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Denim as a Force for Good

I had to go back to reading When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron as I do each time the world falls apart. Chapter 3 comes to the rescue as I read “This very moment is the perfect teacher”, “we can meet our match with a poodle or with a raging guard dog, but the interesting question is – what happens next?” In the midst of the pandemic driven human fragilities, the political and social global unrest, the undeniable climate crisis, and the too many opposing clashes, an urge of self-inquiry and a need to define/redefine purpose emerges. The only way to dissolve resistance to life is to meet it face to face, to go deeper – what is beyond is the possibility and especially if the effort can become collective.

I met Miko Underwood across a screen and she held a bright smile – a genuine tone followed as she greeted us all joyfully. It was one of the rare occasions that a manufacturer`s story could be traced as a part of the brands – not only through fabrics or production but the representation of all the human and the environmental impact a supply chain beholds. Her words had direction, her dream had become her vision and she had unleashed her creativity to not only design but to start a movement. Our conversation was not supplier to designer – it had more flavor, color and fulfillment through the notion of contributing to a bigger cause.

Miko`s brand Oak and Acorn – Only for the Rebelles is the first sustainable denim brand to come out of Harlem NY. The story behind the brand does not just belong to Miko as she would say at a later call “This is bigger than me or you”. Denim is a very unique fabrics and the beauty of denim is the history it beholds, the real people the fabric has touched as well as the cultural accountability it beholds and Miko shines light where we need most. To her sustainability means getting to the truth and operating from a place where she holds her narrative holistically. The Rebelle Coverall – the iconic denim piece of the collection is the uniform of the farmer, the worker, the enslaved and the prisoner. As we live through these precarious times it is revealing further that we are here at this point in our lives to find purpose in what we do and how we live and Underwood’s goal with this collection is to unify and empower while prioritizing sustainability, function and purpose while paying homage to Black indigenous Americans and Africans for their contribution—past, present and future. The impact her work has made is easily assessed by the coverage of her work and the space herself and Oak and Acorn have earned.

IF: Your approach to sustainability is unique and holds a holistic core – please tell us a little bit about your ideas and your recent success with Only for the Rebelles. Miko Underwood: My story is pretty simple. OAK & ACORN ~ Only for the Rebelles translates for me as a way to express an authentic product. A product that combines purpose & passion. I spent most of my career telling the story of other brands and trying to connect to them. My only connection to these brands had been the love of creating denim. OAK & ACORN allows me to share a heritage story that feels more authentic and create a product that is thoughtful in each step - integrating traceability, fabric innovation & education with social impact. The recent acclaim around it was completely unexpected it’s become clear to me that OAK & ACORN’s purpose is bigger than me - it’s become a movement. IF: Could denim be a cultural, social, political icon to tell sustainable stories to bring more awareness? How come? Miko Underwood: Denim certainly can be a vehicle to tell sustainable stories. Sustainability by nature is cultural, social & political because it includes traceability, conscious practice & innovation, human & environmental impact. With my brand OAK & ACORN ~ Only for the Rebelles’ I created a sustainable denim story. In our 2020 NYFW fashion presentation, Red White & Indigo The Untold History of American Denim I drew the lines of an origin story that included heritage, innovation, culture, politics & social impact to thread a timeline of denim throughout American history. It’s a way I felt I can acknowledge the rich legacy & incredible human sacrifice with our future & responsibility. It’s making product with purpose. IF: Why has denim become a commodity in the past 2 decades and how can we change the narrative?

Miko Underwood: In American culture, the commodification of denim - because its origins are directly tied to abuse & exploitation of labor throughout US history - has surpassed the last 2 decades. Education & accountability is a key to change. By bringing awareness to the practices that have exploited workers in our global community & taking accountability for how we have normalized capitalizing at the expense of someone else’s livelihood, we can began to shift the narrative and integrate tools for change. Recently The Kingpins Show’s NonProfit ,Transformers released a white paper to highlight the financial exploitation that occurred during our global pandemic which included a guide to best practices. I think this a great start for change & accountability. IF: What is the barrier that sustainable denim has and how can we change this narrative? Miko Underwood: I believe the barrier sustainable denim has is twofold. I think in general sustainable denim lacks education & accessibility to the general public. Most consumers don’t really understand what sustainable denim looks like or what sustainability means. Sustainable denim is still very much a vague concept. I think most consumers relate it to as upcycling - repurposing used items and reselling, when in actuality there are practices from the mills & industry that are much more dynamic. I think it’s up to the denim industry and small brands like my own, OAK & ACORN to bring this education beyond the denim circle of experts & into the marketplace.

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