Herb your enthusiasm — this model has a serious case of green thumb. Meet Summer Rayne Oakes, the world's first eco-model. The title is rightfully earned — Oakes keeps and cares for five hundred plants in her Brooklyn apartment. Leafy creatures blanket her countertops and creep up the walls. Plants aren't the only living thing that inhabit her apartment — she also keeps two African millipedes as pets.
However, Oakes' sustainable thinking does not stop at nuturing plants. She's also the co-founder of Source4Style, now called LeSouk. Its mission is to connect designers with leading mills and taneries. The result? More renewable apparel, while taking the burden of sourcing off of the makers. We spoke with Oakes about her foliage-filled apartment, and how she hopes to infuse sustainability into every aspect of her life.
BIKINI: How many plants do you have in your apartment?
SUMMER RAYNE OAKES: Around 540 plants.
BIKINI: Which plant was your first? How long did it take for you to amass the amount of plants you have now?
BIKINI: Which plant is your favorite, and why?
SRO: Tough to say. It's the ecosystem that they've created indoors that makes it particularly enjoyable. I do, however, particularly love the genus Peperomia, which are generally cute, compact and easy-to-care-for houseplants.
BIKINI: Plants have positive health and well-being benefits — how have your plants affected your quality of life, especially living in New York?
SRO: I love my home! Every morning, I wake up and feel grateful. It helps me feel calm and rooted in the city center.
BIKINI: What's the most important thing urbanites should know about growing plants?
SRO: Get the plant that's right for the home you live in. If you have a south-facing window with a lot of sun, that's perfect for growing a wide variety of sun-loving plants, like succulents, cacti and certain flowering species. If you live in a more dimly lit home, then opt for plants that may thrive in lower light conditions or with augmented lights, like a Diffenbachia or Zamioculcas.
BIKINI: What houseplants are best for people with no green thumb?
SRO: Everyone has the ability to keep a plant if they care to learn. Sometimes, people feel as if they don't have a green thumb because they don't take the time to learn about what that plant needs. However, plants like Sanseviera, also known as a snake plant or mother-in-law's tongue, really thrives under a little bengin neglect.
BIKINI: What are some resources (i.e. books, websites) you've recommended for people who want to get into gardening?
SRO: It honestly depends on what type of gardening you like to do. I think a good introduction just to the terms is Practical Botany for Gardeners. If you'd like to garden outside, Square Foot Gardening is a must. I personally love old books from the 70s and 80s about indoor gardening. They're vintage, but the information is still relevant. Of course, the best way to learn is your own trial and error, with help from your local garden center or people who have green thumbs.
BIKINI: Tell us about Source4Style (now known as Le Souk). How does it change the way designers source fabrics? Why is this important?
SRO: The company was born out of my desire to scale up what I had been doing years back, which was helping designers source more sustainably. I could only do four or five clients or so a year before maxing out my time. Source4Style (now called Le Souk), was a way to scale that up. I partnered with my friend, Benita, who now runs the company. She's done a stellar job ramping it up even further, with an emphasis on sustainability, but also small and medium-sized enterprises who might not typically have access to the designer market. When we were doing research, we found that designers were spending up to 85% of their time sourcing, not doing the other work — like designing or marketing or selling. Le Souk is a solution to take out some of those pain points, while designing with materials close to the Earth.
BIKINI: What motivated you to become involved in sustainable fashion? Was there a "eureka moment" when you decided you had to become more involved?
SRO: Honestly, I've always been attached at the hip to the environment. I love being out in nature and definitely saw working in the environmental arena as my career trajectory. Speaking to the choir is not always the best way to make an impact. I chose an industry, at the time — I'm talking 14 years ago — that had little care for the environment. Luckily, that has changed. The fashion industry is coming to terms with its impact on the environment, and people are waking up to the fact that their choices matter.
BIKINI: Is it a myth that sustainable fashion is more expensive? How can someone purchase afforable, eco-friendly clothing?
SRO: It all depends. It depends on what you're buying, how it's made, how it's priced and whether you're buying for a big box designer or independent designer. For me, if I buy something — I have to really want it. I much prefer buying something of quality versus quantity. What's marvelous about that is when you buy quality, its value is usually maintained, or grows over time. Case in point: I took some clothes recently to consignment, and they sell for a good chunk of change, because they were high-quality to begin with. Consider clothes an investment, then maybe you won't spend as frivolously.
BIKINI: What does the future look like for sustainable fashion and food?
SRO: A few years ago, I started to dive into sustainable food chains — related to sustainable fashion, but also, very different. I was working to figure out how to get more people fresh, local food. Tangentially from that work, I wrote a cookbook and guide, SugarDetoxMe, to help guide people reduce their sugar intake. I created a corresponding site to help guide people on 10-day and 30-day cleanses. I began to look at how we can improve our own diets to be the healthiest individuals we can be, to change the food supply, and release the burden that sugar-related diseases are putting not only on us, but on our pocket books. Currently, diabetes (a sugar-related disease) takes the heaviest toll on our healthcare. Diabetes really wasn't a thing when I was a kid, at least for my peers. Now, half of the folks in the U.S. are either pre-diabetic or have diabetes.
BIKINI: What's next for you?
SRO: From cooking more for myself, there came growing my own food. Earlier this year, I launched Homestead Brooklyn, a YouTube channel, and an Instagram, to help people become more attuned to nature, particularly in our city centers. It's been a fun project and I'm parterning with people and businesses in my community to physically bring that to life for more people. To me, it's all related, all connected. What we put on, in our bodies, and how we interact with our home, life, and community has a direct effect on us, the planet, and other people. That is empowering — at least to me, to know, because that's where we can make some easy choices and make big change.
For more on Summer Rayne, visit Homestead Brooklyn's YouTube channel: