Father Andrew O'Connor is an unlikely fashion icon. Yet through his project Goods of Conscience, he has found a remarkable way to blend traditional weaving, organic cotton, community development, and an eye for style into a surprisingly chic combination.
As part of this year's Summer Salon Series at the American Craft Council, last week Father O'Connor, a Diocesan priest, presented his ideas about green craft to a live and online audience, guiding us all through his passionate story of preserving craft traditions and building a market for his sustainable style.
His story of is rooted in a social justice mission in a Mayan hill town in Guatemala. There a group of traditional back-strap weavers combine local, organically-grown and naturally dyed cotton with a highly unusual proprietary fiber (to undermine counterfeiting) into soft, luscious textiles in rich natural colors. (Read more about the process here.)
The lengths of fabric are weighed and then shipped up to the workshop in the South Bronx where Father O'Connor oversees a second mission at his home base, the Holy Family Church. There a small group of local artisans cut and sew the fabric, which arrives smelling of tortillas.
The finished garments are sold under the label Goods of Conscience. The artisans are all paid fair wages and the workshops are important sources of community pride and economic empowerment in both the Bronx and in Guatemala.
The finished products reflect this pride as well as the considerable skill required to produce them. Father O'Connor handed samples around to the audience to get a sense of the work, and I was impressed with the appealing designs and unquestionably high-end quality. These qualities are reflected in the prices, but as other forms of high-end craft remind us, the idea here to buy fewer high-quality things instead of lots of cheap, short-lived things. Certainly these classic yet edgy bags, jackets, dresses, and shirts are ones you want to live with, not trendy items you'll soon cast off. "Slow fashion" he called it.
When I asked Father O'Connor who designs the clothes, he said that he does. And where did he get his eye for fashion? "I grew up in Connecticut," he said with a cheeky smile. While the fabric reflects where it is made, the clothes don't fall prey to that "foreign language teacher" look so often associated with organic texture-rich fabrics.
On the contrary, it is quite Vogue-worthy, as the magazine's June 2009 shoot with Cameron Diaz attests -- those are Good of Conscience shorts she's wearing. He has started partnering up with the socially-minded fashionista Alabama Chanin on some projects as well.
Early on in his talk, he spoke of the notion that there may be a silver lining to the current economic downturn: the fall of the "egoistic consumer" and the curbing of over-consumption makes us focus on the resources we have ready to hand. Our modern sense of displacement and weakened sense of homeland might be repaired if we can get back in touch with the local and "make amends with the earth." He explained his point of view that green is communal, and that if don't want to imperil the earth, then we care about the actions of others as well.
Cultivating slowness. Craft as instinctively green. Teaching vanishing skills to the next generation. Making effort every day with every decision to live conscientiously of the environment and the social fabric. These are the lessons of Father O'Connor's work. The world is the better for his vision and the example he sets for how business can be done.
NEXT UP IN THE SALON SERIES:
Bamboo Bikes - Find out how some socially-minded innovators are creating a new model for social entrepreneurship and development, using craft, DIY techniques, and natural resources.
Wednesday, August 12, 6:30-7:30 p.m., reception to follow
American Craft Council
72 Spring Street, 6th floor, New York, NY 10012.
Reservations are required and space is limited.Price: $10; $5 for students with current ID, Free for ACC members.
To rsvp, contact Kate at email@example.com or call (212)274–0630 x272.