'I'm working to the fullest capability of my human being'
Erik Jaques meets Summer Rayne Oakes, model and co-founder of Source4Style
"I felt more like a publicist than a practitioner. You build up all this enthusiasm for sustainable design yet there's no infrastructure for it to exist," she says brightly, albeit somewhat vocally hampered by the croaky vestiges of laryngitis.
"There's no infrastructure for people to say 'hey, I want that, I want to incorporate that into my business, I want to incorporate that into my design line', and that's really frustrating."
Oakes' frustration is set to be the gain of pro-green designers and suppliers on 10 September when she launches Source4Style, the world's first online marketplace enabling users - principally fashion and interior designers and suppliers - to search and acquire sustainable textiles.
For the 27-year-old Oakes, the venture is a seamless evolution of all that has gone before: Ivy league education in natural science and entomology, published, peer-reviewed papers on waste management, groundbreaking values-based modelling and consultancy, multi-platform sustainability thought leadership.
An internet start up is an entirely new ballgame, but one that she is ready to embrace with characteristic fervour; timed to launch ahead of the New York and London Fashion Weeks, Source4Style is a fully-fledged attack on the fashion industry's myopic, fragmentary technologically luddite attitude to materials sourcing.
"The industry is just in dire need for something like this," explains Oakes, who has taken on the mantle as the company's CEO.
The $300B global textiles market is increasingly influenced by a sustainable apparel sector, currently worth around $6B and growing by an estimated $1B a year. Yet despite every strata of the fashion industry - from the behemoths to independent designers and retailers - gravitating toward increasingly sustainable materials, the sourcing process is often a logistical nightmare.
One of the main hitches is expense; many suppliers offering sustainable materials simply cannot afford to attend the requisite trade shows (which can cost $30,000 a shot) or maintain fancy websites.
This dearth of availability means that well intentioned designers end up spending vast amounts of time on finding the right materials: last year, market research conducted by the Source4Style team among independent designers, who spend anything from $5,000 to $100,000 a year on materials, found that sourcing took up an astonishing 85% of their time.
"Shouldn't we be able to flip that so they are spending 85% of the time on designing?" Oakes asks.
Source4Style co-founder and COO, Benita Singh, explains that the new company is all about addressing the "sustainable design gap".
"Once we start getting the word out, Source4Style has the potential to not only change how sourcing works for the sustainable apparel industry, but also for the apparel industry at large,"," she suggests.
To this end, Oakes and Singh have surrounded themselves with an impressive core team, which is also augmented by sagacious input from advisers such as Damon Horowitz, an inveterate tech entrepreneur currently holding the title of director of social search/in-house philosopher at Google, and Maria Thomas, former CEO and COO of handmade social commerce sensation Etsy.
In its current low-key beta guise, Source4Style hosts 25 suppliers offering over 1,000 textiles as well as150 designers from the US, UK and Canada. Next year, Singh anticipates a community of 60 designers and around 22,500 registered users. In 2011, 180 suppliers are expected to be on board.
The website is already a sleek proposition: simple, clean, elegant, it looks distinctly business ready. Users can search by materiality, location, weave, certification or colour before buying yardages or swatches (samples) from 12 categories of material, including wool, cotton, silks, hemp, rayon, and leathers. Each individual item is displayed using the latest interactive web technology, and comes with a detailed description, backstory and ship time.
Product sustainability is broadly defined via four categories: environmentally-preferable materials (i.e. certified organic, rain-fed cotton as opposed to conventional, irrigated cotton); environmental/natural processes from farm to factory (i.e. biomimetic processes, water/energy efficient processes); fair labour and fair trade (i.e. socially-compliant); and handmade and traditional (preservation of crafts and culture).
All suppliers must complete a detailed sustainability questionnaire before they can start showcasing. It is free to sign up to the site, which will generate revenue streams from various levels of memberships for designers and suppliers, a small commission on transactions, focused advertising, and data-mining for valuable trend insights. Other diversified monitisation opportunities are also in the pipeline.
"The most successful businesses are of the 'ah, why didn't I think of that' variety," notes Ron Gonen, founder and CEO of ascendant recycling business Recylebank, and an early Source4Style angel investor.
"Summer has come up with a very simple, very powerful solution. She really understands and speaks the language of both fashion and sustainability and can connect the two in a meaningful manner."
Oakes describes the business model as "bootstrapped", and has set a funding target of $500,000 by the end of August, which is most likely to hail from a community of angel investors, although venture capitalist interest has been forthcoming.
Either way, Source4Style has been designed for scale and impact.
"When we launch it is going to be a game changer for the industry," she says. "I can't emphasise enough how much this needs to happen."
Oakes is no stranger to making things happen on her own terms. After graduating from Cornell University, she moved to New York to test the theory that fashion could provide a more direct route to communicate environmental issues to the mainstream.
She immediately set about pioneering a unique "two for one" modelling and consultancy service, aligning herself exclusively with brands that shared, or would change to share, her environmental ideals.
In the stolid world of fashion where teetotality or vegetarianism are celebrated as radical values, Oakes was, and still is, in a league entirely of her own.
Using her beauty to dazzle in front of the camera is a small part of the deal; the really interesting stuff goes on behind the scenes where the sustainability strategising and ameliorative product overhauls take place. When Oakes' agent, Faith Kates, founder and CEO of the Next Modeling Agency, met her for the first time she was blown away.
"I said 'come back in 24 hours, I want to know every single thing about you'," she marvels.
"Clearly she is incredibly intelligent, and incredibly beautiful, which is an incredible combination. And she is so far ahead of the curve on the sustainability factor."
Kates says that she is constantly turning down work offers from big names, mainly because either their existing or intended performance is ideologically incompatible.
"They need her more than she needs them," she explains. "Once Summer puts her stamp on it you know it is legit."
Oakes' most visible work in this field at the moment is for the Collective Brands company Payless ShoeSource, where she has helped conceive and market several lines of affordably priced green shoes under the brand Zoe & Zac, and sustainable bedding and bath product gurus Portico Home, for which she acts as a multitasking brand ambassador.
"Summer is brilliant, knowledgeable and a recognized expert in the sustainability arena," says Payless ShoeSourc CEO, LuAnn Via . "She is the best at what she does, and with her contribution, we have made green shoes affordable."
While Oakes' workload may seem daunting, she is clearly loving every minute of it. When relaxation does come, it is through activities like a stint as guest editor-at-large for UK-based beauty magazine Above, writing, and, in a nod to her etymological roots, maintaining insects.
"I feel like I'm working to the fullest capability of my human being," she explains. "I feel useful. I'm out there doing as much as I can."
So if Source4Style is Oakes' latest and most ambitious project to date, it is unlikely to be her last. "I have so many ideas, and I acknowledge that I'm better at charting the course and steering the ship for a little while, then handing over the wheel to somebody else eventually so that I can go out and innovate," she says.
"I want to continually evolve - once you've created something, you've created it. You have to tell a different story. It's like 'all right, I've raised the bar. What's next?'"
© Faversham House Group Ltd 2011. edie news articles may be copied or forwarded for individual use only. No other reproduction or distribution is permitted without prior written consent.