and dresses created from seaweed. Her designs have been seen on models Kirsty Hume and Shalom Harlow and actresses Jane Fonda, Daryl Hannah, and Debra Messing. In October, Lexus and cosmetics-and-skin-care company Origins sponsored her spring 2008 runway show in Los Angeles.
It wasn't long ago that most products-especially clothes-labeled "green," were considered a form of deprivation-clearly showing their recycled roots; limited to color palettes of oatmeal and brown; and in some cases, simply ugly (bottle-cap earrings, anyone?). Now, the finer things in life are increasingly becoming environmentally virtuous-or at least, that's how they're being marketed.
This year alone saw the launch of the first carbon-neutral airline, Silverjet, which also happens to have only business-class seats. There's 360, a top-shelf vodka that touts its recycled glass bottle with water-based ink on the label. Ingle & Rhode, a U.K.-based jewelrymaker, offers buyers an alternative to baubles made of metals produced with mercury or gems from superpolluting mines. La Petite Pearle in Somerville, Massachusetts sells "sustainable caviar" from farmed sturgeon, which purportedly takes the pressure off the overfished Caspian, Aral, and Black seas.
"Green is chic," says Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute in Hudson Valley, New York. "If it wasn't so tragic, it would be funny how long it's taken for green to catch on."
Not only have new companies created product lines to cater to the environmentally conscious market, but more and more existing companies are also developing eco-friendly programs and figuring out ways in which they can be considered green. Tiffany & Co.'s website boasts that the company obtains its materials for jewelry in environmentally sensitive ways. The Monaco Yacht Show even jumped on the eco-bandwagon this year by buying carbon offsets that paid for wind turbines in New Zealand and funded other energy-saving and conservation projects in Europe.
The benefits show up not only in the bottom line-according to a recent survey by marketing and advertising firm WPP Group, consumer spending on green products will hit an estimated $500 billion next year-but also in brand loyalty. "People want to be part of this movement, and they want to brand themselves part of this movement," says Mike Hughes of the Martin Agency, a marketing firm that works with Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection and the Discovery Channel's new eco-awareness channel, Planet Green. "They feel better about showing up in a hybrid Lexus than an ordinary Lexus?.?.?.?The conventional wisdom used to be that people wouldn't buy things because they were green. People wouldn't pay extra for green items."
That's no longer the case, which is why, in a survey by business advisory firm Grant Thornton, 77 percent of companies said they anticipate spending more on environmental sustainability programs in the next several years.
"There is a new luxury marketplace out there," says Loudermilk, who has created a Luxury Eco Stamp with the aim of "certifying" the most responsible luxury brands for a range of given products. Last year's "stamped" companies include London-based Nick and Milly's, which makes vegan bath and body products, and Living Homes, which builds houses using green materials. This year she's considering stamping Louis Vuitton for its veg-tan handbag line, which is tanned using vegetables. If companies don't continue to make green fun and sexy, she says, "it's going to die as the hippie movement did."
Of course, it's an open question how much consumers are really helping the environment by choosing green luxury goods. Lloyd Alter, a staff writer for the popular website TreeHugger.com, is skeptical about green marketing: "The best thing for the environment is if they all just consume less."
Celente agrees. "A lot of the green is glitz to make people feel good, as though they're doing something. If these people are so concerned, we'd be hearing about things they're doing to turn the environmental tide in very large ways [other] than [buying] luxury items."
But green luxury will continue as long as it results in-well, green. The first luxury hybrid, the Lexus RX 400h, has sold more than 50,000 units since its launch in 2005. Silverjet is expanding with flights to Chicago and Los Angeles and is planning to eventually offer a total of 30 global routes.
"Some people might be cynical," says Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. "The point is, everybody has to do something, given the nature of the eco-crisis we're facing. We have to make those luxury goods less of a footprint. [The recycled] labels on vodka bottles matter."
Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.