Fashion Week: Patrick Rises on a Green Tide

by Catherine Curan, 09/09/2008

"Can you get Berkeley boy to suck that water down and get that plastic bottle off the set!" hissed the designer.

Despite torrential rain and a Tenth Avenue location far from the Bryant Park tents, the namesake designer for Organic by John Patrick attracted a gaggle of press and a top exec from Barneys New York. This was not the time to have anything synthetic interfere with his carefully staged "American Gothic"-inspired tableau, presented in lieu of a runway show during Fashion Week.

The designer has been around the market long enough to remember when Barneys was on 17th Street, the Pressmans ran it, and they carried his collection of hats. After 20 years chasing luxury customers but never breaking into the big leagues, Patrick knew he needed a new groove. So in 2003 he returned to his "child of Woodstock" heritage growing up on a commune in Coxsackie, New York for design inspiration. Organic farming fact-finding trips to Peru, where he now obtains knitwear, and research into recycled fabrics brought him to this moment. No thirsty model was going to ruin it.

With the offending bottle removed, the hay-strewn stage featured only models in vegetable tanned leather or surplus cotton jackets or shorts, accessorized with vintage pitchforks. Patrick turned his attention back to chatting with an exec from Barneys, which has been a big booster of upscale eco chic. He hopes to add Barneys Coop this spring to his roster of 125 specialty stores in the U.S. and Europe.

Given all the attention given to organic this and green that these days, it's easy to forget that just a few years ago, eco-friendliness was barely part of the fashion conversation--especially at the high end where Patrick concentrates. Now he is benefiting from rebranding his collection just in time to catch the trend. Since officially recasting his collection as Organic by John Patrick in 2006 he has helped make recycling and eco-chic hip. The clothes he showed Tuesday didn't scream "organic"-- updates of American classics, including the seersucker jacket or gingham print dress, looked well-made and easy to wear, . Only the extensive notes on each garment revealed which pieces sported organic fabrics and which were from surplus cotton.

Consultant Frank Ball, who has worked with Patrick on the rebranding effort, said the company is profitable and revenues have essentially doubled each year since the change.

Still, Patrick will have to cut through the clutter of other high end eco-friendly lines, including Rogan and Edun. And the weak economy puts pressure on all designers, even those with a de rigueur concept. Ball, who runs consulting firm Ball Group, insisted that there is opportunity for timely products to buck the bad times, as Escada did with its successful U.S. launch in the 1980s.

"We're basically positioning ourselves," he said. "If you do it right you become an authority in the fashion world."