I first met John Patrick a little more than a month ago.
I was walking down Main Street in Bridgehampton when I was taken by a window display of cashmere bandana scarves.
I asked the man, “Are you open?”
He replied, “No, I’m waiting on a private client.”
Then, just as I was starting to walk away, he took mercy, “Come in, look around.”
His multi-brand store is called Communitie, where he carries his label – Organic by John Patrick – and other chic brands, like Wales Bonner.
I was taken by Patrick’s clothes: the perfect cashmere cardigan… a chic gilet in vicuña… the perfect scarf, frayed just so around the edges.
Then, there was the slip dress – he sells one hundred of them to women around the world. Every. Single. Day.
The kind of clothes I want to wear right now… and all the time.
But then, I got to talking to Patrick and I learned his backstory is as interesting as the clothes he makes.
He was among the first to embrace sustainability – even lobbied Congress.
He has a cult following among some of the chicest women in the world.
And, as you’ll soon find out, John Patrick likes to do things his way.
ALINA CHO: I was really surprised to learn you grew up on a commune.
JOHN PATRICK: So, I grew up in a place called Elsmere, New York, a suburb of Albany, New York. And my mother and father…
ALINA CHO: … they were hippies.
JOHN PATRICK: They were like pre hippie. My mother was a bra burner, she had been like a Roman Catholic.
ALINA CHO: And what about your dad?
JOHN PATRICK: My father was a California — Norwegian, golf playing, very handsome, happy, beloved. They weren't interested in material things.
ALINA CHO: But what was it like to live on a commune? I mean, how does it differ from the outside world, so to speak?
JOHN PATRICK: Well, the outside world, I mean, didn't really exist. The outside world, I mean, we would dumpster dive. We grew our own food. We were founding members of the Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany, New York, where we would go and sell sprouts. I mean, it was…
ALINA CHO: … it was all very self-sufficient.
JOHN PATRICK: Somewhat self-sufficient, but there was also an edge to it of like, almost like a moral superiority. Because the thing of Zen, I mean, we didn't wear any clothes half the time, weather permitting. And there was nothing perverted or sexual about it, it wasn't a cult.
ALINA CHO: So, how did you get into fashion?
JOHN PATRICK: How did I get into fashion? Well, I met my partner, Walter [who worked in fashion]. I’d, of course, known about Halston. I mean, I'd read, and I always collected vintage clothing. I had my first store when I was 15 years old in Saratoga Springs selling vintage. And I saw in the windows, we lived on 38th Street, and there were in the windows hat making supplies. And I thought, I'm just going to make a collection of hats. So, I joined a class of millinery making…
ALINA CHO: … at F.I.T. [Fashion Institute of Technology].
JOHN PATRICK: At F.I.T. — and there was another kid in the class, and he was this very wealthy kid. I had 10 cents for materials, and he'd have a $1000 for materials. [So, I was] recycling things.
ALINA CHO: Out of need, probably.
JOHN PATRICK: Out of need. I mean, thank you. You took the words out of my mouth. I would take up a hat pin that had a plastic bead on it, of course, I hated plastic, cut it off with wire cutters, and I went into a fishing store on 37th Street, and they had these wonderful little raffia lures. I would just look and study and think and clip it off and stick it on the pin and make a hat from it.
ALINA CHO: I mean, what's the term? Necessity is the mother of invention.
JOHN PATRICK: Oh yeah, for sure — 100%.
ALINA CHO: I mean, I didn't realize — that really was the genesis of your philosophy on sustainability, right?
JOHN PATRICK: Everything.
ALINA CHO: Barneys [New York] took a liking to your hats.
JOHN PATRICK: I did the hats, and then I got to the point where I was like producing for Ann Taylor, like 50,000 hats. And the stuff would all come wrong. I didn't know about production. I mean, I knew about creativity.
ALINA CHO: So, then what?
JOHN PATRICK: And so, I said, "Oh, I want to make dresses."
ALINA CHO: But you were self-taught, right?
