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|Wednesday, October 21, 2009|
In front of a crowd of black-clad urbanites sitting in the dark, rancher Jeanne Carver told her “sunlight story.” It was the closing event of Portland Fashion Week in early October, and Carver had been asked to do something unusual for a fashion show. The cowgirl-slim evangelist stood in the spotlight and told the story of her historic Shaniko sheep and cattle ranch and her 10-year journey to bring the wool from the sheep off the ranch and onto the runway, which was about to debut that night as the Imperial Collection by Anna Cohen.
“I’ve been to a lot of rodeos, but this is my first fashion show,” she admitted. And then she launched into the sunlight story, tying together the animals that eat the sun-grown grasses, converting it to food and fiber that sustain human life. It’s a cycle that she witnesses every day at the Imperial Ranch, which she and her husband, Dan, have owned and operated since 1988. Dan was, of course, in the audience, wearing a white Stetson and surely the only cowboy boots in the room that had seen actual cows.
The collection’s debut was the punctuation on a project with well-regarded Portland designer Anna Cohen that began a year ago, and to a journey by Carver that started long before that.
After the collapse of the American sheep industry, the Carvers in 1999 started creating retail products from their raw commodities to survive: artisanal beef and lamb for restaurants, and handcrafted yarn and apparel from the wool. They not only wanted the ranch to be environmentally sustainable, but also economically sustainable. A turning point for the fiber operation came in 2004 when clothing retailer Norm Thompson agreed to sell the garments that Jeanne produced in collaboration with local weavers, knitters and other artists. “It was the basis for everything we are doing today,” says Carver, who wears her determination and passion as easily as her wool.
In November 2007, the ranch got a regional grant from Mt. Hood Economic Alliance to support its fiber business, and Erin Stone, who comes from a Sherman County family ranch, was brought on board two months later to direct sales and marketing. The two then submitted a grant request to the USDA to fund market research, a feasibility study and a business plan that would position the yarn and apparel business to a broader audience. Carver had kept a 2007 profile of Cohen, who specializes in sustainable fashion, on her desk for a year, and in the spring of 2008 she and Stone contacted Cohen about using “Oregon sunlight fabrics” in her designs. When the USDA awarded the ranch a $100,000 grant in the fall of 2008, which the Carvers personally matched, Cohen joined the team to provide creative direction, input into the business plan and to design a collection using Imperial materials, while Carver focused on production, delivery and her passionate vision.
“Dan and I have made a huge commitment,” says Carver, who would like to return their focus to the land they steward. “What we are really ready for is a strong, sustainable financial partner and a strong leader to join us and take it on from here. We hope to solidify some interest so we can carry this local model forward.” The pot is bubbling: The yarn line is outselling the ranch’s production of wool, and is now being sold in Europe. The city of Portland is talking to them about creating uniforms for its police department. The team also plans to seek new grants.
“I’ve been telling that sunlight story for 10 years,” Carver says. “I felt like the salmon swimming upstream. But now people are listening.”
At the end of a show, it’s tradition for the designer to appear briefly to accept the applause. But after Cohen took her bow, she brought out Carver and Stone to also be acknowledged by the crowd, which had warmly received Cohen’s 11 sophisticated pieces.
A smug middle-aged couple who had been rolling their eyes and pointing to their watches while Carver spoke surprisingly wandered over to talk with her at some length. The next day, Cohen sent me a note saying, “You asked me if I thought people got it with Jeanne’s story…I since have had lots of feedback from people who really loved knowing the story, who were moved and appreciated it. I thought it might be important to mention that.”
Maybe Carver is right. Maybe people are finally listening.
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