Is Upcycling the Future of Luxury Fashion?

Fashion isn’t silly, but the overproduction of it is. Each year, 47 per cent of all fibre used by the fashion industry goes to waste. That includes substantial quantities of unused fabric and unsold clothing known as deadstock, the result of manufacturers’ routine overestimation of consumer demand. Meanwhile, the fashion industry accounts for four per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions (equal to the annual total of France, Germany, and Britain combined), using enormous quantities of water, petroleum, energy, and chemicals just fabricating textiles, often while relying on workers whose labour conditions are unsafe and unethical.

The environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry are galling, as is its inefficiency. More than $500 billion USD of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilization, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K.-based charity promoting the circular economy (an economic model designed to keep materials in use as long as possible). Deadstock, and even our worn clothing items, are not worthless, but they are being thrown away. And while flimsy fast fashion is a big part of fashion’s waste problem, every level of the industry is complicit. In 2017, Burberry revealed it destroyed $36.6 million USD of unsold merchandise as part of a strategy to preserve its reputation of exclusivity; in 2018, Richemont, parent company to Van Cleef & Arpels, admitted to destroying $563 million worth of products in the previous two years (the practice has since been banned in France). Burberry emerged from the scandal as a beneficiary, pledging to stop tossing trenches in favour of donating deadstock to charities and fashion schools. In fact, the company did well to offer transparency about something many other brands continue to do — what’s shocking to the public is often routine to the C-suite.

Nicole McLaughlin upcycling vest
Handbag vest with Hermès by Nicole McLaughlin

Fashion’s waste problem isn’t going to be solved by one magic bullet, yet an increasing number of designers and consumers are participating in a system that transforms deadstock into newly desirable items: upcycling. The concept of upcycling textiles isn’t new; rather, it’s part of a long domestic tradition of thrift, responsible for things like quilts and carpet bags. But new-wave upcycling — also known as “circular fashion,” due to the cyclical nature of reuse — carries no connotations of dowdiness or deprivation, nor does it require personal proficiency with a needle. Rather, sustainability-minded millennials and Gen Zers are making upcycled fashion feel cool, and pushing it ever closer to the mainstream.

The concept of reusing deadstock had been creeping into the cultural conversation for a few years prior to the pandemic, but months of designers being stuck with more unsold inventory than ever has turbocharged it. Now, it seems like everywhere you look, creatives are spinning fashion industry “garbage” into gold. Take 34-year-old Dutch designer Duran Lantink, a fashion provocateur (he made the vagina pants Janelle Monáe wore in her Pynk music video) who Frankensteins deadstock items from brands like Balmain, Balenciaga, and Prada into futuristic, punky collections. Or Display Copy, a glossy fashion magazine that launched in 2020, and, as per Brynn Heminway’s first editor’s letter, “doesn’t feature a single new fashion item,” but is nonetheless filled with shoppable reworked pieces and clothes from thrift and vintage stores.

Earlier this year, Vancouver outerwear brand Arc’Teryx appointed concept artist Nicole McLaughlin, known for retooling cast-off items like hotel slippers and velcro wallets into one-of-a-kind wearables, as its first-ever design ambassador. “It’s always exciting to learn about new developments, like different mushroom leathers and these cool technologically advanced materials,” McLaughlin says of working with what some would call junk. “But what about all the pallets of clothing that are going into landfills? What are we going to be doing with that?”

Upcycling doesn’t only reflect today’s eco-values, but our love of exclusivity too. Especially now, when e-commerce and globalization have made the exact same designer goods available to everyone, everywhere, “people want rare, one-of-a-kind pieces that feel a little bit more special to them,” says Vancouver designer Jamie Dawes, who creates made-to-order garments upcycled from thrifted fabrics for her fashion line, Fyoocher. “They’ll hopefully keep them for way longer,” she says. After decades of mall-brand monoculture and hypebeast homogeneity, knowing nobody else is going to be walking down the street in your Fyoocher pants or Rave Review jacket does feel pretty refreshing — luxurious, even.

Nicole McLaughlin upcycling mules
Jansport mules by Nicole McLaughlin

Designers often pay a premium to source and ship deadstock, and much upcycled clothing is made by hand or in the small but growing number of global factories outfitted to de- and reconstruct garments. Corresponding traits like uniqueness, a story, time and labour requirements, and a high price range align designer upcycled goods with what British School of Fashion professor Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas calls “the core of true luxury.” “If we think about say, Savile Row, where you might go to get a suit or coat made to measure, the whole idea of that luxury garment is that it has a value it continues to hold [throughout seasons or even generations]”, says Radclyffe-Thomas. The mindset of mending and longevity underpinning circular fashion “really does provide a more meaningful space for people to consume,” she says.

The market sweet spot that upcycled clothing hits — its fusion of stylishness and virtue — is especially valuable now, when shoppers want responsible brands they can trust and are not easily deceived by PR fairytales. Often a step behind today’s priorities, the big luxury labels that have traditionally dominated designer fashion are grappling with their relationship to meaningful consumerism. Plenty of upscale fashion names started out as small family businesses and, at some level, cherish an artisanal self-image despite having long since transformed into vast corporate entities with mass-market reach; their size, entrenched practices, and shareholder commitments can make them slow to change, and often unwilling to do more than pay lip service to environmental commitments by, say, releasing an upcycled capsule collection while quietly burning unsold bags off their factory line. By spending money on upcycled products rather than big name brands, consumers are forcing influential industry titans to act on the realization that nothing wasteful, unethical, and polluting really feels like a quality good anymore.

