Becoming ‘harmonious’ with nature: Environmental gap between organic and regular cotton

366 Yasemin Nicola Sakay
The Harmonious brand went under a revamp in 2020 and now produces an array of clothing made from organic cotton. (Photo courtesy of Harmonious)

Growing in soft, fluffy bolls, cotton is the most commonly used fabric on Earth. But in a world where water scarcity is exacerbated by the fiber’s mass production, what can the fashion industry do to mitigate the damage it continues to inflict?

It’s not that often that you come across garments made of organic cotton. Though you may see fast fashion brands such as Mango and H&M steadily bring out more and more sustainable collections made from this natural material, there are very few Turkish brands that do so – ironic when considering it is the land of cotton and textiles. But what is this fuss about organic cotton? Does regular cotton not measure up, especially when it comes to the environmental repercussions?

Regular cotton is produced from genetically modified seeds to meet enormous global demand and uses hazardous pesticides in the form of organophosphates and artificial fertilizers which not only decrease soil quality but can also seep into groundwater and create oxygen-free dead zones.

When it comes to organic cotton, as natural seeds are used, the crops need less water – 11 times less than regular crops, to be exact – and beneficial insects are employed to fight off destructive ones to protect the plant. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of conventional cotton, which is enough to make a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, consumes 20,000 liters (5,283 gallons) of water during production, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In comparison, organic cotton uses 91% less water as chemicals aren’t used on the crops and hence water is not needed to wash them off.

Another benefit of not spraying cotton plants with insecticides or synthetic fertilizers for growth is that it prevents soil and water sources from being contaminated and ensures higher-quality sources for years to come. Farmers and cotton field workers also aren’t exposed to these toxic chemicals, meaning they don’t have to sacrifice their health for the sake of fabric, making it more ethical. No irritating chemical residue left behind also means healthier skin and fewer flare-ups of possible allergies.

These may be facts unknown, or purposefully disregarded, by the majority, but there is one Istanbul-based Turkish brand that has built its very presence around this stark difference. Enter the story of Harmonious.

It’s a chilly Monday morning when I am surprised by not one but two warm smiles across the screen. The one on the left, from my point of view, sports a shortish lob of fiery ginger hair and an orangey-red lipstick to match. She clearly likes a cohesive color story, I take a mental note. The one on the right has long, golden-brown, almost blondish hair pulled back in a sleek ponytail with fire-engine red lips and simple pearl earrings brightening up her whole face. The similarities in facial structure lead me to the presumption that they are sisters, and indeed they are. Şeyma and Zeynep Tuna greet me in unison. We get chatting in no time.

Their brand, named after their desire to create harmony in their lives and in their relationship with nature, came to life in 2017 in the sophisticated Istanbul neighborhood of Nişantaşı. The first-ever pieces they produced started off as novelties: hand-painted, madder root-dyed organic cotton scarfs – elegant yet functional in the colors of fall and winter.

Trained in root-dying, the sisters decided to create their own colors from scratch. They came up with a woody, earthy variety of colors and pops of saturated jewel tones for richness. Of course, the best fabrics for root dyes are organic to ensure durability and even application, so it was only natural to go for cotton, they say.

Organic cotton is also more durable with longer and stronger fibers than conventional cotton as it is handpicked instead of using machinery that can be very rough on the crops, added Zeynep.

Old movies and vintage tinges

If you’ve ever worked with plant-based dyes and organic fabrics, you’ll know it’s basically impossible to get the same shade you created in different batches, but that’s where the appeal lies. Small nuances in tone make it all the more unique – just like when one mentions Benetton green, you’ll know it’s vastly different than Gucci’s iconic green hue.

The color palette they have created is reminiscent of old European movies: vintage-looking, lots of browns, pinks and blues with greens and grays to complement. All colors share an undertone of brown akin to old sepia photographs and they use these same colors in their hand-painted backgrounds in photo shoots, which serves to create continuity.

And that is exactly their source of inspiration, I learn.

“We love art, cinema, the decades and their (corresponding) colors. We thought we could combine our understanding of art with organic textures and help people feel a sense of nostalgia. So, we combined functional with effortless elegance and created pieces that women could wear in a meeting, out at dinner and then even to bed – it had to be comfy too,” said Zeynep.

“Organic cotton also won’t make you sweat like polyester and is anti-bacterial, so it allows your skin to breathe. Instead of washing it after every use, you could air it out in the sun if it isn’t even dirty,” she added, another plus when it comes to water consumption.

Thus organic cotton shirts were born in 2018. Fast-forward to 2020, and thanks to hours of solitude in lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, the duo debuted their own capsule collection of sorts – wool coats, a skirt, slacks, jackets and blouses to complete an almost head-to-toe harmonious look.

“We dressed the woman of our dreams. We wanted to create timeless pieces for the modern working woman, who could and still would want to wear these pieces 10 years down the line, classics,” said Zeynep.

