During her “post-college breakdown,” Massachusetts native Kristen Lombardi took a trip to an Arizona Apache reservation. While there, she wanted to buy a pair of authentic handmade moccasins. No such luck: the people on the reservation wouldn’t sell them to her. All she found were the mass-produced Minnetonkas in the tourist shops.
Having studied fashion design at the Massachusetts College of Art (which, incidentally, is the nation’s only state art school), Kristen was undeterred. When she got back from her trip, she took out a book on moccasins from the library and figured out how to make her own. Now, years later, she is the owner and designer of Manimal, a line of locally-produced moccasins and accessories inspired by the American Southwest. I met Kristen in her Brooklyn studio last week.
What’s in a Moccasin?
Rather than using a specific, traditional tribal design, Kristen has drawn on different styles from different tribes to create something that is all her own. Inspired by the natural world, the line is produced thoughtfully and with low-impact. Everything is handmade in New York, by Kristen in her studio and two women that take home piecework.
The Great Leather Debate
There’s an ongoing debate in the eco fashion community over the use of leather. I stumbled upon this issue when I first started blogging and purchased a pair of “eco friendly” leather boots. Kristen has a line of leather moccasins, as well as a line of vegan moccasins. She started the vegan line to offer an alternative to her customers, as well as to cut down on the amount of animal product she was using. Honest about the trade-offs and choices she has to make as a designer, Kristen uses only leather that is a byproduct of the meat industry (nothing exotic), but has found that vegetable-tanned leather won’t hold the dye as well as the more common chemically-tanned alternative. Then there’s the question of whether or not the synthetic alternative is better.
“You have to choose your evil,” she explained. ”I’m either using leather, which is an organic material, or a nylon-blend synthetic.”
While I was in her studio, a package arrived with a new sample of the synthetic material. It’s made by a Danish company called Kvadrat, and feels a like suede, but a little softer.
One Woman’s Trash is… the Same Woman’s Accessories
Besides making all of her products in NY, Kristen designs sustainably by never throwing away scraps: a testament to her thoughtfulness as a designer. All of the scrap material that is left over from making the moccasins is reworked into either baby moccasins (adorable) or necklaces and earrings. Kristen says that she likes the challenge of only using scrap to make the accessories. More power to her, that’s a lot of little leather circles to cut out for those necklaces!
Kristen’s work fits my definition of sustainable fashion 100%. She is extremely thoughtful about which materials she uses, where she gets them from, and minimizing waste. She is also making products inspired by traditional crafts and producing locally. When asked if she calls herself an “eco” designer, she told me that she is worried about being presented in that way, and I don’t blame her. ”The thing,” she added, “is to be as thoughtful as you can be.” Amen.