FROM LAND MINES TO ECO CLOTHING: THE UNLIKELY STORY OF AMOUR VERT
HOW ONE COUPLE DITCHED THE DEFENSE INDUSTRY IN A QUEST TO MAKE THE HUGELY WASTEFUL FASHION BIZ MORE ECO-FRIENDLY.
BY RACHEL HELLER ZAIMONT
When Linda Balti met Christoph Frehsee at a trade show in Abu Dhabi, both were working in the defense industry. Frehsee produced land-mine-clearing machinerywith his company, MineWolf Systems, while Balti developed fighter-jet simulators for French defense giant Thales Group. Neither could have imagined they would one day preside over a fashion label at the forefront of the eco-conscious movement.
Yet in 2011 the husband-and-wife team founded Amour Vert, a sustainable-clothing brand that they hope will revolutionize the way garments are produced. Through a series of innovations, they figured out how to drastically reduce waste in this historically wasteful industry and shrink the environmental footprint of manufacturing. The company opened its first brick-and-mortar store in San Francisco in June and the line is now carried by retailers nationwide.
Frehsee, the company’s CEO, sees the pair’s unlikely career path not as a hindrance, but a boon that actually worked in their favor. “Given our background, we felt confident that we could bring a very efficiency-oriented mindset to this rather old-fashioned industry,” he says. “We looked at things with clear eyes, so we were in a great position to disrupt.”
Balti and Frehsee were the ones who had their worldview shaken up in 2009, when they first dreamed up Amour Vert. Frehsee had sold his Germany-based MineWolf Systems and he and Balti went traveling to think about their next steps. While reading on a beach in Peru, the couple came across an article chronicling the environmental impact of some of the planet’s biggest industries. “We were very surprised that fashion was actually the second most polluting industry in the world, after oil,” Frehsee recalls. “We got really intrigued by that. We said, ‘Oh my God, we’ve never thought about that. What options do we have as consumers to dress more sustainably and live more sustainably?’”
The more they researched, the more they realized fashion was ripe for reform. Clothing is one of the most in-demand products, and relies on resource-intensive production techniques at every stage. Plus, the cloth-cutting process creates massive quantities of wasted fabric. “I felt like this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Frehsee, who was hungry for another entrepreneurial project. “Thinking about the gigantic consumer potential out there, Linda and I both said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
But the mission was more personal at first. “The whole idea was to create what I couldn’t find,” says Balti, the company’s creative director. “At the beginning, I wasn’t thinking about starting a fashion company--I just wanted to find sustainable, beautiful clothing for myself. I used to buy things just because I liked them, but after I learned about the manufacturing process--the toxic dyes, the unethical production methods in Southeast Asia--I was really shocked. You can’t buy something anymore and not think about these things and your impact.”
The Paris native scoured the market for eco-conscious clothing options, but what she found was either too casual, like yoga attire, or too expensive for everyday wear. “I just wanted to find a nice, contemporary brand that was reasonably priced and transparent, with great value, that I could trust,” she says. “I never saw myself going the entrepreneurial path, but when we had the idea for Amour Vert, we decided to do it together, as a team.”
The thirtysomething couple moved to California so Frehsee could study business and environmental resources at Stanford University, and they put together a plan for the company emphasizing sustainable operations and local production. Having no background in fashion, they faced a steep learning curve when it came to setting up the business, but they took a careful approach. “We’ve spent a lot of time over the last three years developing and scaling our operation,” Frehsee says.
Frehsee and Balti have a hands-on ethos at every step in the manufacturing process, down to the most basic components. All of their wood-based fibers are sourced from a sustainable forest in Austria. They even develop custom fabrics with a mill in Los Angeles, creating signature blends of recycled polyester, wood fibers, and organic cotton to meet Balti’s standards for how they should look and feel. “I really wanted the fabrics to reflect our commitment to sustainability and reducing waste,” she says. “There are a lot of materials we can’t use, so we’re limited in a way. But that forces us to be creative.”
After the fabrics are blended they are sent to Oakland for cutting; each piece is optimized for the highest yield. Even the transportation method is environmentally friendly. The couple found a trucking company that ships wines from Napa to L.A. but drives back to Northern California empty, so they contracted to use the wasted miles to carry fabric.
All Amour Vert garments are assembled in San Francisco, where the company works with nine factories they vet for fair treatment of workers. They use non-toxic dyes, and have tweaked their production process to reduce the number of times each garment is washed, to save water. “We take on every little bit of our supply chain and see where we can improve,” Frehsee says. “To be more sustainable and more effective, every day we have to look at one part of our supply chain and think, ‘What can we do better?’”
The company also supports sustainability more overtly: For every T-shirt sold from the line’s T(r)ee collection, they plant a tree. They have so far planted 28,000 of them, in partnership with the conservation nonprofit American Forests.
The brand is now gaining traction nationally. Amour Vert is carried in Bloomingdales and recently collaborated with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop on a line of T-shirts. And Balti was recently admitted to the Council of Fashion Designers of America--which is “a huge honor for someone who has a master’s degree in computer science,” Frehsee notes with a laugh.
Down the road, the couple plans to develop men’s and children’s clothing, and eventually break into home décor. “There’s always more opportunity; there’s always more to do,” Frehsee says. “Our mission is to change this industry. We want to build a company that defines a generation.”