Words Hannah Cole
To put the fashion waste crisis in perspective, 64 per cent of the 32 billion garments produced each year end up in landfill. Experts say that if we were to extend our clothing’s life by nine months, its environmental impact would decrease by 20 to 30 per cent. And this is after the garment hits our wardrobe; what of the waste that gathers prior?
A quick Google search shows evidence of the growing global upcycling movement. There is a widespread consciousness now signalling the need to utilise what already exists. Why create with new inputs when we have an abundance of the old?
What may have started as an ode to patchwork and bygone eras now has several brands making it their signature through the use of vintage, overstock and deadstock. ‘Upcycling’ is an essential keyword for brands: in an instant, it signifies a label with foresight and eco-credibility.
Take Miu Miu’s ‘Upcycled by Miu Miu’ collection, which launched in October. The range consisted of 80 dresses, all upcycled. Each vintage piece was given the Miu Miu makeover — re-fashioned, re-embellished, and re-sold as a breath of fresh life entered these garments. Chopova Lowena use repurposed vintage, deadstock fabrics to create their intricate plaid skirts and dresses, and Prada generated much hype in 2019 when they launched the Re-Nylon project. The project saw reissues of iconic accessories in Econyl — a fabrication derived from ocean plastics and fishing nets.
Upcycling is occurring every which way you look but, for the most part, inputs come from external suppliers. Recycled materials, vintage store hauls, industry deadstock and the like are sourced externally to create. The old samples, excess stock and leftovers in a brands possession are frequently incinerated and destroyed to uphold brand position and identity.
Patagonia is challenging brands to take another route, however. The prominent players in the fashion industry have the power — and the responsibility — to create change. Patagonia’s Worn Wear concept allows consumers to repair and recycle their branded pieces as an entryway to circularity in the industry. To complete the circle, ReCrafted launched in late 2019. Garments beyond repair have become highly covetable wardrobe additions as they are re-made into one-off pieces inspired by existing Patagonia silhouettes. Given the intensive work that goes into each garment, ReCrafted pieces will often retail for more than the ‘new’ version, yet thousands of items sold via the programme by early January. A far cry from the classic, bold and vibrant patchwork set, Patagonia proves that upcycling can be as monochromatic and basic as you desire.
Stella McCartney — sustainable darling — is also playing with the idea. For Fall 2021, the brand has reimagined the overstock of fabrics built up from 20 years in the industry. It’s sportswear, but not as you know it. As highlighted in Vogue Runway’s coverage, the overstock isn’t solely used for sampling but will be repurposed throughout production too. “A lot of these pieces are limited edition because when we run out, we run out. I don’t care if I’m cutting off my nose to spite my face, I’m going to save the bloody planet,” McCartney iconically proclaimed.
In yet another take on the concept, Ganni introduces the whimsical and nonsensical via the recent Stage Rental collection. Created by Copenhagen artist and costumer designer, Nanna Bernholm, each piece is manifested from existing Ganni fabrics. There are sequins and rhinestones, leopard print and denim, as the old receive a glam makeover. What’s more, the one-of-a-kind pieces are available only to rent. Rent, return, and repeat; keep the cycle moving.
As these labels argue, the side gig of upcycling could be a very lucrative stream of income for a brand. Besides, don’t they also have a responsibility to us and the planet to do so?
Burgeoning designers have been staking their claim on the concept from the get-go. Free from influential investors and ingrained methods, they are exploring upcycling in new and unique ways.
In an attempt to minimise waste in an often shockingly wasteful industry, Australian womenswear label Anna Quan has plans to work with local textile rescuers WORN UP. Instead of storing or destroying, WORN UP will recreate damaged stock as cushions and various homewares. “Sometimes it seems insurmountable the amount of work you do as a small business owner,” designer Anna Hoang notes, “sometimes it’s just taking small steps at a time.”
Covid-19 offered a strange and perfect opportunity for brands to get on board. As a way of using overstock, advocating for human health and protecting the planet, face masks appeared abundantly. Our brand and pattern choice formed a new expression of identity with labels including E Nolan, KkCo, Arnsdorf and Helmstedt using excess fabrics.
It seems inarguable that fashion labels have an element of responsibility here. Touting eco-friendly fabrications is one thing, but to render the design room and production process free of waste — and put this to use — is another. The possibilities are endless, so sit tight and push for a little more exploration.