Ellie Kate puts ethics in aesthetics

Ellie Kate designers, Ellen Keane (left) and Katie Matherly (right) show off the cropped and off the shoulder tops part of their first collection. (Photo provided by Ellie Kate)

A phrase gleaned from a car’s bumper in Ghana wouldn’t seem the typical mantra for a fashion line, but it became the eco-friendly watchword of Ellie Kate. Designers Ellen Keane and Katie Matherly were studying abroad in Cape Coast summer 2010 when they saw a vehicle sport the motto, “No Condition is Permanent.” The saying stuck. A year later the Central Michigan University graduates applied this philosophy to their sustainable apparel line; a fusion of ethical thinking and ethnic prints.

Ellie Kate designers, Katie Matherly (left) and Ellen Keane (right) pose in tank tops from their first collection. (Photo provided by Ellie Kate)

“When we saw it (the phrase) we were actually having one of those days where nothing was going right and it was a nice reminder that everything is consistently changing and we should savor the good, not dwell on the bad,” says Keane. This good versus bad theory helped forge the “back to basics” fashion principles they’d later adopt.

Keane majored in Apparel Design with a minor in Graphic Design, while Matherly double majored in Apparel Design and Merchandising and minored in Marketing. The pair met interning at Global Mamas, a non-profit and fair trade organization that sells products made by local Ghanaian women. The experience proved enlightening—Ellie Kate uses traditional African methods of batik, a wax-resist dying technique for cloth. The low-impact dye process uses foam stamps and has minimal impact on the environment.

“Dying is a very laborious process, so we try to mix it up with a couple of labor-intense days dying and then a few relaxed days of patterning or sewing,” says Matherly. The designers do their sewing in Ellen’s apartment and the dying in a garage—putting in long hours for a process that requires precision.

“When we’re designing we have to make sure our ideas will work with this method of dying,” says Keane. “The more we design the more we perfect the process.” This concentration refers to restrictions of batik methods on print varieties. Aztec, African and tribal inspiration parallel the kinds of designs Ellie Kate can use—and want to use.

Contrasts of tangerine, light mauve, electric yellows and lime dyes made for a harlequin first collection. And the cuts are equally as motley. Aimed at young women, Ellie Kate offers cropped tanks, one-shouldered garments, cap sleeves, and low-back dresses that mock the kind of attire found in fast fashion chains, sans the guilt post-purchase.

“Women who are constantly buying new garments to keep up with the latest trends should consider how much clothing they are getting rid of each season to replenish their wardrobe,” says Keane.

Designer Ellen Keane uses a foam stamp during the batik method of dying. (Photo provided by Ellie Kate)

Though Ellie Kate’s prices are characteristic of sustainable fashion, its fabrics derive from natural fibers, like bamboo, soy, seaweed, and organic cotton, making for better quality.

“Although you may be paying 30% more for a garment, it will last you 30% longer,” assures Keane. The duo recommends ladies buy classic garments that never go out of a style—and last longer—then use trendy accessories to mix things up.

In fact, Ellie Kate is green right down to its tags and packaging. With a “no leftovers” mission in mind, any scrap of fabric is used, meaning no materials are wasted. But the designers realize their practices aren’t the norm quite yet.

“I think the fashion industry has begun to evolve into a greener industry but it’s not going to change over night,” says Matherly. She considers consumers the key influence on sustainable production. “The more they buy ethical products, the more likely it is that brands will make changes to appeal to the consumers,” she added. It’s a reasonable argument for sustainable fashion, and for shopping Ellie Kate.

“We both have a passion for design and a passion for creating a cleaner earth,” says Keane. “We just combined two things we have strong feelings for with our education and experience.”

 Ellie Kate can be purchased at www.elliekatedesigns.com. They’re also a frequent vendor at The Rust Belt Market in Ferndale, Michigan, where they will be every weekend from Nov. 25th -Dec. 18th.