Buy once, wear for a decade

The Tuna sisters say one handicap of using organic cotton as their main material is the price point. Finding producers is another challenge.

“Unfortunately in Turkey, there aren’t many certified producers of organic cotton. Even though there is a good system established for it, as demand is low so is production. There is also not widespread awareness about conventional cotton’s impact on health and the environment. So when people see the price tag on an organic cotton shirt, they are shocked. The more that people turn to greener farming, the better this will get,” said Şeyma. But just as organic farming is slowly catching on, so will this, they believe.

“The interesting thing about organic cotton is that it may feel thicker and rather stiff, which can put people off. But the more you use it and wash it over time, the more it molds to the shape of your body and softens on your skin. So, in a way, years later, your item will be better than when you bought it,” said Zeynep. That’s a stark contrast to most items you pick up from fast-fashion chains, which starts falling apart, with the fabric pilling and the stitches unraveling.

“Instead of having 10 shirts, why not have one that will last you as long? Be a slow consumer. That’s what the pandemic has taught us: slow down. Stop trying to fill a void by consuming constantly,” she added.

Making items that can be worn for many years also requires serious strategic thinking when it comes to style. That’s why, Şeyma said, they wanted to create key pieces that would be a great addition to any wardrobe.

“We wanted to create pieces with unique qualities, small details that make people stop you and ask ‘where did you get that from?’ We wanted to design life-long, high-quality pieces, not for one season,” added Zeynep.

Şeyma said that they also wanted to take out the guessing work for the modern woman who does not even have time to think, and hence opted for modern forms and classicized details.

Muses from art, philosophy

Fusing feminine touches like frilly collars, bulbous sleeves and French cuffs with roomy, oversize silhouettes and masculine cuts, they managed to exude a sartorial decadence with their pieces, giving 19th-century fashion a modern 21st-century update.

“British or French period dramas were our main inspirations,” continued Zeynep, adding that they also drew inspiration from iconic characters and phrases.

“Russian psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salome was the eponym of their chocolate brown, high-collar Victorianesque silk blouse. She influenced the likes of (Friedrich) Nietzsche, (Rainer Maria) Rilke, (Leo) Tolstoy, Paul Ree and (Sigmund) Freud and became our muse,” she said.

Their “a la folie” shirt, which means “to insanity” in French, was born out of a love of 1935s French movies.

“To do something with so much passion and love that you do it in sort of this mad, manic state, that’s what we channeled,” said Şeyma. The end product is of airy cotton in shades of cream, dusty pink and beige and elegant pouf sleeves that come alive in a high-neck, buttoned silhouette.

Telling a story, from beginning to end

The one thing most brands lack nowadays is a captivating story, and without that, everything falls flat.

“Brands should strive to evoke emotions in their customers and tell a story through their visuals. If you examine our styling and imagery, you can see we are portraying an aesthetic of an era. Of course, there is product placement but we try to make our customers feel immersed in a story,” said Şeyma.

Nowadays in the fashion world, there is so much competition – a never-ending contest of prices, images and products.

“We believe brands shouldn’t solely focus on selling and instead aspire to teach their customers something valuable. We’re trying to expand their views of the world through our own inspirations and the stories behind these names. We’re trying to showcase an aesthetic vision that teaches people about history, prods them to think and makes them appreciate art. We want our customers to dream,” she added.

The way a person dresses can give many clues about them, too, and whether they have chosen to be the main character in their lives.

“For us, the way someone dresses is a reflection of one’s image, character and mood. What we wear should not contradict our personalities and lifestyles, and they need to tell our story. When we choose to buy a piece, we aren’t buying a single product; we’re completing our style, telling a harmonious story,” said Şeyma.

Sisterly rivalry?

Mixing family and business is something many experts caution against, but there couldn’t be a better team than the Tuna sisters.

Although neither comes from a fashion background, they have managed to create a harmonious partnership that constantly feeds from their different areas of expertise. Zeynep has a solid political science and international affairs background, which she says helps give their brand a global view. Whether it is the strategy or administrative decisions, she’s the one who steps in.

Meanwhile, Şeyma, like the true storyteller she is, incorporates her knowledge of literature and art into her work. Her foray into the world of photography as a side job eventually flourished into something much bigger and she created a niche for herself in fashion photography, which came in handy when they established Harmonious.

“I can be too much of a perfectionist and get caught up in the smallest details. That’s where Zeynep comes in and puts things into perspective,” said Şeyma.

“I have a realistic approach and tell her what is feasible which helps her see things clearer,” Zeynep chimed in. “We complete each other.”

But do they not have any disagreements, at all?

“Of course, we do,” said Şeyma. “We have creative differences and we talk it over. Most often than not neither of us gets what they insisted on in the first place because we come up with something much better when brainstorming together,” they chuckled.

At the end of the day, they know they have things to learn from each other and use this as fuel to grow – a perfect recipe for harmony.



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