23 February 2016

Shopping for a Better World

Illustration by Alice Rutherford

Reposted from Lena Dunham & Jenni Konner's Lenny No. 22

 by Shirley Kurata of Virgil Normal

As a kid, I loved reading stories and watching movies about the future, and there would always be an observation about how expensive everyday things would become due to inflation — movie tickets would cost $20 and gas would be $5 a gallon — both of which have now become the norm. Surprisingly, something that hasn’t increased along with everything else is the cost of clothing. If anything, clothes have become even cheaper. The other day I was in a trendy fast-fashion store when I noticed a pair of jeans retailing for $9.95. I thought to myself, How on earth could something retail for that low a price without someone on the other end of the manufacturing chain paying the price?

What’s at the other end is nothing pretty. In Bangladesh, where a big chunk of fast fashion gets produced, men, women, and sometimes even children under 14 years of age are made to work 14-to-16-hour days, and they can earn as little as 20 cents an hour. Beyond the human damage that an economy of “Buy the latest trend for cheap, then throw away and move on to the next thing” creates, there are also vast ecological ramifications. The fashion industry is actually the second-largest polluter in the world. The first? The oil industry. While we can protest the appalling work conditions of the sweatshop workers and the companies that hire them, the truth is that the battle needs to start at the end of the chain. It needs to start with us.

As consumers, we need to shop responsibly to reduce the demand for the fast and cheap fashion made in poor sweatshop conditions. Listen, I know it’s hard to resist the siren song of a cute skirt or pair of shoes, especially if you have a first date or killed it at work and just want a little treat for yourself, but it’s important to try to make a stronger effort to be an ethical consumer. I’ve started researching companies that are striving for transparency, fair trade, and ecofriendly materials and still make really cute clothes and accessories that I can’t wait to wear. Here are my tricks and tips to keep it cool while actually being cool to Mother Earth.

1. Shop Vintage and Secondhand Stores: The appeal of fast fashion is the price tag, and if we aren’t making a ton of money, it’s understandable to be drawn to the low prices. Thrift and vintage stores are equally as inexpensive, if not cheaper, and are a fantastic source for finding unique pieces that show off the fashionable you. By wearing secondhand clothing from a thrift store, not only are you leaving less of a carbon footprint, but also — bonus! — you are contributing to a small business or charity.

2. Upcycle: Wear clothing made of recycled fabrics. There are actually a lot of companies doing this, so there’s really something for everyone, no matter your budget or taste! Some of my favorites are the LA-based label Reformation, which makes killer clothes that don’t kill the environment, using sustainable and vintage fabrics. Study NY uses recycled materials and environmentally friendly textiles all while employing a zero-waste cutting policy. Patagonia will repair your old pieces, and when they’ve run their course, the company will buy back your used pieces and recycle the items to make new fabrics. G-star Raw for the Oceans is a line of clothing made from recycled plastic salvaged from the ocean that’s spun into yarn, a direction in manufacturing that many other brands should certainly follow.

3. Look Out for Fair-Trade Labels: While we shouldn’t support clothing made overseas in terrible sweatshop conditions, there are companies that are taking steps to make overseas manufacturing fair and safe. Some of my favorite brands include IOU Project, Edun, Everlane, Apolis, Kowtow, Riyka, Behno, Base Range, Osei-duro, Honest by Bruno Pieters, Ace & Jig, and Stella Jean. To make things easier, there are e-commerce sites that devote themselves to carrying ethically produced products. Helpsy, whose tagline is “Ethical fashion that’s dope,” lives up to its hype with Terry Gross– and Golden Girls–themed sweatshirts. Ethica carries great ethical-fashion products like vegan bags by Freedom of Animals and super-cute schoolgirl-style dresses by Dolores Haze. Beklina is a well-curated online eco-boutique showcasing hip designers such as APiece Apart and Rodebjer. A Boy Named Sue aptly goes by the motto “Cool clothes with a conscience,” with lines such as Feral Childe and Hien Le. And, last but not least, Zady carries both mens- and womenswear focusing on quality-made classic pieces that stand the test of time.

4. Go Local: Support small businesses that engage in sustainability and make things locally. When we purchase locally made products, we reduce the environmental impact by cutting down on packaging and transportation waste. Not only that, but small businesses are integral to our economy and creative environment.

