In 1988, third grader Lara Miller sat gobsmacked as she listened to her teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary describe the effects of greenhouse gases on the planet. For Miller, this was a call to arms. If she saw a classmate throw a gum wrapper on the floor, she would accost the litterbug and shout, “Don’t you know about global warming?”
The lifelong Chicagoan and School of the Art Institute grad is now, at 31, an internationally recognized fashion designer—who still pulls overlooked recyclables out of the trash. (“I’m sort of obsessed with recycling,” she admits.) Her obsession with sustainability extends to all aspects of her urban-chic knitwear line, worn by celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Emily Deschanel, and Stacy London. She meticulously traces the origins of her raw materials—almost every yarn Miller uses, whether it’s hemp, bamboo, or organic cotton, is produced using noncaustic methods and low-impact dyes that release as little waste as possible—and she employs a trusted local knitter to handcraft every garment in her Wrigleyville studio.
“One thing I love about knitwear is we literally go from cone to production on the loom,” Miller says. “Everything is based in measurements, so there’s no need to draw those measurements out onto a paper or digital pattern.”
Paper waste abounds in the fashion industry. “That was not a sustainable part of the business, and it really bothered me,” Miller says. Until a couple of years ago, she included woven garments in her line, which required paper patterns, but even then she minimized paper use. “There are 60 yards of paper on the pattern roll,” she explains. “In five years of doing wovens, I’ve only had two rolls.”
The reasons behind Miller’s downsizing to an all-knitwear operation were threefold. First, it was an economic necessity: 20 of the more than 50 stores carrying her line closed in recent years, so reducing production was unavoidable. Second, it gave her more time to focus on her latest position as executive director of the Chicago Fashion Incubator, a Mayor Daley–backed endeavor created to foster emerging local designers and keep them in Chicago (for more on the incubator and its April pop-up shop, see page 31). Third, and most important, knitwear is the core of Miller’s collection: Her architecturally inventive cardigans and dresses can be reversed or rewrapped to create more than one look per garment.
“My goal as a businessperson should be to make as much as possible and sell as much as possible, but it’s not,” Miller says. “I make clothes that can be worn multiple ways because I don’t think my customer needs to have 20 of my sweaters. Less is more.”
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Photograph: Taylor Castle; Photo Assistant: Joshua Haines; Hair and Makeup: Nika Vaughan; Wardrobe: Tony Bryan; Furniture: Courtesy of Post 27