JOHN PATRICK: Totally. No, totally.
ALINA CHO: How did you get the courage? Because you're not classically trained…
JOHN PATRICK: I did always what I thought would work aesthetically. I put an ad in Women's Wear Daily, I said, "Sweater maker wanted, knitwear maker wanted," in the '80s. A man came to me, he had a knitting facility, and I said to him, I said, "If you make a label and put my name on the sweaters, I'll have a million dollars’ worth of these sweaters sold." And the customers started screaming, "Who do you think you are? They're so expensive. That's the price of a Donna Karan sweater," or whatever. And I said, "It's silk. I mean, what can I tell you?" I went to all the Elizabeth Arden salons and met all these incredible women, and you studied, and you looked. And we always had this approach of practical, the “go-to.”
ALINA CHO: You really thought about sustainability very, very early on, way before it was even a word uttered in fashion.
JOHN PATRICK: Oh, yeah.
ALINA CHO: You were one of the first designers to develop a direct relationship with organic farm collectives in Peru.
JOHN PATRICK: I dragged myself down to Peru, in the year 2000, when free trade had opened.
ALINA CHO: So, what did you find?
JOHN PATRICK: I found an archeologist and he rediscovered color grown cotton in the jungle, and he then started to reproduce it.
ALINA CHO: I think a lot of people hear the word “sustainable,” they hear the word “organic,” and they don't really understand what that means. When you say you make organic clothing from organic materials, what does that mean?
JOHN PATRICK: Well, it means that the supply chain and the actual materials are certified, within a few different frameworks. So, like the slip dress [the one I sell one hundred of every day] that's an Oeko-Tex certified fabric, which is made from the waste of cotton. And it's decomposable, meaning if you put it in your yard, it's going to disappear in two weeks.
ALINA CHO: That's unbelievable. Fundamentally, why is it so important for you to make clothing that is sustainable?
JOHN PATRICK: Because there's too much waste in the world, and the way that inexpensive clothing is made is at the risk and the peril and to the detriment of the poor of the world, who are then forced to make things for less and less and less and less. And hence you have situations like Bangladesh, where [countless] people will burn up in a factory. And there will be a slight little outpouring of like, "Oh, isn't that terrible that they were locked in the building?" but it doesn't stop. It's a vicious cycle because the orders have to be kept pumping out…
ALINA CHO: Well, and the consumer wants it because it's cheap.
JOHN PATRICK: Yes. 100%. There's a maxim in America that it's like, “Buy as much as possible for as little as possible, as often as possible.” I mean there still is beauty. I mean, we see like Marc Jacobs, the incredible collection, and the Balenciaga, the couture, was so incredible.
ALINA CHO: I agree.
JOHN PATRICK: These are the things that we see and that we love, and then it opens the doors again.
ALINA CHO: Tell me what kind of clothes you make.
JOHN PATRICK: Go-to. I mean, sometimes I hear people say, the woman said yesterday, "Wear tonight." I mean, wear tonight, to me, that's like the holy grail, love it. Because wear tonight means they're digging it. They like it.
ALINA CHO: When I bought your black cardigan, I said, “I want to wear it tonight.”
JOHN PATRICK: I mean, one time somebody asked me this question, "Who are you? What are you doing? Why do you do it?" And I looked at her and I said, "I see fashion as a garden. There's a bird of paradise. There's the tulips. There's the poppies. There's the ferns,” whatever, I said, "I'm the moss." And she cracked up. And that's the truth, that's how I see what I do.
ALINA CHO: And what is the moss? Translate that for me.
JOHN PATRICK: The moss is the perfect t-shirt. I have a client that had shopped the couture for 40 years. The woman comes, she is wearing my t-shirt constantly.
ALINA CHO: It's the t-shirt. It's the perfect cashmere sweater.
JOHN PATRICK: It's the t-shirt, it's the crop cardigan.
ALINA CHO: Your clients are really devoted, aren't they?
JOHN PATRICK: They're faithful. They're faithful. I take care of them.