“Upcycling is a new name for an old practice”
Upcycling includes various processes through which “old” products are modified and given a second life, becoming more valuable by making them “new”.
UPCYCLING VS RECYCLING
The primary difference between upcycling and recycling is that the former “upgrades” the product, while the latter typically reduces or maintains the previous quality of the product. Upcycling also does not require any chemical or polluting modifications, resulting in no waste of water and energy. Unlike recycling, it’s difficult to use upcycling on a large scale in industries.
The term “upcycling” was first introduced by engineer Reiner Pilz in 1994, as he lamented the wasteful disposal of products that could have been given a second chance. Although the term originated in the 1990s, the practice itself is much older. This concept has existed for a long time in various parts of the world.
For instance, during World War II in France, when obtaining new clothes was challenging, the idea of DIY (Do-It-Yourself) became popular. Women would take pieces of curtains and sew them together to create patchwork dresses. They also drew a black line on the back of their legs to imitate stockings. This practice even became a fashion trend, with articles in magazines like “Marie Claire” providing tips on how to customize old fabric pieces hanging in one's house to create new fashionable garments. Although not driven by today’s environmental motivations, these women were indeed engaging in “upcycling”.
Similarly, in other parts of the world like Japan, reusing old garments was also a common practice. From the 1800s to the 1900s, families would create Boro textiles (Boroboro meaning something tattered or repaired in Japanese). Boro refers to the practice of reworking and repairing textiles such as clothes or bedding through piecing together, patching, and stitching in order to extend their use. This technique arose out of necessity and survival, primarily to stay warm during intense cold temperatures. Its purpose was to create enduring pieces that could be passed down from generation to generation. Moreover, at that time cotton was expensive, waste was not an option, and every scrap was utilized.
Today, upcycling serves as an inspiring reminder of the possibilities that lie within our own possessions, encouraging us to think beyond the disposable mindset and instead reimagine, reinvent, and breathe new value into the items we already have. By embracing upcycling, we can contribute to a more sustainable and resourceful future, where waste is minimized, and the potential for creativity and innovation knows no bounds.
“Everything can be upcycled with a bit of thoughtfulness and creativity.”
UPCYCLING IN LUXURY
Remember those painted stockings women were drawing on their legs in the 1940s? In its Fall 1989 collection, Maison Martin Margiela incorporated this technique by painting the models’ legs.
On 19 October 1989, Maison Martin Margiela presented its second show, marking what could be considered the first upcycled luxury collection in the fashion world. Margiela was a pioneer introducing the concept of deconstruction as an art form, at a time when fashion was primarily associated with craftsmanship. Although he didn’t use the term “upcycling” back then, the process was very similar.
During the show, the first model appeared wearing a white cotton top with a red pattern, which was the runway’s rug from Margiela’s previous show. In that earlier show, models had walked the catwalk wearing tabis with red-painted soles, leaving behind a distinctive print.
The collection also featured other upcycled garments, such as long jackets made of stitched-together pieces of leather, creating a patchwork textile. Another noteworthy piece was the Sock sweater, which showcased the shape of socks in a more elevated way, reinforcing the concept of upcycling as an “upgrade” to items already present in one’s wardrobe.
“He liked it when it looked as if the women could have put it together themselves.”
Ward Stegerhoek, hairstylist for Maison Martin Margiela, 1988-1989
The idea of do-it-yourself (DIY) remains highly relevant in current fashion collections. An example of this can be seen in the 2018 Fusion Sneaker, where the visible glue attaching the shoe’s pieces emphasizes the upcycling concept, demonstrating that even old or damaged products can be perceived as luxurious.
In recent years, many fashion houses have been reconsidering their ethical practices and striving to be more sustainable. Upcycling has emerged as one of the most admired techniques adopted by these fashion houses.
Each season, approximately 30% of produced garments remain unsold and are often destroyed to make room for new inventory. Unfortunately, many companies resort to burning these unsold stocks, resulting in the release of carbon dioxide and other harmful gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and jeopardizing our health. Moreover, a significant portion of contemporary clothing is made from plastic, and the incineration of such garments can release plastic microfibers into the atmosphere. If these items end up in landfills, they can take years to decompose.
JEAN PAUL GAULTIER FW20
Jean Paul Gaultier’s upcycled collection serves as another significant example. For his FW20 haute couture collection, Gaultier opted to utilize his old collections, garments, unused scraps, and thrifted accessories accumulated over the years. This sustainable approach showcases the brand’s savoir-faire while embracing the concept of upcycling.
"I think fashion needs to change. There are too many clothes, and too many useless clothes. Don't throw them away, recycle them! A beautiful garment is a living garment”.
Jean Paul Gaultier
Not only do brands have surplus clothing, but they also accumulate unused fabrics. Fortunately, a few brands have managed to find solutions and alternatives to upcycle these materials.
Valentino provides a recent example of a brand repurposing their fabric. They collaborated with Tissu Market, one of the renowned fabric shops in Paris, to create Valentino Sleeping Stock. This initiative aims to resell beautiful chiffon, taffeta, satin, and floral prints to artists from cinema, theatre, designers, and young creatives. Through this endeavour, they were able to repurpose 22,000 meters of fabric, effectively preventing the emission of 265 tons of CO2 that would have been generated by the production of new fabrics.
Gucci too has also embraced the concept of giving access to their unused fabrics to young designers through their initiative called Gucci Continuum. By providing young designers with access to their “sleeping” fabrics, Gucci has created opportunities for these emerging talents to create new collections while promoting sustainability.
The Gucci Continuum initiative not only allows the repurposing of materials that would have otherwise gone unused, but also fosters creativity and collaboration within the fashion industry. By supporting young designers and encouraging them to work with existing resources, Gucci showcases their commitment to sustainability and nurturing the next generation of fashion innovators.
