Shortly after Allison Reaves launched her clothing line, she started flying to New York for Market Week. It was 2017, and she had just moved back to her hometown of Missoula after working with fashion in Portland, Oregon for two years. The New York-based design and retail consortium allowed her to promote her clothing to larger markets beyond the Garden City. But it wasn’t easy. She was among a multitude of other designers vying for buyers in a madhouse of showrooms.
“You’re in these booths for 10 hours a day, three or four days in a row,” Allison said. “It could be really soul-sucking.”
But the connection with other designers at Market Week was also what kept Allison sane. A lot of them, like her, were small-scale artists with larger ideals about what clothing could be in an industry that affects the world both negatively and positively.
“Chatting with all these other amazing people and knowing how hard it is to just be an artist and try to make that your career—it made me want to support them however I could,” Allison said.
In April of last year, Allison opened her own retail shop named after her clothing line, The General Public, to do just that. The shop inside downtown’s Florence Building showcases her own clothing line plus more than 30 designers from across the country. She often carries just a few pieces from each vendor so that the space feels like an art gallery of curated lifestyle objects rather than a run-of-the-mill boutique.
Designers include Kordal, a knitwear company out of Brooklyn and Los Angeles-based 323, a clothing company that creates “funky silhouettes” and whose philosophy celebrates, among other things, emotional intelligence, body positivity, tolerance, and kindness. Also in the shop: Hats of various materials from Portland milliner Brookes Boswell, quirky and cosmic brass jewelry from Yu Yu Shiratori, CLT bags from local designer Caitlin Troutman and Allison’s own line, which is inspired by workwear made from light denim, canvas, and linen.
February is when the spring lines start coming through the door, including dresses and jumpsuits and objects in light pastels. Allison always carries Fat & the Moon plant-based cosmetic line and nail polish from tenoverten, a company that doesn’t use the top 8 main toxins usually found in nail polishes.
The collection of clothing, jewelry, cosmetics, ceramics, and other functional decor isn’t just handpicked for aesthetics. Allison’s journey to becoming a designer and retailer included a lot of discussion about sustainability and ethics. In Portland, where she landed after graduating from the apparel design program at Oregon State University, she worked with a lot of female-owned design companies that cultivated creative passion around ideas of sustainability.
“They were doing new things and they had ideas they’d just run with,” Allison said. “They were not really thinking about what’s popular, they were expressing themselves as artists. And that was when I was like, ‘Oh, whoa! I could do this. This is what I want.’”
The vendors she chooses are part of what’s called the “slow fashion” movement. They work with natural fibers or textiles that would have otherwise gone to waste. They are vendors who make products by hand on small scales and if they do commission their products to factories, they aren’t going to be sweatshops.
Why does it matter? Each year, the U.S. generates 15 million tons of textile waste of which 10.46 million ends up in the landfill. An average American throws away about 80 pounds of used clothing per person, per year. And the clothing industry itself, is the second highest polluter of our water resources. So these designers look to make products that are biodegradable, that haven’t been made with a lot of chemicals and that use textiles that would have been otherwise thrown out.
“To be truly sustainable we wouldn’t be creating anything new right now,” Allison admits. “There’s so much clothing in the world already. But I think there’s an opportunity to educate people about what being a conscientious buyer looks like.”
The higher price point of handmade, slow-fashion objects can feel prohibitive, but the quality and uniqueness is a logical argument for the cost. These items are distinctive because Allison generally orders only one or two of a kind—especially things like ceramics and other decor, and once she sells them, she’s out. It gives the buyer a sense of owning something special that also lasts and could even be passed down.
“I feel like our generation doesn’t have any heirloom pieces,” Allison said. “We get something and throw it away or wash it once and it’s falling apart already. And so I want to bring back that idea of having something that you really appreciate. And I think that’s an idea that’s starting to catch on.”