Because of her close ties to environmental causes, Oakes is known as “The eco-model.” The title seems to fit her well: She has put her name behind many cause-related programs, including a skincare company that uses active natural ingredients and a maker of recycled eyewear that plants a tree for every pair of frames sold.
She didn’t set out to be the eco-fashionista. Oakes, whose first name derived from being born, she states, on a “rainy summer day,” was raised amid Pennsylvania farmlands north of Scranton and developed a love of nature from an early age. By 13, she was the youngest member of her hometown’s environmental advisory council and after high school, went off to Cornell University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in natural resources and entomology.
While researching toxins in sewage sludge and identifying aquatic insects, the 5-foot, 10-inch, willowy brunette also began modeling while at college, and conceived the idea that the fashion industry might be the right forum for her to take a leading role in expanding environmental awareness. Her first venture, Organic Portraits, an avant-garde photography project, brought to life sustainable design and conservation in one package.
Armed with brains, beauty and an affinity with the natural world, Oakes signed with her first modeling agency after graduating. Today, at 27, she has built her own brand as a business consultant and spokeswoman, author and entrepreneur in the multibillion-dollar industry of environmentally friendly apparel and home products.
Oakes says that being in nature is what makes her come to life. “I carry that with me through all of my work in the fashion industry. It keeps me incredibly grounded and gives me an opportunity to work with companies and organizations that mirror my values or operate in the spirit of becoming better stewards,” she says.
Oakes is as appealing as the products she represents. In addition to her creative input, she has put her stamp of approval on both Portico Home + Spa linens and bath products and Payless ShoeSource’s zoe&zac line of shoes and handbags. Oakes also is working with Modo on a collection of recycled eyewear under its Eco brand, which she notes will be tied in with some of her personal reforestation and sustainable design projects worldwide. Her work with Aveeno on its Be An Active Natural Campaign supports the message that small changes can add up to a big difference.
She sometimes blogs about her experiences at SummerRayne.net; explaining how she chooses which Earthfriendly companies she’ll support. “An engaging partnership is a critical component for me to [be] a spokesperson,” she writes. “On countless occasions, I have had to turn down offers if the partnership didn’t seem suitable. But how exciting it is to find brands that are ready to step up to the challenge and have the spirit, resources and energy to make meaningful change happen from the inside out.”
Oakes’ timing in applying her passions and skills to the green and clean marketplace is apt. Global retail sales of organic cotton apparel and home textile products reached an estimated $4.3 billion in 2009, up 35 percent over the year before, according to the latest research from Organic Exchange’s Organic Cotton Market Report, and the market is expected to continue to grow. Organic Exchange projected a 20 to 40 percent jump in both 2010 and 2011, to result in a $6 billion market.
Oakes supports the industry via Source4Style.com, a forum she recently co-founded to connect designers with sustainable material suppliers from around the world. A finalist for the prestigious Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, it already has been frequented by the likes of fashion designer Christian Siriano. Oakes is not alone—other celebrities and designers like Bono, Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood have added their voices in raising awareness of the importance of socially and environmentally conscious fashion.
Oakes has modeled for such industry giants as Levi Strauss, Payless, Replay Jeans and others, but her activism and modeling have also allowed her to branch out into other industries. She says that her bestselling book, Style, Naturally: The Savvy Shopping Guide to Sustainable Fashion and Beauty, is aimed at, “… women that love style, but may not have ‘environment’ in their lexicon,” and serves as, “an irreverent, witty guide for green virgins.”
“Sustainable design will continue to evolve,” she says. “Ten years ago, there were only a handful of designers operating in the industry. Now, most companies are asking how it can be authentically built into the core of their business.” How will that happen? “First, they have to believe and embody it.”
Kristin J. Bender is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.