Recycled clothing is nothing new for Emily Chavez, but turning it into wearable artwork is. Chavez, a 26-year-old Graton native and owner of Por Vida Art and Clothing for Life, describes herself as "a fashion merchandiser who works with local artists and uses their work to support social justice." Por Vida was conceived as a grass-roots movement that would help bridge communities through the arts, using fair and sustainable business practices.
Chavez prints colorful designs by local artists on cards and second-hand and new clothing for men, women and children. She sells them at local stores, music festivals and community functions throughout California, and then uses the proceeds to fund the artist's cause of choice. "The company logo, the ankh, is the Egyptian sign for eternal life," Chavez says. "Symbolically, I feel really good about attaching art and activism to the statement 'for life.' It's a universal statement. It's ironic that my first artist happens to be a prisoner on death row."
The artist in question is Dennis Brewer, a death-row inmate at San Quentin whose African-flavored designs depict sleek, spidery dancers, drummers and nudes in a vibrant palette of colors. He has contributed his art to support the cause Ubuntu, a youth group in Soweto, South Africa, dedicated to teaching sustainability and spreading the green movement to local youth. Chavez had never met him personally, but when he asked through a mutual friend how he could use his talent to help people, she agreed to create a product to merchandise his art. "I wanted to design," she says enthusiastically. "I have the business mind and model. He had the art. We met in the middle."
The result is a line of clothing that includes one-of-a-kind recycled pieces, from sweatshirts to slip dresses, that range in price from $25 to $50. "I choose whatever strikes my fancy," Chavez laughs. "That's the fun part of the business." New T-shirts ($20) are also available for those who prefer not to wear preworn clothing.
Chavez is descended from a family of Sonoma County social reformers who taught her the values of green living before the term was invented. "I grew up in used clothing," Chavez says with pride. "My grandma, Mary Moore, is a prominent activist in Sonoma County. She started the first used clothing stores in the area in the '80s. I grew up going to flea markets, and respect the business of used and recycled goods. The used clothing business is conscious in its origin. We don't need to import any more stuff from other countries."
In 1997, three years after the fall of apartheid, Chavez and her grandmother attended the International Black Women's Studies Cross-Cultural Institute conference in Soweto. There they met Dimpho Siphoro, a young activist who wanted to help her community by creating a center which would teach business and sustainability skills to empower Soweto youth. Ubuntu was born from Siphoro's vision, coupled with Chavez's passions for design and business. Siphoro subsequently was able to come to the United States and attended workshops at Real Goods in Hopland. She learned gardening techniques and the use of solar power, skills she has passed on to the youth in Ubuntu.
Chavez, a Sonoma State University graduate with a liberal arts degree, wears many hats. In addition to substitute teaching, she works at Pine Grove Consignment Store, which provides much of the clothing for Por Vida. She also cares for her 12-year-old sister since their mother passed away in 2005. Her newest venture is the signing of Por Vida's next artist, socially conscious musician Blane Lyon. "I find artists who want to donate their art to a cause through word of mouth and I like it that way," Chavez says. "It keeps it on a community or grass-roots level. You can help people on an everyday level without having to use the corporate system. You can keep it all in the family and, in turn, the communal family.
"People need a voice," she says, "and that's what Por Vida provides."
To learn more about Por Vida, go to [ http://www.myspace.com/porvidaforlife ]www.myspace.com/porvidaforlife.