Can an urban planning grad student change the fashion industry?

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An urban planning graduate student at UIC with no background in the fashion industry is hoping to change the way your clothes are made by showing it can be done with Indian-inspired vests that don’t have collars.

Come again?

When Harish Patel would wear the traditional vest he’d purchased on a trip to India, hip strangers here would approach him to ask where they could buy one.

“I’d try to help them to get one, and I couldn’t find a website or find a way to get it,” says Patel, 27. “About six months of that, I realized this is a niche market.”

Patel also found that consumers want to know how things are made.

“People are really changing their mind about how consumption happens,” he says. “Folks want to know where everything happens.”

So Patel is partnering with a factory near his hometown in Gujarat, India, to produce organic, hand-spun cotton vests that are part fashion, part eco-friendliness. He says the factory uses herbal dyes instead of chemicals and provides its workers a livable wage and hospitable working conditions.

“There’s been this push for sustainable and organic, but I think we’re really missing the workers’ rights part,” he says. “Without paying the workers right, you can’t do one thing and not the other.

“For us, the combination of planet, profit and people is the only bottom line.”

Patel launched a Kickstarter campaign last week in an effort to get ishi brand vests off the ground. Since then, Patel and his team, consisting of a designer and a publicist, have exceeded their goal of raising $10,000 and have sold more than half of the 300 vests they were planning for their mid-October launch.

That success has inspired Patel to look ahead. For now, ishi vests are available only in a men’s style, but he has plans to add women’s vests when he raises $20,000.

He’ll likely get there, says Beth Shorrock, assistant fashion professor at Columbia College. “The design of these garments are not always driven by fashion trends but by a higher purpose to become a catalyst for change,” she says. “For companies like ishi vest, success may not always be measured in dollars, but rather in their positive impact.”

But not everyone believes that sustainable fashion is, well, sustainable.

“I can’t see a ‘hip’ store, neither a large department store or small boutique, carrying these vests,” says Lauren Katz, founder of Chicago-based indie boutique Emerging Thoughts. “A few years ago you could put ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ on any clothing and it would sell. Now, the market is so competitive that you won’t survive unless the style works.”

Patel says he remains undeterred, choosing to focus on how he’s going to capitalize on the initial momentum to sell more ishi vests, which are currently only available via his Kickstarter site.

He says he’s been approached by outside investors but isn’t ready to accept funding just yet: “We’re not at scalability, and also we’re not so sure if they’re going to believe in our values. … We don’t want just money.”

But eventually, if Patel is going to change the fashion world, he knows he will need to get his product into stores largely because of guys like himself.

“As we scale out, we’re going to have to put it in stores because people also want to try it on,” he says. “They want to feel the fabric, they want to touch it, they want to look good and they want to make sure that it looks good. So I think we’re going to get to that level next.”

Photo: Harish Patel shows off one of his ishi vests.

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