Some labels do seem to be taking cues from young upscale upcyclers like Lantink and Marine Serre; in 2018, Gucci launched its upcycling initiative Gucci-Up and adopted parent company Kering’s environmental profit and loss tool, a method of measuring environmental impact. Committing to tracking impact and waste creation is perhaps one of the most meaningful first steps big fashion conglomerates can take when setting sustainable development goals; otherwise, the effects of the company’s practices can be a mystery — even to themselves. For instance, Stella McCartney’s 2014 EP&L notably revealed to the brand that cashmere, which represented just 0.1 per cent of all the materials it uses, accounted for 42 per cent of its total environmental impact, resulting in its switch to an upcycled yarn.

Whether big established brands will ever be incentivized to genuinely become circular or something closer to it depends on a variety of factors, from consumer pressure to resource and material shortages to the priorities held by the next generation of fashion executives. Whether the rise of circular consumerism will result in a net benefit for (let alone save) our degraded environment is another issue entirely.

Baguette mittens by Nicole McLaughlin

“I would classify upcycling and recycling of clothing to be part of the greening-of-consumerism type solution,” to fashion’s environmental problem, says J.B. MacKinnon, environmental journalist and author of The Day the World Stops Shopping (2021), a speculative exploration of post-consumerist life. “I think of that as the level below the one that we should focus on, which is the reduction of the consumption of products,” he says. MacKinnon is of the eminently realistic opinion that upcycled clothing isn’t particularly impactful because, for now, we’re buying it in addition to other clothing — and an upcycled overshirt or weekend bag here or there is just a drop in the ocean of human consumption.

It would be more helpful, though perhaps capitalistically counterintuitive, for the fashion market to downsize — for the “buy less, buy better” concept to apply not only to shoppers but also to brands making less and making better. “I think that’s the question that people don’t want to answer: how much stuff do people need?” says Radclyffe-Thomas. Take it too far, and millions of garment workers lose their livelihoods, but decelerate consciously and life could improve for workers as the industry reduces its environmental footprint.

In The Day the World Stops Shopping, MacKinnon quotes Abdullah Al Maher, CEO of one of Bangladesh’s 6,000 garment factories and an employer of 12,000 people who, at their peak, make 200,000 clothing articles a day for brands like H&M. “Maybe there should be four thousand factories, or three thousand factories,” he says. Factories that provide fair wages, focus on quality over speed, and are less socially and environmentally destructive to his country. Al Maher’s take may seem surprising given his business, but there are economic benefits to creating a more sustainable production model. The Circular Fashion Partnership recently determined Bangladesh’s textile industry could in fact save $500 million annually if it recycled cotton waste from its factories.

Even if upcycling does not produce products as cheaply as fast fashion does, fair price points help consumers understand the value of garments, combat the perception of disposability that contributes to textile waste, and improve life for people all along the supply chain. And none of this threatens the abundance, affordability, and accessibility of the second-hand clothing market, which is itself anticipated to grow from a $28 billion USD in 2020 to $64 billion in 2025 (and could overtake fast fashion by 2029).

Nicole McLaughlin upcycling shirt
Dry cleaner hanger covering shirt by Nicole McLaughlin

Ultimately, to talk about sustainability is to talk about a radically altered system of manufacturing and consumption — one that would make for a better world.

“True sustainability actually goes beyond conscious consumerism and is also about reforming an entire system that is built on oppression,” says Loulwa Al Saad, one half of upcycled clothing company ADIFF, with partner Angela Luna. ADIFF repurposes tents and gear from United Nations refugee camps, employing refugee workers in Athens to make its collections and using a buy-one-give-one model to provide clothing to people who are displaced or without housing.

During the pandemic, Al Saad and Luna wanted to do something that would benefit people without requiring a consumer transaction at all. So they released a free “open-source fashion cookbook” filled with patterns for making clothes and accessories out of things like shower curtains, to which participating brands like Raeburn and Chromat contributed. It’s just one little project-sprout pushing up through the concrete of capitalism, yet ADIFF’s cookbook defies the idea that brands must ruthlessly guard their proprietary products and that money must always separate people from value. Says Luna: “It’s a very anti-establishment model to fashion, which has been so proprietary and so capitalist.”

Fashion veteran Kristy Caylor founded her circular apparel company, For Days, to demonstrate “a different relationship to consumption that can drive profitability and circularity simultaneously,” she says. For Days allows customers to swap worn items for credit with which they can purchase new upcycled basics (other companies, including Levi’s and Patagonia, have adopted comparable take-back programs). “[Companies] have to take responsibility for the materials they choose, the way they produce, and what happens at the end of a piece’s life,” says Caylor.

For the sustainable practices of brands like Fyoocher, ADIFF, and For Days to become the industry standard will require not only the development of particular logistics, infrastructure, and technology that can support circular manufacturing, but of new philosophies about what it means to consume. These can be encouraged not only by the public but by government policies to incentivize reuse and penalize waste, such as carbon and plastic taxes and taxes on goods created with only virgin materials, or by nations making a commitment to transitioning to a circular economy, as the Netherlands has. Ultimately, it could lead us to a place where we are all taking more responsibility for the things humans have put on our planet without sacrificing fashion and everything we love about it. Because fashion isn’t the problem; it’s how we choose to go about it.

All images courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.