5. Buy Less, Buy Responsibly, and Wear Longer: The problem with fast fashion is that the low prices keep us buying more and more, and as the clothes usually fall apart within a few months, we just throw away and keep buying. Americans send over 11 millions tons of clothing to landfills. That’s just too much for our planet to handle! Instead of buying ten pieces that cost you $20 at Forever 21, why not save up and buy one well-made product that will last longer in your closet?

6. Make Yourself Heard: Reach out to the brands that aren’t engaging in ethical trade and using sustainable fabrics and let them know you aren’t down with their practices! When enough people speak out, brands listen. To quote Bruno Pieters, who created the first 100 percent transparent clothing company, “The revolution begins with you.”

Shirley Kurata is a Los Angeles–based stylist and costume designer and the owner of a shop named Virgil Normal.

03 February 2016


What are your superpowers? 

We all have them. Mine happen to include a pink miniskirt, a hip shimmy and a exoskeleton built for aerodynamics. (Not shown are radar for thrift stores and an uncanny knowledge of song lyrics).

Don't ask me what this is from.  (OK, FINE, since I'm such a stickler for attribution: the character is Dark Destructoid Pink Armadillo from Kikaida, a Japanese television franchise that first aired in 1972.) More importantly, just know that the universe can sometimes read your mood so exquisitely that something like this will land in your lap for no good reason other than to remind you that you will prevail. 

At least that's what it just did for me.

But seriously, I want to hear what your superpowers are. 

Here's the complete scene if the tasty sample above wasn't enough for you.

26 January 2016

09 January 2016

Planting Seeds

The new moon is around the corner (this evening, to be precise) which means it is a good time to plant seeds, or in the parlance of modern urbanites like myself, to start projects.

Let's just say, for the hell of it, that you're racial justice curious. Not ready to go to a protest or start a fight with your very conservative sister-in-law or put on a Black Lives Matter button.

That's ok. Now is still a good time to begin.

Let me offer my own story of beginning.

Somewhere over a year ago I took on a project: in a half-conscious way, I decided to make Facebook my racial justice platform. I had gradually lost interest in sharing pictures of my life. I realized that what I got most jazzed about posting were stories that highlighted racial intolerance. Likely this was a result of teaching college freshman around the time of Obama's election. Most had no idea of their white privilege, and many argued that racism was 'solved' now that a black president had been elected. I'd been trying to prove to them, and to my hazy idea of a general FB audience that racism is indeed alive, well, and dangerous. I became conscious of the value of my copious connections (all those "friends' real or no actually counted for something now), and resolved to intentionally raise awareness of white privilege and fight white supremacy. So I continued doing what I had been doing for some time, just with more resolve and consciousness.

Usually I got a small smattering of likes from the same handful of people (file this under 'preaching to the choir'.) I kept at it, unlike so many other projects I've abandoned, maybe because of a sense of moral imperative. I wasn't doing it for me, I was doing it because I felt like I had to.

Eventually I figured out that black people and people of color weren't my audience. They certainly knew more about race than I, a white person trained by my society at large to remain unconscious of race, to consider whiteness the "norm', and race a problem belonging to non-white people. Non-white people already knew much more about the troubles of race in America than I did. It became increasingly clear that I am best suited to speak to other white people about race.  I share their experience, their 'language', their frame of reference. They are (sadly) more likely to trust me over a person of color. And they are the ones that need to think about it, need to learn about it, need to do something about it.

At first, I was a little worried about alienating the white people in my circles. That fear didn't last long. We all know how easy it is easy to say things on social media you wouldn't say in person.  In all honesty, I was only brave on Facebook or Twitter, where I don't have to see people's facial reactions and endure the force of their feelings. (Despite all my bravado on FB, I still don't take up the issue of race with my family, unless they have made it clear that they see things somewhat similarly to me. That's an area I need to work on.)  I assumed those who disagreed with my points had unfriended me. Even more likely, I assumed, was that people just tuned me out, wrote me off as "the girl with the race bee in her bonnet", and ignored me.

I carried on anyway, impelled by a sense -- usually grief, or indignation -- that was too powerful to ignore.

