It is St Patrick's Day and Summer Phoenix and I are at the Salvation Army on Sunset Boulevard. "Look at that. Just look at the thought that has gone into those displays." She is referring to the festive use of the colour green throughout the store. It turns out Phoenix knows a thing or two about green clothing.
Actress, musician, activist (sister of many, wife of one--Casey Affleck, actually--and mother of two), Phoenix, together with her best friends since childhood, Odessa Whitmire and Ruby Canner, co-own Some Odd Rubies, a clothing store. Their "vintage custom couture" boutique has gained a steady following since opening five years ago on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Last year they opened an outpost on Third Street in Los Angeles.
Although you will find none of the self-conscious preening that often goes with claims of being "green" (frankly, none of them even talk about it), Some Odd Rubies offers a unique take on responsible fashion. Every item of clothing had a former life at an estate sale, a flea market, a Salvation Army or a vintage fabric shop. The women search for quality pieces in perfect condition, which have been relegated to the hinterlands of bad taste. (A golden brocade cuffed jacket with shoulder pads anyone?) They then take their findings back to the workshop, where they compare, sketch, and then deconstruct and reconstruct each item, turning dated clothing into beautifully feminine, one-of-a-kind re-worked couture.
Even the furniture in the stores has been refurbished--an ottoman was once a coffee table; a set of found doors have been converted into shelves, which now display the wares of local jewellers. While some so-called "eco-friendly" designers boast clothing with a fraction of organic cotton, or a tag made from hemp, Some Odd Rubies is sustainable without being smug: authentic recycle chic.
We are at a Salvation Army thrift store, where I hope to learn first-hand how these women find the beauty in the not so beautiful. Phoenix, dressed in cuffed jeans and a dark-patterned wrap top of her own design, her hair shorn into a bob, makes a bee-line for the dress rack. This is where she usually begins her hunt.
"What you're looking for is fabric." Her hands fly swiftly through the merchandise. She pulls out a grey striped man's sari. "Like this. It may not look like much but we like to make men's shirts into cute little mini-dresses or tailored women's shirts, and it's hard to find ones with enough fabric to deconstruct and then reconstruct, but I can get this, see..." (she pulls it off the rack) "and use all of it here." She bunches the excess material together and then slips her hand inside. "And it's see-through which means it's well-worn but not tattered." She tosses it over her arm, continuing on. A hideous black dress from God-knows-when, is suddenly upon us. "This is what you're not looking for. This is double-knit polyester, which is hot in 30-degree weather."
Double-knit polyester, as I will come to learn, is the scourge of thrift-store shoppers. "We're looking for things of a certain era," Phoenix muses as she flips confidently through the rack. "Once you hit 1989, you're done. You prefer things from the 60's and 70's." She pulls a dress that is silky and light and in perfect condition... but it is covered in a seashell pattern that recalls my grandmother's bathroom wallpaper. Phoenix is not dismayed. She pulls the flouncy sleeves out of sight and cinches in the waist. "Imagine a strapless tailored pencil dress just below the knee, with pockets." Pockets in dresses are a big thing with the women of Some Odd Rubies. I am personally grateful for their sudden fashionability. It's wonderful to finally have a place to put my hands. (Though their absence is reason enough to be holding a cocktail.)
"This style is a little slab of heaven!" Phoenix gasps. "This is going to NY ASAP." She acts like she's hit payload, but I think the dress is hideous. She takes my scepticism in stride. "Are you kidding me? Look, when you've got big pieces that are intensely wild--we call them too much too soon--well if you take away from it, and use just a little bit, then it's not as intense. It's just a little mini dress that you wear because you're 19 years old and you've got great legs, you're wearing flip flops, a white shirt and a long necklace and all the boys are whistling zippadeedodaday!"
It is impossible to not be swept up in Phoenix's enthusiasm. I ask if she misses going on these adventures with Odessa and Ruby, who are both still in New York. Her giant, brown, fawn eyes grow sad. "Yeah, it's really hard not being a part of the everyday. We'd go to stores like this together and all three of us would go 'cute cute do you think this is cute oh yeah it's cute,' and then we'd go back to the workspace and sketch and talk and go back and forth. Now I call them and say, 'how's it going today?'" But of course life is a series of trade-offs. "I couldn't imagine raising my children in New York though. When it's 60 degrees my son wears a ski jacket and hides from the shade."
As we round the corner we spot a man who looks like he just stepped off of the set of "The Warriors". He is studiously examining what Phoenix refers to as an "As Is"--ie, the item is perfect; not a thing need be changed. This "As Is" happens to be a giant plastic guitar with neon slashes on the neck standing for strings. A Human League song starts up with impeccable timing and Phoenix lowers her voice conspiratorially. "Honestly, I get all my vases and most of my art here. My husband doesn't know. Every once in a while he'll notice something and say, 'What is that? Where did you get that?' and I'll say, 'That was a gift from our wedding Honey. You didn't thank Mr...'"
The prices for one-of-a-kind items at Some Odd Rubies are comparable to other mid-to high-end designers. Yet the latter make hundreds of the same pieces in the same fabric and fit. Why buy a dress or a shirt hundreds of other people have, instead of seeking out something extraordinary? "That is exactly where the original idea came from--our own unhappiness walking into a store and being confronted with hundreds of the same thing. There is something exciting in being different and standing out." Summer pauses for a moment, "But I think people still shy away from being unique don't you?"
In an article about eco-fashion in the Herald Tribune last December, Eric Wilson wrote, "Some argue that the greenest clothes--the ones least likely to adversely affect the earth and its climate--are the ones you already own." Phoenix agrees. "The store started out from a fashion point of view, and became a crusade for us to recycle all of these clothes. We are thrilled to be working in a recycled industry. I love supporting Good Will and Salvation Army and these little Church Bazaars. I think it's really great giving back. I think it's fresh."