By Mitra Malek Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
For a whole year, Ongeleigh Underwood banned herself from buying clothes.
That was shortly before the budding eco-clothing designer started her own label. She launched Temperate Honest American Clothing in April from her Chattanooga home, a solo act she moved into studio space in St. Elmo in August.
Underwood took that year to observe and chart her spending and closet-related habits. Her shift away from shopping also came about because she was disappointed, even a bit disgusted, that she couldn't find brands she wanted to support, brands whose production process honored the environment and everyone involved with putting out pieces for people to wear.
Keeping kindness toward the planet top of mind was an obvious priority for Underwood. A former Outward Bound coordinator who has worked on municipal waste and sustainability projects, she also was an associate director with the North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy. Now, the 30-year-old's mission is to change the way people think about clothing, to bring ethics and local sourcing and production more prominently into the equation.
Barely 3 percent of clothing sold in the United States is made in America, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association. Today, Underwood is also the director for the Southeast Fibershed, a nonprofit organization focused on strengthening local fiber communities and agriculture.
Temperate's best sellers are three simple white-toned tops with clean lines, labeled for their popularity at the bottom of her company's website (temperate.co).
Like most of her items, they are moderately priced, ranging from $55 to $89. She has made by hand these and every one of the roughly 200 pieces she has sold, all directly to consumers, working with paper patterns to shape fabric that comes from the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, and then gets processed in the Carolinas.
Underwood is still investing in the company, with money going into new projects, not production. She hopes to bring on a local seamstress soon, a vocation few in the Chattanooga-area can list on their resumes.
Here, Underwood talks about her relationship to fashion, shifting public awareness and Temperate's future.
Q: How do you describe yourself as a designer?
A: I've sewn for a long time ... I don't make fashion; I make clothes. I'm about comfort, making timeless pieces. I focus my designs on simple silhouettes. A lot of the time I think what I want (from clothing) is what most women want: something stylish, you can wear anytime of the year, that you can layer and that is functional, and, most important, that looks good and is well made.
Q: What did your year off from shopping involve and what came from your self-evaluation?
A: I used it to slow down, observe and change my buying habits -- how I assess what I am spending my money on. I started paying attention to independent designers who made clothing with ethical and sustainable methods. I also used it as a time to observe what articles of clothing I actually wore. It turns out that even though I had a closet with over 350 individual articles of clothing, I regularly only wore around 50 of them. That was a big wake-up call. I realized how much I had that I didn't use and how much all that clutter caused me anxiety. So I decided to focus on those pieces I wore, figure out why I wore them so much and started making clothing that mimicked those characteristics.
Q: You created a unique marketing campaign for your fall collection by interviewing women from the region who are quietly influential, having them model your clothes, and then posting that project on your website. Why did you do that?
A: It was about putting forward women I admired, who worked in fields where maybe they're not as appreciated as they should be, but their work is important. All of them ended up having this thread of locality. It just happened that way. I love it because it's what my brand is about.
Q: What's in store for Temperate next year and beyond?
A: California Cloth Foundry will be shipping all my jersey cotton for my spring line. They work with farmers in California who are transitioning from conventional to organic practices. I'll also have a full size range, extra small to extra large ... My dream fiber is flax (which is used to make linen), one of the most sustainable fibers to grow. It grows fairly well in the Southeast. This winter, through the Southeast Fibershed I'm working with a Kentucky farm run by veterans, the Growing Warriors. It's a DEA-approved hemp growing site. From them I'm learning and using that knowledge to jump into flax; hemp and flax are processed the same. Next year, I plan to work with a farmer in middle Tennessee to grow flax. It's a trial. Eventually I want to have a fully-controlled supply chain.