How I'm Skirting the Rules

I’m Showing How Style Can Help You Connect with Nature

Eco-model, entrepreneur, author, and activist Summer Rayne Oakes is benefiting both businesses and the planet by marrying the unlikely industries of fashion and beauty with environmentalism.

Eco-model Summer Rayne Oakes inside her Brooklyn apartment with her indoor plants.

Photo Credit: Joey L.

Summer Rayne Oakes is not a woman who follows the rules. The 32-year old ecologist by training is forging new ground in the fashion world as an eco-model who communicates the message that the planet matters. She wrote the Amazon best-selling book Style, Naturally: The Savvy Shopping Guide to Sustainable Fashion and Beauty for women who may not have the word “green” in their lexicon; and co-founded Source4Style (now Le Souk), a sustainable textile marketplace. Summer Rayne’s ability to effectively wield her brains and beauty in order to capture people’s attention about the importance of sustainability even inspired Toyota to design a hybrid car in her honor. Fascinated by ecological systems and how the fashion and food industries affect our daily lives, her passion is getting people to think about everything from what you wear to what you eat. Her latest focus is on helping you win the battle against your sweet tooth with her online program SUGARDETOX.ME and soon-to-be-published companion cookbook. Skirting the Rules caught up with Summer Rayne at an Art of Being salon in Manhattan to discover how she is working towards designing the type of world in which she wants to live: A sustainable one.

I am Skirting the Rules by disseminating environmental awareness through unconventional means, such as through fashion, beauty, and food. When I first started out, fashion as a concept seemed to be the furthest thing away from the environment. You might not normally think about going into the fashion world as a way to take a stand for the planet, but it struck me that style could be a really relatable way to communicate messages about sustainability and to connect people with nature. Very few people were really doing this at the time. There may have been models with the value set that they wouldn’t wear fur, or hold a cigarette in their hand, but that was about the extent of it. So I think the way I’m Skirting the Rules is by pairing the unlikely industries together. 

A time when I found the possible (a creative solution) within the impossible (against incredible odds) is when I turned my 1,200-square foot Brooklyn apartment into a natural oasis. Having grown up in rural Pennsylvania, I think the only way I’ve been able to exist in the city for more than a decade is by bringing nature indoors—I even have an African millipede as a pet. Limitations such as a lack of space and sunlight might keep some from trying out their green thumb, but my small apartment has more than 500 plants and 150 different species, from herbs to pineapple plants to a 14-foot tall fiddle-leaf fig plant. I’m lucky because I have south- and north-facing windows on both sides of my apartment, so I put my herb container gardens in the windows where there is more light, and am able to have a larger variety of plants by making mini-greenhouses. To fit in the most plants possible, I created vertical gardens, such as the living wall in my bedroom, by doing things such as hooking up a hose to my sink to rig an irrigation system. Watering all of my plants takes about half an hour every day, but it’s like a moving meditation for me.

An example of how listening to my intuition has helped me is [by] combining modeling and fashion with my environmental school studies at Cornell. When I first told my mother, she had a lot of reservations about it. She didn’t go to college and she really wanted that for me. She was like, “Oh, you’re going to leave your university studies behind!” and I was like, “No, you can do both—and you can probably do both well.” I just knew deep down in my gut that was what I needed to do.  I would have never thought to be—and I hate this term but I’m going to use it anyways—an “eco-model” in the eyes of other people. That wasn’t a profession at the time, but pursuing it really leveraged my opportunities to do other things in the industry that had more depth and value for me, such as being able to design collections for big brands such as Payless, Portico and Modo eyewear that are both stylish and better for the planet.

My secret talent is being able to laugh and joke even in situations where I feel uncomfortable. This trait can be very disarming, bringing you into the mix when you may feel like you’re not on even ground. I’ve used that in a lot of situations, no matter how professional, such as when my business partner and I were faced with a snarky investor among six male investors. (Which, I think, is a typical occurrence for women who are raising capital for their companies). He kept on remarking on my company’s logo, so I actually dealt a joke that directly dissed his manhood. The whole room erupted into laugher, so it immediately eased tensions.

A woman is most powerful when she feels free, and is as healthy as she could be. I think about myself: When I feel most at my peak is when I don’t have restrictions on me, such as being in an office at the same exact time everyday, or when I don’t have any financial woes. I’m an intensely hard worker, and when I’m doing a project or job that I love, I’ll get it done well. However, it needs to play through the natural flow of my life, which may mean breaking up the day with a good run or a yoga class, and being comfortable knowing I can do that. I think when I feel free and healthy, I can do more creative, meaningful work and walk through life more fluidly—living closer to my true self—comfortably and confidently.

What I wish I had told myself when I was starting out is, “Just so you know, you don’t have to be ‘on’ all the time.” Things flow: Sometimes you’re surfing and other times you are floating. It’s not only okay, but totally normal, for your energy levels to fluctuate. Listen to it and let yourself go with it. For example, I spent the last three years taking a step back from fashion because I wanted to learn some new things, and now I’m diverging with a new cookbook  that helps people cleanse themselves from sugar.

My favorite skirt (a.k.a. life hack or life rule) is speaking things into existence. By this I mean, when you articulate a phrase or something you want to do out loud to other people, it sends a message into the universe that can manifest itself into a tangible, real concept. For example, I had to talk to dozens of people and lots of professors before I moved to New York and became what’s now known as an “eco-model.” I believe that if we don’t share what we want to do, it’s hard to make it become a reality. Of course, you can’t just say it; you have to go after it, too. You have to put your money, resources, and efforts into your goals to make what you want happen.