Shopping sustainable fashion has a vocabulary all of its own. Upcycle fashion, or upcycling, may be one of the less familiar terms — and a little confusing, too. How is upcycling different from recycling? And aren’t all old clothes and fabrics just vintage?
Upcycled pieces are one of the coolest, more ingenuitive areas within eco-friendly fashion. As the eco-friendly fashion blog Ecocult explains, upcycling means to transform clothes, accessories, and textile waste into new products. Upcycled items could be post-consumer waste (items that have been purchased, worn, and discarded) or deadstock (items that did not sell).
Wherever the origin, upcycled textiles are reclaimed and reconstructed to increase their value. Designers work with whatever fabric is available to them at the moment. So, unlike mass-produced fast fashion, pieces are often one-of-a-kind. An example of an upcycled garment would be this denim jumpsuit from the Eileen Fisher Resewn collection.
Recycling, on the other hand, means to transform clothes waste into similar products. Again, items could be post-consumer waste or deadstock. There are two general types of recycling that employ different methods:
- Mechanical recycling is when a fabric, such as cotton or wool, is shredded. Then the resulting fiber is woven into new fabric.
- Chemical recycling is when a fabric is treated with a chemical and then dissolved. The resulting fiber can then be mixed with other fiber to make a new fabric. The way that fabric is chemically recycled will vary based on the type of material it is.
Additionally, clothes can be made from recycled materials other than recycled fabric, such as this Everlane windbreaker made from recycled plastic bottles.
There is also downcycling, which means to “rag” the clothes or textile waste by cutting them into strips. Items are downcycled or “ragged” if they aren’t considered good enough to be reused. Typically these items are post-consumer waste (items that have been purchased, worn, and discarded).
Last but not least there is vintage clothes shopping. Vintage clothing was made, worn, and loved during another decade. It may have had a button sewn back on or a tear fixed, but otherwise the item looks exactly as it did when some fashionista bought it back in 1974. Usually, vintage is sold as-is. Sometimes, though, pieces — like buttons or lace collars — are deconstructed and given a new life on a new garment.
Sometimes brands use the terms “upcycle” or “recycle” interchangeably. This probably leads to some of the confusion. But they’re technically different processes! Both terms are a part of the circular design: manufactured goods are reused in some way, rather than turned into waste and pollution. This is a key element of the circular economy, defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as “an economy that is regenerative by design.”
Now that the vocabulary lesson is over, you know you want to see some fashion. Here are 10 innovators in upcycle fashion from around the world, brands big and small. Happy shopping!
Upcycling Is Not Just a Fashion ‘Trend.’ 10 Brands to Know
1. Eileen Fisher Resewn
Eileen Fisher is probably the biggest sustainable fashion brand to incorporate upcycling, thanks to its Resewn collection. Resewn pieces are upcycled, one-of-a-kind pieces reconstructed from other Eileen Fisher pieces. Some were previously damaged before upcycling; all pieces are professionally cleaned. You can find a wide array of upcycled products including wristlets, tote bags, t-shirts, jumpsuits, sweaters, and coats. We love this one-of-a-kind scarf made from damaged, upcycled clothes.
The brand also resells gently worn clothes through its Eileen Fisher Renew line. The Indigo Collection within the Renew line features previously stained clothes that have been hand-dyed in gorgeous blue indigo dye. Both collections are also professionally cleaned.
Fans of the cool girl brand Rouje will love Gaala, a fellow French brand. Gaala is a sustainable fashion brand specializing in romantic, classic silhouettes. Married couple Kelly de Gaalon and Alexander Zhalezka design the pieces, which are constructed at a workshop in Belarus. Gaala upcycles excess silk from Hangzhou, China, as well as Belarussian deadstock linen. Who wouldn’t love to wear this feminine jumpsuit made from upcycled materials? All pieces are limited edition, due to their fabric supply; the designers note on their website that sometimes they only create two or three pieces per fabric. So if you find a pretty dress or jumpsuit that you just have to have, buy it quickly!
Lingerie and swimwear are the stars of Anekdot, a sustainable fashion brand by Swedish designer Sofie Andersson. She upcycles surplus fabrics from around Europe, which marks her collections limited editions. Her studio is at a coworking space in Berlin, while the Anekdot designs are sustainably constructed by two women in Poland. Look for gorgeous matching bikinis, lacy bra and panty sets, robes, and even a velvet bodysuit. (Find more sustainable underwear brands here!)
4. Kitty Ferreira
Kitty Ferreira sells upcycled pieces in sizes 6 to 26, as well as made-to-measure designs. The collection is designed by Valerie Goode, a London School of Fashion graduate who grew up in southeast London. Her firsthand experience working in the mainstream fashion industry in China, and being concerned about its pollution, led her to start Kitty Ferreira.
The India-based sustainable fashion brand Doodlage boasts that 100 percent of its collection is upcycled or recycled. Upcycled fabric waste is purchased from other factories, like this sweet little cotton dress made from upcycled cotton. Plus, their packaging is plastic-free.
OhSevenDays is the sustainable fashion brainchild of founder and designer Megan Mummery. This Canadian moved to Istanbul and decided to design pieces from the surplus fabric she saw around the city. OhSevenDays sources its fabrics mainly from two shops in Istanbul: One sells cotton and linen deadstock from a womenswear factory; the other sells rayon deadstock. Just look at how chic this bomber jacket sourced from a menswear factory is! OhSevenDays employs four tailors who sew their small-batch collections and you can read about each one on the brand’s site.
If you’ve ever wanted to swan around like Scarlett O’Hara in a gown made of curtains, now you can. One source of upcycled fabric from the French-Danish brand Hôtel is discarded curtains from French hotels and motels throughout Paris. Designer Alexandra Hartmann told Vogue she was inspired after seeing some curtains tossed on the curb outside a hotel. Other upcycled and vintage fabrics, like this quilted jacket upcycled from a 1950s Parisian bed cover, round out the collection. Since the pieces are one-of-a-kind, they sell out fast, so shop quick!
8. Madia & Matilda
Shalize Nicholas studied fashion design in Manchester and every piece in her final project was upcycled. Not long after, in 2013, the designer started her sustainable fashion brand Madia & Matilda at her parents’ dining room table. She was helped at first by the Princes’ Trust through the British royal family. Madia & Matilda is based in the Cotswolds and constructed in the UK. The brand uses natural fabrics and end-of-roll fabrics, and upcycled vintage as well. Upcycled pieces are clearly marked on their site, such as this V-neck dress made from deadstock.
9. Les Fleurs Studio
Originally, Spanish designer Maria Bernad opened her shop, Les Fleurs Studio, in 2017 to sell vintage. But eventually, Bernad expanded her wares to include truly unique upcycled pieces, such as this t-shirt upcycled from thrifted vintage towels and knits. If color, color, and more color is your style, this is the upcycled designer to check out.
10. Urban Outfitters Urban Renewal
Lots of small clothing stores sell vintage clothing as a fun perk. Urban Outfitters takes vintage shopping to the next level with its Urban Renewal line by adding several types of reused garments. Some pieces are one-of-a-kind and some are created from deadstock. Then there are upcycled pieces, like this pair of vintage pants that have been re-dyed, given a new life with unique updates. Only certain stores carry Urban Renewal pieces, but you can find them updated weekly on the Urban Outfitters website.
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