And then something amazing happened. People began to reach out to me. One at a time, quietly, slowly. For some I was the only white person they knew who consistently spoke up about race. Typically, the only white people unapologetic and confident and LOUD when discussing race are the hard-core unabashed racists. Most of us avoid the uncomfortable awkwardness and the fear of getting it wrong by avoiding the topic. White people have few models of how to talk about race at all. Fortunately, something had impelled me to brand myself 'the anti-racism lady', which meant they had someone to go to with questions, with concerns, with their feelings. They told me how disgusted or broken-hearted they felt. They asked me what they could do, how they could help, where to get involved. I began to understand that people were taking in more than I knew, and thinking about the issues I'd assumed they'd ignored.

So I'm going to go on assuming some of you out there have been paying attention to my rantings all along even if you haven't said anything aloud in response. And I'm going to keep writing to you, even if you stay quiet. I'm going to keep the soil ready, and save seeds, and drop them in one at a time, and water them every time I can, because it happens. Things grow. The time passes and seeds grow into seedlings, then plants, and then they bear fruit. 


Let's say you are deeply disturbed by the growing awareness of racial injustice in our country.  Let's also say that you want to raise your kid to be tolerant, aware, and bent on justice. Let's say that you've been wondering how to initiate a more meaningful conversation about racial justice with your kid. Not knowing how to begin such a conversation myself last year (and wanting to do the best job possible), I asked my daughter's former teacher for an age-appropriate book from which we could start a conversation.  The teacher, for whom I had great respect and whose abilities, skills and training I had much confidence in, had not a single book recommendation, but assured me that we would "cover all that during Martin Luther King Jr. Day". I was sorely disappointed. Not ONE book? I was also  certain that they wouldn't, in face, get around to much beyond "MLK was a great guy and now racism is over HOORAY!" No mention of white privilege. No mention of the things I actually respect most about MLK, like his radical anti-war and anti-poverty stance. I was on my own.  And I still needed a book to help my daughter understand America's most intractable problem.

Hear that? America's most intractable problem.

Intractable: partly because most adults can't explain it, not even to themselves, not in any way that satisfactorily hews to their sense of how the world should work. Intractable also, it pains me to admit, because I'm somewhat unwilling to engage. I want to protect my kid from the f*cked-up-ness of  white supremacy. I want her to remain in the safe and rosy bubble of childhood innocence as long as possible. Lots of well-intentioned white people do. But when I consider that many black kids her age have already had The Talk and that black children are not free to move in the world the way white children are, what right do I have to shield her from my perceived mental danger? As soon as I remember that well-intentioned but silent white people who refuse to engage perpetuate white supremacy, I know I must act, even if I don't know exactly how.

Fortunately, eventually,  I found a resource. So today, I have one resource to share with you. Teaching for Change has an exhaustive list of anti-bias books for all ages. I'm not going to explain why reading such books is important -- the folks at Teaching for Change do a better job of that than I can. I will say that I immediately checked with my local library and found that most of the recommended books were available. I plan on making an event of it. I put about 10 of the books on hold and will bring my daughter with me to pick them up from the library. Most are lavishly illustrated, ensuring she will want to at least flip through the pages. I'll offer to read them to her, and needing to return them on time will ensure we work our way through the pile.

As her questions come up, as I know they will, I know for a fact I will need help dealing with my own emotional reactions. She will ask questions I won't know how to answer. Or even harder for me, she will lose interest. I know I will have to keep breathing, and keep working, and keep talking about it.  One story, one conversation, one seed at a time.


Here are some ideas of what to do with the recommended book list, even if you're not a parent:
buy a book for a child in your life
buy a book for your local school
check out a book and offer to read it to a kid in your life
request your local library add a book to their collection if it isn't there already
post about a book on FaceBook or Twitter or Instagram
read one yourself
share the list with parents you know
ask that these books be carried in your local bookstore

Fighting America's most intractable problem is not for the weak, and certainly can't be done in solitude. We need each other. Please know that you can reach out to me.

01 December 2015


Small victory: I haven't blown up my bank account in preparation of Christmas (yet).  I didn't shop at all on Friday, over the weekend, or even online on CyberMonday. I did go into some stores yesterday, in preparation for the Mister's trip to parts abroad, where the temperatures (brrrr) required warm clothing expenditures. Surprisingly, it was useful for me to go into those Big Box discount-ish stores, for two reasons:
1) In realizing I missed out on some major markdowns, I also twigged that I'm not much different from the people shopping on those days. As much as I don't relate to their pre-holiday frenzy of consumerism, I hold nothing against the average American shopper who wants and probably needs to save a buck.

