With another successful fashion month coming to a close, buyers and editors alike are once again piecing together the trends and themes for the season. But, for a wave of young designers creating clothes simply for Instagram likes is no longer enough. There has to be a deeper message behind their creations. The increasing awareness of environmental issues has meant that the concern for many is sustainability, with young designers experimenting with the concept of upcycling this season.
Upcycling, the act of recycling something to an outcome of high quality, is widely used in interior design, but is a lesser-known practice in fashion design. Until now. French design prodigy, Marine Serre is at the forefront of the move. Upcycling is set to become the new vintage. Serre, who staged her Formula 1-inspired spring/summer 2019 collection during Paris fashion week, started working with the concept of upcycling last season, redesigning old wetsuits or vintage scarves into couture-like dresses. Serre joins designers such as Jiri Kalfar, Nathalie Ballout and Christine Hyun Mi Nielsen – all of whom are retelling the story of couture as a feeling, rather than something price determined.
Upcycling importantly deals directly with some of the waste that is being discarded by the broader fashion industry. “Upcycling is one way of combatting the problem of excess fashion produce, which is an issue as a result of the evolution of fast fashion and ever-changing trends,” argues Akanksha Kaila, founder of Refash an online platform featuring designers working with upcycling.
The reality of fashion’s wasteful practice was brought to the surface this summer when luxury-giant Burberry admitted to burning stock worth £28.6 million to avoid its sought-after goods falling into the hands of imitators. While the world was shocked to discover that burning stock is common practice at many brands, for fashion insiders the extent of waste in the industry is a well-known secret.
“We see how much waste has been generated by generations before us and know that design needs to be sustainable to be functional in its true sense. We have been a consumption driven global economy, which is only now taking notice of the collateral damage that has been done,” Kaila says.
A 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation revealed that only 1% of materials used in fashion production is recycled into new clothes, with most recycled fabric being down-cycled to wiping cloths or mattress stuffing where they are likely to end their circulation before going to landfills.
Luckily, the growing number of upcycling designers are taking fashion’s waste problem as a challenge. One of them is Berlin-based designer Melisa Minca, who started the upcycling label in her own name in 2018. “I started teaching myself to sew about three years ago. Upcycling, repurposing and reworking allowed me to learn while experimenting, but also keep waste at a minimum,” she says.
And given fashion’s excessive waste problem in a time where sustainable awareness is a must-have it is perhaps not surprising more and more designers are turning to the practice of upcycling. “It’s a necessity,” Minca says. “It should be integral to how we operate in this society, because of the limitations and scarcity of natural resources.”
Agreeing that there is a need for more circular practice, Ariel Ting, a design student of Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design in New Zealand who works with upcycled materials, says: “We as designers should be leading examples to others and educating the people who are unaware of the linear economy they are contributing to.”
“Most people have no idea regarding the issues of fast fashion and how harmful the industry is on a global scale. Designers who are passionate, not only about fashion but the message behind their work will feel the need to spread that,” she argues.
However, while upcycling might put your old clothes into good use its unlikely to solve fashion’s waste problem on its own. “What’s necessary is a concerted effort on all sides, including fast fashion companies,” Minca explains. “I think the future of the fashion industry is very dependent on new technologies, whereas the future of upcycling comes down to people’s own creativity and willingness to spread awareness of the issues the fashion industry is causing.”
“Upcycling as we know it today therefore serves more as a tool for raising awareness for the bigger issue we face as a society and the unprecedented levels of consumption,” she concludes.