We first profiled Summer Rayne Oakes in 2006, introducing readers to a belly-baring, sludge-loving 22-year-old with “superhuman ambition” and a moniker that was just too fitting to be made up. Since then, Oakes has been a loyal friend to Grist; she’s done occasional fashion blogging for us, and she participated in one of our fundraising appeals. Now, a month shy of her 25th birthday, she’s almost too busy to breathe. This spring saw the launch of a shoe line and a book, and she has spoken at venues ranging from the Fashion Institute of Technology to the Fair Trade Expo in Hong Kong. Press coverage is exploding — her website gives just a taste — and an article in The New York Times mentioned her in the same breath as Al Gore. Well, almost.
Despite this astonishing comet ride, Oakes seems to remain approachable, accessible, and down-to-earth — about as far from the stereotype of a fashion model as you can get. Try as we might to find a reason not to engage in unabashed fawning, it’s tough; she works her photogenic butt off, and about the only dirt the web reveals is that she’s occasionally Photoshopped. Shocker!
In short, the ambitious Oakes is putting a good face on green. To find out what the future holds, we fired a few questions her way.
Q. In April, you launched a shoe line with Payless. Can you tell us a little bit about your work on the line, and why it’s important to you to make sustainability affordable?
A. Payless are incredible partners to work with because they are really into this. They’ve figured out how to democratize fashion in the footwear industry, with design partnerships like Lela Rose, Patricia Field and most recently with Project Runway’s Christian Siriano. But this is really the first step for them on the sustainability front.
This is also the first time they’ve had a person come in both as the strategist and face for a brand, which is one of the things that I really love about my work. You get to wear different hats and truly feel a part of something.
PaylessI’ve been involved on a number of levels, including idea building and strategy, messaging, sourcing and design … This is definitely not a flash-in-the-pan-brand. We’re building it into a lifestyle brand equipped with awareness campaigns, and it heartens us to see that it’s selling really well just out of the gates. That sends a message back to the company about what is important to consumers. Believe me, we’re listening!
I was just telling some environmental journalists the other day … that I love the fact that this brand touches so many different demographics. I was chatting with some women from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico who will be getting the brand in their hometowns in June and September, respectively. They were so excited about what this brand was about. This is the first time they were really hearing the term “green” and seeing something “more sustainable, fashionable, and affordable.” I can equate it to the energy that Americans had in the green space back in 2006, 2007. It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s exciting, and most of all, it’s within reach.
Q. Tell us about your book, which also debuted this spring, and what kind of reaction you’re getting.
A. Style, Naturally is a global guide to sustainable fashion and beauty. I wrote it for women who love style, but may not have “green” or “environment” in their lexicon. It’s all a part of my vision to keep the movement in a forward-moving direction. I thought, why write another green book for green people? Why not make a style book that is invisibly green? For instance, my book is sold as a “Lifestyle” book, not a “Green” book, at Barnes&Noble. I just went there the other day and saw it sitting next to Harper’s Bazaar‘s new book and The Lucky Style Guide. That’s exactly where it should be.
I’m getting good feedback about the book from all over, but I’m making a really big effort. We’ve launched it in ten countries — from Canada to the U.K.; Singapore to Indonesia; U.S. to Australia and New Zealand and many places in between — and I’m making an effort to go to all those countries, not only to promote the book, but to really get a feel for what’s happening on the ground there, see where the media and culture is on the environmental front, forge new alliances, and see what information I can bring back.
Q. Over the last couple of years, you’ve gotten more prominent, even being mentioned as a back-up speaker for those who can’t swing Al Gore’s fee. What’s that like, and what type of audience is your favorite?
A. Yah, that was a real honor — you know, to be mentioned side-by-side to Al Gore’s message. And it’s true, you know: In this economy, it’s hard to swing some of those speaker’s fees now that attendance is down. I’ve spoken at a lot of venues — from the World Trade Organization to boards of advisors of fashion houses to green conferences — but I most like speaking to college students. There is something about coming in to a group of students, who are about the same age, and just being real with them.
It’s awesome that people have begun recognizing my work, but it’s been a steady climb for me over all the years. Almost like an ascent up a mountain where you can stop and catch your breath along the way; enjoy being outdoors; squint your eyes and see the summit; and most important, look to the foothills and clearly see where you’ve started. I guess what I’m trying to say is I’ve never forgotten about where I’ve come from and where I am going — and I think that is an important message to convey, especially to my peers.
Q. You’ve said “swapping is the new shopping” — has that gotten you any flack from the fashion world?
A. I think the fashion world has got bigger problems to worry about.
Q. What are some upcoming projects for you in the next year?
A. Finishing up the book tour and travels, experiencing life a little, building a B2B and B2C sustainable design site, doing a soft launch for the a.d. schwarz label in the next few weeks, and heading out to Africa [with them] in the fall, trying to get a Pennsylvania Clean Energy Council off the ground, which is proving to be difficult due to lack of time, and gearing up later this year for some on-camera work with Planet Green. I think that’s enough. My blood pressure just rose a few points after reading all this stuff over.
Q. What’s one non-green habit you just can’t shake?
A. Do you consider travel non-green? I project my carbon footprint for the year (I know, a tad nerdy) and calculate how many trees we’ll plant in Mozambique at the Mezimbite Forest Centre, where the line a.d. schwarz is from.