The California Label Getting Us to Care About Our National Parks, One Vintage-Style Tee at a Time - Fashionista
Parks Project, founded by Toms alums, partners with conservancies to help fund backlogged projects in reserves from Yellowstone to Yosemite.

Welcome to Sustainability Week! While Fashionista covers sustainability news and eco-friendly brands all year round, we wanted to use this time around Earth Day and the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse as a reminder to focus on the impact that the fashion industry has on people and the planet.

In 1994, my dad took me to see "Yellowstone," a documentary about the United States's first national park, on IMAX. It sounds corny (and it is), but those 32 minutes really did change my life. In the 24 years since then, I've learned to care deeply about the land on which we live. But as a New Yorker, I've also been frustrated by my lack of proximity to nature, barring Central Park. At the risk of being preachy, I want to do more — especially because right now, all 417 of our national parks need our support.

Established by President Woodrow Wilson in August 2016, the National Park Service — a federal bureau within the Department of the Interior — is responsible for protecting national parks and monuments like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and, of course, Yellowstone. Today, the National Park Service employs more than 20,000 people nationwide and hosts 330.9 million visitors on average each year; attendance at parks has increased by 1.5 billion in the last five years. And while that is, objectively, great news, the parks' aging facilities are incurring faster wear and tear because of it. As U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in February: "Our national parks are being loved to death."

So, what can I, a 20-something living in the biggest, garbage-iest, most metropolitan city in the U.S., do about it? This is where Parks Project, a vintage-influenced California apparel brand inspired by, and for, our national parks, comes in. The Marina del Rey-based retailer is the brainchild of co-founders Keith Eshelman and Sevag Kazanci, who built the label just after working together at Toms. Parks Project contributes a portion of each purchase, much like Toms does — but instead of donating product, Parks Project donates funds directly to one of more than 30 different conservancies that help fund backlogged projects in our national parks.

When I speak with Eshelman, he explains that Parks Project is about more than just fiscal support; the company also hopes to energize citizens to take ownership of our public lands. (I keep saying "our" because, if you're an American who pays their federal income taxes, you contribute to the national parks' budget.) Parks Project was born out of this community-driven spirit: While at Toms, Eshelman and Kazanci signed up to volunteer in the Santa Monica Mountains, during which time they found a lack of passion from younger generations for participation in the national parks. That needed to change.

Eshelman describes his own lightbulb moment when, after his daughter was born, he brought her to Big Sur for her first true outdoor experience. "We went on little day hike, in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, above the falls," he recalls. "One of the trails was rutted out and overgrown, and they just closed it. And I was thinking, generationally, what does that mean when it just closes up shop? Will it ever come back? Is it something my daughter can experience with me one day when she's older? I had a personal sense of wanting to contribute to something bigger than just me."

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In its earliest days, Parks Project began as a volunteer group. But as Eshelman and Kazanci started learning more about the parks, the pair realized that what some of these conservancies needed more than anything was exposure. The company's retail arm does just that: not only giving back to the parks financially, but also creating more engagement, and education, surrounding them. Eshelman acknowledges that aesthetics are important; somebody has to be drawn to something visually, he says, in order to pay attention to it in the first place.

The apparel side of the company made its debut at a trade show. "I think we walked away from our first trade show thinking we could drum up a little business," says Eshelman. "We didn't get any orders, by the way." What they did get, though, were business cards, and lots of them, from retailers like REI and Urban Outfitters, which later turned into actual business. One of their follow-ups came from a creative director at the Holy Grail of outdoor retailing, Patagonia. "He said, 'This is one of the most interesting things I've seen at an outdoor retailer in years. Keep up the good work and don't quit. What you guys got is something good,'" remembers Eshelman.

Parks Project offers unisex, women's, men's and children's apparel, as well as a full range of accessories, including hats, jewelry and home goods. Some products pay homage to (and correspondingly support) a specific national park; others represent the national parks more generally. Almost everything appears vintage, like a treasure you may have excavated from a thrift shop or a parent's T-shirt drawer. When I bring this up to Eshelman, he responds by saying that their visual goal has always been "timelessness" rather than being strictly vintage-inspired, though the two aesthetics aren't mutually exclusive: "Sometimes we do find an old graphic from the '60s or '70s, and say, 'Whatever happened to that? Can we help reinvent it?'"

Initially, the brand was very heavily made in the USA; now, that's transitioned to roughly 50 percent. "You have to be stubborn about Made in USA," says Eshelman. "If you really want it, there's a small customer base. But you have to wait for the masses to get on board with voting with their wallet on what matters. And I think Patagonia's a great example of that, the balance of the two." Much of Parks Project's supply chain is kept as local as possible — for example, a portion of its fleece is cut and sewn in right there in Los Angeles. Eshelman says that it's always on our minds, and something they look forward to doing more as the business scales.

There are multiple aspects of Parks Project's business, actually, that aren't done because they're easy, but because they're "the right thing to do," as they say. Eshleman explains that the method of partnering with conservancies directly is incredibly involved and time-intensive, but it allows for the organization to get closer to the parks than they would be able to otherwise. "The easy road would have just been to donate a percentage of the proceeds back to the National Parks Foundation," he said. "That would be managing one relationship, and now we have to manage more than 30 relationships."

Parks Project works as an official licensee for the national parks, often working with the National Park Service out of Washington, D.C. or each individual park conservancy. Eshelman, Kazanci and their team have learned to conduct a good amount of due diligence — "we try to make sure that each group is actually out there, and they have ongoing projects," says Eshelman — before linking up officially.

In the future, Parks Project wants to do more of that — way more. The brand has a 10-year goal of funding 100 projects and generating 100,000 volunteer hours, but the company is open-minded about what those hours may look like; some may be through advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C., while others may be from volunteering in a backyard park. The important thing is that civilians are getting involved.

To this end, Parks Project put together a four-pronged, 10-step guide that lives on the retailer's website. There are options for the uninitiated, like "learn about the history of our parklands," under Awareness + Education, as well as tasks for those more committed, like setting up your own volunteer day at a park near you. "I like the idea that  a park means something different to everyone, and they should find a unique way to support the parks in that light," says Eshelman.

And he's right: For me, the parks represent the wonderment I felt back in 1994, seeing Yellowstone projected on the biggest screen imaginable. I'd like to protect those lands in any way I can. Parks Project gets that.

"A lot of [our customers] have had great life experiences in parks," says Eshelman. "And if we can create a great product that matches that memory, and that helps them relive that memory when they touch it, feel it, wear it — that's just a huge win for us. When I put on one of our Yosemite shirts, I get nostalgic of the times I've been there. And I think that's really special."

Homepage photo: Parks Project co-founders Sevag Kazanci and Keith Eshelman during a volunteer day. Photo: Courtesy of Parks Project

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