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How 'upcycling' has become the great protagonist of the fashion industry

SustainabilityBalenciaga, Miu Miu or JW Anderson. Sustainable fashion based on the recycling of garments and fabrics is here to stay among the big fashion firms. We tell you why.

By Emily Chan

Without a doubt, the most widespread trend that we have seen during the spring-summer 2021 season has been that of upcycling, that is, the creative recycling of garments and fabrics whose final product is the design of a new garment that attracts all eyes. We have seen him at Balenciaga, with a coat made of leather cords; We have seen it at Marni, with garments designed from previous pieces; and we have also seen it at Coach, with a line of bags that were based on original bags from the seventies. Miu Miu, for its part, announced last October that it will soon launch a collection based on the same philosophy, specifically a line of 80 dresses that have been retouched and updated from a very careful selection of garments from second command coming from all corners of the planet.

Thus, if seeing new talents in the industry such as Priya Ahluwalia, Bethany Williams or Emily Bode build their empire around upcycling is in itself entirely inspiring, seeing the big names in the world of fashion do it is, neither more nor less , a whole paradigm shift in the industry. “The first time we considered using the remnants of previous fabrics and pieces for a collection was in 2017,” says Gabriela Hearst, whose spring-summer 2021 collection has 60% recycled materials. “When we started talking about upcycling, it was even quite a taboo word. It was not something that one could go around hawking in the luxury fashion industry.”

However, the restrictions imposed by the pandemic have only contributed to the fact that designers have considered using the pieces and materials that they already had in the studio instead of ordering new fabrics. JW Anderson, for example, recently launched a capsule collection, called Made in Britain, made up of six garments made from leftover fabrics from previous seasons. “The collection arose during confinement with the idea of ​​precisely creating fashion with the materials and fabrics that we already had. And do it all locally”, explains Jonathan Anderson, his creative director, who has also been in charge of recycling pieces for the Loewe Eye / Loewe / Nature collection. “The future goes along that line, moreover. I have no doubt."

The devastating effects of the accumulation of garments and fabrics

Nobody is surprised since upcycling is gradually consolidating as a common practice in the industry, especially when we think that the pandemic has caused an excess of stock valued at 140-160 billion dollars among the big brands of all those remnants of the spring-summer 2020 collections that have not been placed on the market, double the usual remnant. Until very recently, fashion firms had the bad habit of disposing of or even burning these garments to preserve the value of their designs, a practice that is now prohibited in countries like France. However, with a clientele that is increasingly aware of waste management and its impact on the planet, it becomes even more evident that the industry needs to approach how it deals with the accumulation of garments and fabrics in a different way. in their warehouses.

Duran Lantink, an expert in recycling garments for brands such as Gucci, Prada and Off-White, has seen requests for collaboration and advice from brands and boutiques grow enormously since the pandemic began. “There is a lot of interest”, confirms the Dutch designer by videoconference. “If you think about it, it gives a lot to think about. There are a huge number of boutiques that don't know what to do with all those leftover clothes that nobody wanted.

Naturally, excess stock has not been an insurmountable problem for firms and designers with a marked environmental awareness, as is the case with Hearst. The New York-based designer recently created the Retro Fit collection for London-based Selfridges from materials and garments (cashmere, tie-dye shirt dresses, patchwork bucket bags, etc.) the boutique stocked. in their warehouses. “When the volume of sales decreased as a result of the pandemic, we had to think quickly about how to dispose of the stock that we had in the store,” says Hearst.

A change in the forms of production

Obviously, the recycling of fabrics and garments is not without its challenges in the design and production process. Marine Serre, for example, had to recalculate the production times of her spring-summer 2021 collection once she realized that it took much longer than expected to make garments from recycled materials. “We started working on the different garments for the spring-summer 2021 collection in October 2019 to ensure that we would have plenty of time to make them without having to put extra pressure on the already complicated production times,” says the French designer.

In addition, working with pre-existing materials means that designers have to plan much in advance what the process of designing and making the garments will be like, all of this without knowing, of course, if the collection will be successful or if the volume sales will be as expected. “Think of us buying the bulk of fabrics and materials up front, and that carries some risk, of course,” says Hearst. "Of course, I personally like that way of working because in the end what it does is reduce the textile waste you produce."

Despite the challenges, garment recycling also has certain advantages for the industry, such as the exclusivity of the designs themselves. “As soon as the weaving is over, it's over. To the next roll of fabric and to something else, butterfly ”, affirms Cecilie Bahnsen, who has begun this year to design her Encore collections from remnants of fabrics. “The garments, in the end, are much more exclusive because they are limited. And that gives extra value to the product.”

Some time ago, that a collection did not have a certain uniformity would have been a problem for boutiques (due to the fact that the final garment resembled to a greater or lesser extent the product advertised on the web) but today customers are learning to value what a unique garment means, slightly different from the rest. “It is something new for the client, of course. In the end it seems like an investment, right? Like buying a collector's item, be it a Marine Serre dress made from silk scarves with a different print on each design or a Rave Review dress made from cotton blankets. wool,” says Natalie Kingham, purchasing director for Matches Fashion.

Towards a new normal in recycled fashion

If we take into account the enormous volume of greenhouse gases generated by the fashion industry through the production of its garments and collections, it is of vital importance that the recycling of materials and fabrics becomes commonplace. “We have so many fabrics and weaves to work with, yet we strive to keep producing tons of new fabrics from virgin materials,” says Sara Arnold, co-founder of the Fashion Act Now campaign.

Of course, the long-term solution is not simply to recycle garments. At the end of the day, there is an underlying problem, of greater proportions, that at some point we will have to tackle. "It's important for large boutiques to consider the volumes of clothing they buy," says Lantink. “There is still a lot of work to do on that front.”

In any case, seeing the big firms embrace the upcycling of their clothes can only be a step in the right direction, especially if it becomes commonplace in the industry. "There are more and more people committed to sustainability and recycling in the fashion industry," says Lantink. "It's going to be difficult for brands and big boutiques to see this phenomenon as nothing more than a fad."

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