LUXURY CLOTHING WITH CONSCIENCE

Britain ruled the seas for centuries with sails made of it. Italian Renaissance masterpieces were painted on it. The original pair of Levi's jeans was even sewn from it. Now Viridis Luxe reinvents one of the world's oldest cultivated fabrics, and launches a luxury brand of hemp clothing.

With global warming and sustainable agriculture on everyone's mind, elegant clothing that benefits the planet is proving irresistible to celebrities like Amber Valetta, Uma Thurman and Scarlet Johansson. They are just a few of the luminaries cosseting themselves this winter in enlightened luxury: lush wraps and sweaters adorned with the nifty VL embroidered logo. They are discovering the phenomenal qualities of hemp - feeling good in it and feeling good about themselves. It's a win-win situation.

Costume designer Hala Bahmet and producer Amadea West have made the environmentally friendly fabric the focus of their new company and their first collection. Chic sweaters, sensuous tunic tops, figure-hugging skirts, and generous wraps in natural colors - cream, charcoal and black - have been released under their Viridis (Latin for 'green') Luxe label in Los Angeles. The line will soon be available in New York and London, with worldwide release soon thereafter.

It began in 2004 when West, who is from London, read a report about the pesticide-intensive cultivation of cotton. Horrified at what she learned, she decided to start a company to make T-shirts from recycled fabric.

Bahmet, who studied textiles in college in her hometown of St. Paul, Minn., had long known of hemp's remarkable qualities. She knew, for example, that if hemp replaced cotton globally, the increased fiber yield would free up an area of farmland the size of Florida, and reduce toxic pesticides by 94,000 tons. Her work in Hollywood with environmentally conscious actors spurred Bahmet's enthusiasm.

Longtime friends, West and Bahmet decided to collaborate. They recognized that creating an environmentally friendly product in the fashion world would not be enough. "The clothes have to stand on their own," says West. "People won't buy something just because it's hemp. They'll have to love the hell out of it first."

With an original blend of hemp with silk, and hemp with cashmere, Viridis Luxe has cleverly conjured unusually soft yarns out of what is essentially a rustic material, elevating it to luxurious, must-have fashion status. "I think it's a romantic notion that we've taken something old, something historic, and are working with it in a new way," says Bahmet. But there is a hurdle: hemp cultivation is a felony offense in the United States. Coming from the film world, the partners are no strangers to challenge, however. They went to China to find suppliers and spent more than a year convincing Chinese manufacturers to work with their combination-knit concept. They invested in specialized equipment before factories would even consider experimenting with it.

Although they are flattered by their early celebrity following, which includes Anjelica Huston, Gina Gershon, Catherine Zeta Jones, Laura Dern, Ellen Pompeo, Fuchsia Sumner, Tracey Ullman, Ben Harper, Rachel Bilson, Eva Mendes and Barbara Richardson (wife of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson), their real hope is that the attention Viridis Luxe garners will go beyond fashion.

"People put it on their bodies," says Bahmet. "The clothing is sensual, tactile and personal. Then they understand it and can start to look at it differently. By glamorizing hemp we want to influence other industries to consider it as a really viable agricultural crop. Then we can start talking about hemp as bio-fuel and hemp as paper pulp. It will create more jobs."

These two committed women - mothers, and proven professionals in other spheres - tend to wax lyrical about the fabric's qualities. Here are a few hemp facts they love to flaunt:

Hemp has anti-microbial properties and is highly resistant to insects. It never requires herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

Unlike cotton, hemp does not deplete the soil of nutrients. This makes it cheaper to produce, eliminates groundwater pollution due to pesticide run-off and curtails farming community exposure to toxic and cancer-causing products.

Growing hemp reduces our dependence on petroleum products, such as petrochemical-based fertilizers.

Hemp is a hardy, adaptable plant that can be grown in 85 to 150 days in most environments, including all 50 states.

If hemp were planted on only 12 percent of the European landmass, it would meet the world's demand for paper and eradicate the need to cut down trees for pulp. Indeed, prior to the 1860s virtually all our paper and cloth was made from hemp.

One acre of hemp produces as much pulp for paper as four acres of trees.

In the U.S. some 1.4 billion cotton T-shirts are sold annually. If they were replaced by hemp T-shirts, the energy savings would be 3.5 billion gigajoules (that's a year's worth of household power for 92,300 people) and the water savings would be 1.3 trillion gallons (which would satisfy the household water consumption for more than half the population of the U.S. for a year.

West compares their product line's environmental impact to that of a hybrid car. Bahmet expands, "It's not replacing all the other cars on the road overnight, but it's getting people ready for a different way of thinking about agriculture, petroleum, and their lifestyle. We want to move people gently in the right direction."

The pair is already planning a lingerie line, a denim collection and company subdivisions: ViridisMen, ViridisMama, ViridisBaby and ViridisHome.

VIRIDIS LUXE = designing part of the solution.

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