Written by By Caroline Kenny, CNN
If you’ve heard of The Cotton Tote brand, odds are you’ve already snapped one up in one of their bright colors: “Koi Blue” or “Tangerine,” for example. It’s the trendy accessory of the moment.
They’re made to be worn on the street, and they come with a bit of whimsy; the stuff of kids’ fashion but big business for a handful of successful brands.
Dubbed the “unobtanium” by some fashion bloggers, they are a fashion item — indeed, a trend — that is delivered in a box that appears to be made from a lightweight fabric. The solution? A bold pattern, suggestive of a forgotten oasis in a desert wasteland.
Bright colors, bold prints and monochrome are all odes to the visual shorthand of desert-style shelters. The iconic camel-brown mule, found in many retail outlets around the world, is the most obvious: the miniaturized version of this iconic artifact, made possible by modern technology, is the latest iteration to hit the scene.
Cotton Tote headquarters in East Village, New York. Credit: Ezra Rowley
But these are often functional for as much as they are ornamental. The powerful outdoor jacquard from wool and silk fabric has a baggy fit that allows it to turn easily into a utility bag and offer protection from the elements and a useful distance when going indoors.
Its distinctly camp aesthetic is what makes it a style statement. The cotton monochrome is called “bathrobes.” The exterior is in the stone and gray coloring seen in the basic look of European bathrobes, while the interior is scored into different lines to mirror more glamorous dressier fabrics.
A surprisingly chic version of the original camel-brown mule. Credit: Ezra Rowley
For every pair sold, The Cotton Tote strives to source one from a tiny cotton village in central Mongolia. The cotton comes from farmers who have been given land rights, a unique prospect given their high risk of human rights abuses.
“Africa and Central Asia are the worst regions in the world when it comes to desertification and climate change; these are the ones that need cotton the most,” says Hayden Martin, founder of The Cotton Tote company. “It’s the lowest-cost way to get these refugees and farmers back into their communities and working. It gives them fresh cash, something to go home to, something to support their families.”
The cast iron bodies are bamboo, a product from Mexico’s famous village of Day of the Dead. Credit: Ezra Rowley
The Cotton Tote team finds small farmers from villages such as Shang Bao, a village used by the traders starting the Applegate Brewery. These communities exist as the northern outpost for a long way into the desert and are remote from their families. The cotton grows in the ground, plots passed down from generation to generation. Once they develop their work on that little piece of land, the cotton growers can start to sell their products.
If the idea is a simple one, it’s one that has been affected by the realities of modern life. The increasing specificity of textile labeling has meant cotton farmers in some areas have become extremely small-scale, unable to produce a surplus to turn their expertise into profits. The Mexican cast iron, bamboo and hemp facings being used for the mobile make a potentially profitable and environmentally friendly addition to their social support network.