What's Behind the Rise of Upcycled Garments?

For new brands and retailers, they serve as art pieces, cultural commentary and a sense of connection.
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Lou Dallas Fall 2018 runway show during New York Fashion Week. Photo: Imaxtree

Lou Dallas Fall 2018 runway show during New York Fashion Week. Photo: Imaxtree

The fashion industry is notorious for its massive waste problem; the big business is frequently called out for being one of the largest polluters globally. According to The New York Times, nearly three-fifths of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced. Beyond this, the Environmental Protection Agency found in 2013 that there were 15.1 million tons of textile waste, of which 12.8 million were discarded completely, while the average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles each year. For many consumers, these alarming numbers are only really just starting to sink in, but much of the fashion industry is still several years away from solving these issues.

Cécile Poignant, a trend forecaster who works alongside Li Edelkoort, says that as our collective awareness of the negative impacts of the fashion industry grows, it is causing more brands to find new solutions. "We no longer have a choice — brands must [get on board] if they want to keep their customers because it's not only trendy but it's necessary," she affirms.

Although conversations regarding the serious impacts of climate change and the urgent need for more sustainable systems have been steadily growing among mainstream brands, a batch of smaller, emerging labels have recently been employing the upcycling process in new ways, sparking a trend that's gaining serious momentum. With this, Poignant says that beyond wanting to buy stuff that doesn't make a person feel guilty, more consumers are showing a desire for alternative, creative fashion that is made in limited numbers. The rise of these upcycled garments not only contribute to sustainable shopping as a whole, but also serve as art pieces, cultural commentary and a sense of connection.

Femail's "AMPM 2.0" at the Bellevue Arts Museum. Photo: Ripple Fang/Courtesy of Femail

Femail's "AMPM 2.0" at the Bellevue Arts Museum. Photo: Ripple Fang/Courtesy of Femail

Femail is one such brand making clothing items that blur the lines between fashion design and textile art. For co-founders Camilla Carper and Janelle Abbott, upcycling is just one of the many artistic tools they use to respond creatively to the world around them. Living in two separate cities on the West Coast, they call their production process "reactive collaboration," in which one collaborator begins creating an item with discarded garments by hand and then sends the work in progress to the second person through the postal service. The process is ongoing — akin to a fashion design team sending sketches or specs back and forth over email — until they feel an item is completely finished.

For the duo, upcycling is a deeply personal pursuit: While the world continues to accumulate wasted textiles, Abbott believes it doesn't make sense to achieve their vision by seeking out new materials. "Both Camilla and I have expressed the fact that we see no other option in life. It's the obvious choice to use what's available for us," she says. "We both naturally reach towards what we have in our closets, in thrift stores, literally on the street or items people have given us."

By focusing on filling voids instead of adding more waste to the world, Femail promotes the notion that clothing should be produced by giving old items a new life so that it doesn't end up in a landfill. Like many labels today, each collection has a deeper message, but Femail takes their practice one step further by building out full installations where their garments can live and be shown on display. An item created last year, for example, features a collar from Abbott's grandmother who had recently passed away, as well as a pair of child-sized leggings that were turned into sleeves and other miscellaneous scraps. The work was shown as part of an installation at the Bellevue Arts Museum, in which clothing items were suspended from the ceiling to represent the connection of death and rebirth, and "how we are constantly compiling scraps of the past to construct the future," says Abbott.

Femail's "AMPM 2.0" at the Bellevue Arts Museum. Photo: Ripple Fang/Courtesy of Femail

Femail's "AMPM 2.0" at the Bellevue Arts Museum. Photo: Ripple Fang/Courtesy of Femail

Los Angeles-based creative Annabelle Plee spends time scouring local thrift stores for used T-shirts that she then paints with dye, experimenting with different color combinations and artistic, grid-like patterns. She also takes commissions, creating custom designs on a client's pair of old pants or a jacket. Isa Beniston, who's also based in LA, founded Gentle Thrills, a brand that makes and sells "wearable drawings" or artistic garments made from upcycled cashmere, wool sweaters and scraps. Some of her one-off neon, airbrushed pieces are made from vintage Levi's jeans.

There's an element of upcycling to 24-year-old Nicola Luey's custom designs; the Auckland, New Zealand-based designer paints on secondhand denim and adds embellishments, such as beads, sequins and pom poms. Each piece is a one-of-a-kind garment that is given a totally original design. Think scribbles of girls rocking out on guitars, words written in big bubble letters, pastel-toned ice cream cones and lots of rainbows. There's a refreshing sweetness and vibrancy to her wearables, which make them stand out against the current denim market that's largely saturated with more basic, minimalistic designs.