2) It's the corporations and the their marketers I have a beef with. They don't REST trying to figure out new ways, both insidious and banal, to separate us from the $$ it seems to be increasingly difficult to earn. Case in point: No matter how fabulous I feel or how much I love my outfit when I walk into a major retailer, I walk out thinking I look like garbage. Most of my clothes come from the thrift store, so its not a total stretch. But small, independently-owned and operated shops don't bathe me in shame the way big box stores do. Lesson learned: avoid these stores when possible. 

Since I had a little bit of money to spare today, on #GivingTuesday, I thought I'd let you know where I decided to make my (very small) donation.

Dignity and Power Now fights for the dignity and power of incarcerated people, their families, and communities.

Why them? They are a black-led, grassroots organization building future activist leaders in my hometown.

And, because, as they point out on their site:

The United States has 5% of the worlds population but over 25% of the worlds prison population.
There are over 2.2 million people incarcerated in prisons and jails across the country.
There are 33 state prisons in California alone.
Since 1980, California has built 23 jails and one university.

Of course, people of color are disproportionately represented in the prison system, so this is a racial justice issue, too. As if that wasn't enough,    

 64% of those held in jail across the country have a mental health condition.

The Department of Justice has issued a consent decree over the Los Angeles Jail system because the treatment/living conditions of the mental health population have been deemed “unconstitutional.”

Twin Towers JAIL, just down the road from me, is considered one of the three largest Mental Health facilities in the United States.

People with mental health conditions are three times as likely to experience abuse while incarcerated.

Incarceration doubles the possibility that someone with no previous mental health history will develop a mood disorder such chronic anxiety, major depression, or bi-polar.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in jails across the country.


Please consider giving to a charitable organization in your neighborhood that is fighting for something you believe in.  Maybe further the good deed and name your organiztion of choice in the comment section below, while you're at it. As of this moment, I've had over 49,000 individual hits @VJR.com (only 10,000 of which were either me checking for errors, or my mom). That's a lot of eyes on your favorite charity's name!!

04 December 2014

I Can't Breathe

When I heard the Eric Garner decision yesterday, my feelings were beyond naming.

Outrage... disgust... horror... devastation...denial... fear...

 I spent the day in a haze, unable to concentrate. Were all the people going about their daily life around me unaware of the decision? Or -- worse -- did people just not care? The only thing I could think to do to resolve the growing turmoil within was to protest.

As I exited my car at MLK Blvd and Crenshaw that night, at first I felt awkward. I wondered if I had the right to claim this grief. When a woman shouted through a bullhorn "I am Michael Brown!" for us to repeat, at first I felt timid. But eventually, my voice joined the chant: "I am Michael Brown! I am Eric Garner! I am Ezell Ford! I am Kelly Thompson!" 

And I understood. To not claim their loss as my own would be to deny someone's humanity; to not identify directly with them would mean either they were not human, or I am not. 

Eventually the protest moved to the Walmart down the road. There I saw beautiful children, gripping their parents' hands tight, looking at us with questioning faces. The store was protected by a line of a dozen policemen, many of them black, whose thoughts I can't begin to imagine. One protester had a drum; his drumming kept our voices from flagging. With some of the protesters chanting "ABOLISH THE POLICE!", the tension palpable, it was all I could do not to samba - the dance that reminds me I'm alive - to pray with my feet.

28 May 2014

Yours, mine, ours?

I've been thinking a lot about the issue of cultural appropriation over the last year.

I see instances of this all over -- what is fashionable in my realm right now is very largely made up of the imagery, motifs and costumes of non-contemporary, non-white cultures. I am perhaps the worst offender I know: my closet and jewelry boxes are FULL of the cultural productions of cultures outside my own. But how fair is that? As a white person with all the unearned privileges of a white supremacist culture at my fingertips, I can slip into a Oaxacan embroidered dress without having to know the first thing about Oaxaca or the experience of a person from Oaxaca, who does not have the same opportunity to slip out of her skin when it might be convenient (hence the hashtag #everythingbuttheburden).

What would it mean for me to limit my clothing to what is of my own culture? And as a person whose ancestors on one side came through Ellis Island in 1900 from Russia (after leaving Germany two generations before that) and from England in the 17th century on the other side, what *is* my culture? What food do I bring to represent my culture to my kid's "Diversity Potluck"? What "traditional costume" do I wear to the Multi-culture fest? What can I legitimately claim as mine?
It appears I have a creative challenge.