“Gucci continuum expands the House’s creative ability to transcend time by using yesterday’s materials in tomorrow’s designs.”
The common thread running through these narratives is the transformative power of upcycling. By embracing creativity and mindful repurposing, the fashion industry can break away from the disposable mindset and contribute to a more sustainable future. Upcycling not only breathes new life into old products but also nurtures innovation, fosters collaboration, and addresses the environmental challenges posed by excessive waste. With continued efforts and initiatives like those of Margiela, Jean Paul Gaultier, Valentino, and Gucci, the possibilities for upcycling in the fashion world are boundless.
NEW DESIGNERS AND UPCYCLING
Although bigger brands are now embracing upcycling, many new designers are born through this concept. Upcycling involves transforming discarded materials into new, valuable creations, breathing new life into what would otherwise end up in landfills. One designer who has made a significant impact in this environment is Marine Serre. Known for her innovative approach to sustainable fashion, Serre has captured both the imagination of the fashion industry and eco-conscious consumers alike.
Mind Mélange Motor: In her FW20 collection, “Mind Mélange Motor”, 50% of the products are upcycled, while the other 50% are made from recycled materials, such as fibres and threads. The recycled products use these materials to create new items. Within this collection you can find jumpers made from three old ones, long white dresses made from nightshirts, pillowcases, and reused bedclothes. In addition, there are belly chains and necklaces made from recycled watches, brooches, and keys. Marine Serre has always been passionate about sustainability, with a previous interest in collecting vintage pieces.
While Marine Serre remains a prominent figure, paving the way for other designers, I also had the opportunity to interview a promising up-and-coming designer from Paris, Pimambré, who also has an upcycled collection.
FIRST, CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WHO PIMAMBRÉ IS?
Pimambré: Sure! Pimambré is a combination of my first name, Ambre, and “pimenté” a French word that means “spicy”. The idea behind it was to add some “spice” to my own wardrobe.
WHERE DID YOUR PASSION FOR FASHION COME FROM?
Pimambré: I have always been interested in fashion since childhood, but I could not afford the fancy clothes my classmates bought. So, I started shopping on the cheap and continue to do so to this day. I realised that through clothes I can express my uniqueness and upcycling has become a part of this process. With a little creativity, I can transform old clothes into the style of my dreams.
WHAT IS IT THAT YOU LOVE ABOUT FASHION AND UPCYCLING?
Pimambré: I love the performance, the art, and the time that go into creating a beautiful garment. It's incredible to think that with your own hands and a piece of fabric, you can make something entirely new. Upcycling fascinates me because it allows me to take seemingly irrelevant and outdated pieces and turn them into something fashionable and couture. In recent years, I've learned about the impact of the fashion industry and fast fashion, and now I'm proud that most of my wardrobe is composed of second-hand or upcycled items. I appreciate the visible remnants of the original piece in upcycled clothes; it serves as a reminder of their origin and story.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO CREATE BUT DOESN'T KNOW HOW?
Pimambré: I would say, don't fixate on the idea of having money. Being creative often thrives when faced with limited resources because you're forced to find innovative solutions. Embrace the struggle and use it to fuel your creativity. So, don't be discouraged by financial limitations; instead, let them inspire you to explore new ideas and approaches to your craft.
Indeed, upcycling is an accessible and creative practice available to everyone. By simply observing what surrounds us and maintaining an open-minded approach, anyone can embark on a journey of transforming ordinary items into unique and meaningful creations.
UPCYCLING AT HOME
The upcycling movement has been a significant topic of discussion in recent years, largely driven by Gen Z. On platforms like TikTok, there are over 10 billion videos with the hashtag #upcycling, demonstrating the younger generation's keen interest in adopting a more ethical approach to consumption. The upcycling trend gained even more momentum during and after the COVID-19 pandemic when stores were closed, and people sought to remain creative. Many individuals turned to DIY, crochet, and upcycling as a way of self-expression, showcasing that upcycling allows you to express yourself uniquely and share the story behind each piece. In a world where physical connections were limited, upcycling initiatives fostered community engagement through online platforms. Below is a list of a few influencers who are part of this movement, inspiring others to join in:
@yvonneandmitchel: Follow the journey of two designers from Kansas City, U.S., who specialize in upcycling second-hand clothes. With over 60k followers, they transform belts into tops, dresses into two-piece sets, and denim pieces into corsets and skirts, showcasing the endless possibilities of upcycling.
@Rosabohneur: A French content creator from Lille, who focuses on upcycling old clothes, including her grandma's old sheets, napkins, and turtlenecks. She shares her sustainable fashion lifestyle and vlogs her trips to second-hand shops, providing easy ways to upcycle
@t.a..t.a: An artist from Georgia who showcases outfits inspired by her alternative makeup style, providing a cool way to find inspiration and express individuality.
Finally, to start your upcycling journey, here are some helpful tips: Look for pieces everywhere around you: In your home, local markets, second-hand shops, or even your grandma's basement, there are plenty of places to find materials for upcycling. Find inspiration everywhere: Draw from nature, art, history, and social media for fresh ideas. Look at the past for inspiration: Upcycling is not new, so stay open-minded to time-tested ideas. Mix and match: Don't hesitate to experiment with colour and pattern combinations; you may be pleasantly surprised by the results. Swap with friends and family: Have fun starting your journey together and learn from one another. Follow influencers for more tips: Social media offers a wealth of upcycling inspiration and guidance. Support sustainable brands and projects: Embrace a more sustainable lifestyle beyond upcycling at home. Be yourself: Upcycling is about identity and creative self-expression; don't be afraid to experiment and find your own unique style.
by CAMILLE MARTIN
for DARE CLAN