Don Kaka, who first launched his collection in New York but is now based in LA, approaches clothes like an artist. "I consider each piece a painting because they are one-of-ones that I do whatever I want with," he says. This often includes non-uniform stitching, unique cuts and different blends of fabrics. Kaka recently turned an old fireproof military blanket into a hoodie and combined a pair of used suede women's boots and a leather belt to make a messenger bag. Often, once he finishes a jacket or hoodie, he will immediately get sick of the way it looks and upcycle the item into something entirely new, making his creative practice a constant process of undoing and redoing.

While some of these brands use social selling platforms, such as Instagram and Etsy, to promote and move their products, Café Forgot is a new kind of retail concept that sells Femail and other comparable designers known to recycle old items and turn them into conceptual fashion pieces. Founded by best friends Vita Haas and Lucy Weisner, Café Forgot operates as an occasional pop-up shop that most recently resided within art book store Picture Room in Brooklyn, as well as additional vacant retail spaces across New York City.

Maia Ruth Lee in a Lou Dallas T-shirt at Café Forgot. Photo: Christian DeFonte/Courtesy of Café Forgot

Maia Ruth Lee in a Lou Dallas T-shirt at Café Forgot. Photo: Christian DeFonte/Courtesy of Café Forgot

Haas and Weisner were inspired to launch the retail business in 2017 as a way to support their friends who were making clothes and accessories but did not have a physical outlet for their work. "Our goal was to create a dynamic space to show and share truly interesting fashion and to hold special events to introduce these designers to a wider community," explained the duo over email. Café Forgot carries designers who re-work already-made clothing, some of which don't come from a traditional fashion background, including Kira Scerbin, Molly Rose Lieberman and Lou Dallas, who incorporate second-hand garments into canvases for their paintings and embroidery artwork.

For many of Café Forgot's designers, upcycling serves as a form of cultural critique. Martina Cox takes thrifted housewife dresses and turns them into what she calls "window dresses" — garments that have a panel of clear plastic smack dab over the breast with small, movable curtains or miniature flower boxes. Because of the nature of the original garment, says Haas and Weisner, Cox's pieces are comments on the constraints of femininity in our culture.

The duo also believes that discussions around sustainability should extend beyond merely physical materials. For this reason, they see Café Forgot as an exercise in community-building, providing an experimental and open space where they invest their energy in supporting a collective of sustainable designers who not only support each other, but thrive through intimate and lasting relationships. In the past, Haas and Weisner hosted a music performance, a comedy night, a temporary wine bar and produced a high-quality book of photoshoots via Café Forgot. While they say their growth is largely due to their internet presence (and likely that of the brands they sell), they hope to launch their own brand one day and find a permanent space.

Lulu Bonfils in a Martina Cox top at Café Forgot. Photo: Christian DeFonte/Courtesy of Café Forgot

Lulu Bonfils in a Martina Cox top at Café Forgot. Photo: Christian DeFonte/Courtesy of Café Forgot

According to Dio Kurzawa, the Head of Denim and Sustainability at WGSN, the rise of upcycling among these new designers and businesses is likely due to "a youth-driven consortium within the fashion industry, [which] is quite poised to support brands that create things in a positive way." With this, the process works well for younger, smaller brands who find it easy to buy deadstock or vintage garments for the purpose of upcycling in place of expensive fabrics that often require minimum orders, claims Kurzawa. Moreover, a smaller-scale brand with upcycling baked into its DNA means it's easier to maintain and less expensive to produce, unlike bigger brands who may have trouble adopting these processes due to the traditional setup of their supply chain.

This uptick in younger sustainably minded brands could possibly stem from design schools, too, such as Parsons School of Design and Savannah College of Art and Design, which have been adding more sustainability-focused courses into their curriculums, training their students to adopt new ways of thinking about fashion systems. In April 2017, Brendan McCarthy, the Program Director, of the BFA Fashion Design: Systems and Materiality at Parsons, told Teen Vogue, "At Parsons, we really want our approach to sustainability to be holistic — we don't want sustainable design to be just a niche subject you can study, but a part of fashion as a whole." Sustainability isn't just about materials or processes. Instead, the school's program teaches young designers to think critically about how fashion is made and consumed, and to reconsider both its processes and outcomes.

Though, it's not just the process of upcycling that appeals to younger customers who mostly care about their environmental impact, it's also about the look and feel of upcycling, as well as a newfound connection to the clothing and the people making them. While many of these fashion brands use older garments and materials to make new items, they’re not only fostering a movement that is eco-friendly, but also one in which reinvented clothing appeals to younger generations simply because they look cool.

While the idea of wearable art, or art made from fashion, isn't totally new (for instance, artists Keith Haring and Joseph Beuys used clothing items to make cultural commentary), when customers buy one of these emerging designers’ items, they are essentially buying an art piece that’s one of a kind. In this way, upcycling fashion is bringing a sense of specialness back to clothing that has long been lost among fast fashion and mass-market brands.

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