By Charlotte Mabry
Walking up the creaky wooden stairs of Community, smells of artisanal candles and soaps become overwhelming. Although it is an overcast day, it’s hard not to feel like I have stumbled upon another world, above the chaos of downtown Athens. Tucked away in a loft on Jackson Street, Community is somewhat hidden; the only thing visible is a small grey and yellow sign and the words “Sustainable Fashion Locally Made Products Alterations Sewing Classes” painted on the outside brick.
Owner Sanni Baumgärtner, dressed in all black and almost entirely sustainable clothing, is a magnetic force of energy. She is almost always there, whether she is working with interns, sewing clothing for the store’s own line, Community Service, or interacting with her customers. She always gives her undivided attention to the customer, offering her opinion and alteration services. Her German accent is as intriguing as her bright blue eyes, which light up whenever you ask her about sustainable clothing. “I do think it’s a part of a bigger movement,” Baumgärtner says. “I wouldn’t even call it a trend because I think it's more of changes that are coming in general in the fashion industry.” Noticeably, companies like Stella McCartney and H&M have recently been working towards more sustainable practices.
We sit in the back room, among employees sewing new pieces for Community Service and the sounds of alternative music in the background. Large windows facing Broad with “Community” painted in bold red lettering allow sunshine to stream through on stacks of clothing to be remodeled and restructured among a row of sewing machines lined like soldiers.
Community has a unique voice in the Athens community and the fashion industry as a whole. Started in 2010, it sells exclusively local and sustainable clothing, a movement that is not very popular now but promising. Baumgärtner explains that it is more difficult for large corporations to use sustainable practices while maintaining their price range and supply chain, so sustainability is not very popular. Even within Athens, you would be hard pressed to find another store solely for local and sustainable products. “I think that as people learn more about the fashion industry and how nasty it is, people will want to buy other things that are produced sustainably,” she says. Customers like Jana Vlaciky appreciate that Community is unique among other Athens stores and offers the chance to support local artisans.
Each item in Community is either used, repurposed or locally made, and the store is home to 35 to 40 local Athens artisans. Five of these make clothing while the rest create home goods, jewelry, beauty and bath products. At Community, customers have the opportunity to become a part of the history of their clothing. Unlike clothing from large chains, many items had previous owners, purposes and designs. Vintage jean legs become skirts, dress shirts are made into crop tops and pants are turned into cut offs. The tag on every Community Service garment reads: “This garment is one-of-a-kind and was redesigned from a vintage item right here at COMMUNITY in Athens, GA”.
Marre Wosten teaches four classes at Community: Beginner Sewing, Advanced Sewing, Pattern Making and Repurposing. While we talk, she works on remodeling a black leather pencil skirt from the 80’s into a modern mid-length skirt. For Wosten, sewing and sustainability is a hobby turned into a lifestyle. Whether sustainability is a hobby or lifestyle, it’s hard not to admit that the movement isn’t infectious and important.
“You’re from Savannah?!” Baumgärtner exclaims upon learning that one of of her customers is from the area. They connect over the possibility of opening another store, and its definite success. Community is not only a store, but a third place. As a third place, Community has the opportunity to create relationships, not just clothing. The store is exactly what it advertises: a community of artisans, interns, students, employees and customers coming together for sustainable and local fashion.