In July 2005, couture designer Deborah Milner traveled to a place few people will ever see: the tiny village of Nova Esperança, perched on a sharp cliff at the edge of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. She met the indigenous Yawanawa tribe and learned about their respectful methods for harvesting urukum, a red-orange pigment derived from the colorful pods of a native tree. The visit was research for Milner’s latest project, a collection of luxurious yet eco-forward gowns called “Ecoture,” created in partnership with the green beauty company Aveda.

Completed earlier this year, the line of dresses proves that high-end clothing can be made from sustainable fabrics and natural dyes. Couture has long been the domain of privileged socialites and A-list celebs — the gowns are ornate, custom-fit, and startlingly expensive. (Melania Knauss wore Dior when she wed Donald Trump last year; her gown was rumored to have cost in the hundreds of thousands.) Made with exotic fabrics and layers of beading, sequins, and other embellishments—and with no budgetary limitations — couture dresses give designers an outlet to show off their wildest, most innovative ideas. “Couture is the creative hub of the fashion industry,” says London-based Milner, 42, who developed her own eco-materials when she found they weren’t available at a couture-level quality.

With the help of her design team, Milner found inventive ways to deal with the dearth of appropriate fabrics and dyes. She began by asking renowned textile mills, like Mantero in Italy, which makes silk accessories for Pucci and Chanel, for their surplus fabrics. Then, having decided that the hues of her dresses should come from plants, she recruited natural dye expert Penny Walsh. Together, they came up with a revolutionary method of extracting textile-quality dyes from the pigments in tree resins. Milner tapped Aveda for resources and plant materials, since the company has access to sustainably grown, fairtrade ingredients across the globe (like the Yawanawa’s urukum). The couturier also teamed up with artisans skilled in trades like hand-embroidering and wood carving.

Milner’s experimental approach and clever use of materials are most evident in her “Bridal Lace” dress. The gown’s top layer is constructed of ordinary white plastic supermarket bags, twisted together and heated with an iron to achieve a lace-like effect. Tulle and metal boning underneath shape the dress. “It sounds like it would be really horrible, but it’s actually beautiful and fragile,” Milner says. She didn’t set out with the intention of making a wedding gown, but once she realized the design was heading in that direction, she ran with it, embellishing the dress with lightweight Swarovski crystals. Other pieces in the Ecoture collection include the “Sandalwood” dress, a breezy, floor-length silk organza gown with a bright orange hue and an exotic wooden belt along the empire waist, and the “Picture” dress, a cap sleeve, tea-length silk satin shift that features embroidered images of the Yawanawa based on Milner’s personal snapshots.

This past April, Milner and Aveda displayed the gowns at the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability festival. At press time, there were plans to bring them to Rome for July’s Alta Roma show and to Paris for October’s Ethical Fashion show. The goal of these appearances is to inspire other designers and to generate buzz about green fashion, but Milner has been approached by attendees asking if the dresses are for sale. The original set isn’t, but Milner will be making ecofriendly reproductions — tailored to each client’s exact measurements — for $7,500 to $15,000. Although the dress orders could keep her busy, Milner is already at work on her next project. She’s teaming up with Mantero in Italy to create a new line of couture-worthy ecofabrics, like shiny silk shantung blended with earthy, stiff raffia. (“You could make fantastic ball gowns with it,” Milner says excitedly.) She’s also in talks with an organic wool weaver she discovered in England. “At first, you’re stunned by the limits,” Milner says of green design. “Then you realize how much you can do within those limits.”

Story by Christine Richmond. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2006. This story was added to in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2006.

Sustainable clothing
Deborah Milner's lavish couture gowns take green design to the next level.