Articles - 9th April 2019

Zerowaste: Upcycling in Fashion

Words by Leila Kozma
Illustration by Christa Jarrold

Sustainability is an obsolete concept.

It’s enough to read through the corresponding section on the H&M website in order to prove this: in three, distinct parts, the retailer giant promotes its strong commitment to providing living wages for factory workers, the significant effects of a programme improving water management methods in Turkey,  and its encouragement for shoppers to take up recycling.

It’s only been a few weeks since the firm came under scrutiny for laying off thousands of Bangladeshi factory workers for unionisation and organising wage protests. According to a research report released on the 28th of February, an H&M supplier polluted rivers with chemicals causing cancer, tuberculosis, reproductive problems, birth defects and stomach disorders. The pledges made in the campaigns cited above remain to be delivered upon.

The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world, despite what promotional materials distributed by multinational firms might have us believe. This puts the designers starting out today in a double-bind: they have to take responsibility for pursuing a career in this field, without engaging in greenwashing. An increasing number of graduates choose upcycling – a sustainable way of producing clothes that are yet to feature in an H&M campaign.

“The world is going to end and we can do whatever we want” – Sebastian Narbona

Upcycling involves using discarded materials, thereby eliminating concerns about pollution and waste production. It calls for innovation in every aspect of the designing process.

Paolo Carzana opted for this method after having interned at two luxury houses. Disillusioned by the ill-conceived, defunct production processes that required designers to discard all material that didn’t end up being used, Carzana decided to look for something new. This entailed picking up old bed sheets lying around Portobello Road, mixing natural dye from pineapple leaves and pomegranate, and making a special yarn out of banana peel and dishcloth. The final result? Elizabethan era-inspired, frilly, full-cut shirts, paned hoses, gorgeously layered capes and a frenzy of oversized cloaks, all a testament to exquisite craftsmanship skills and a unique creative vision.

Upcycling calls for designers to put their talents to the test.

Some of Maddie Williams’ preferred materials include old army parachutes, bicycle tyres, tarpaulin, carpet underlay, and dishevelled Royal Mail sacks, which she shreds down, weaves together and cuts into a pattern. In her case, sustainability isn’t the main motivating factor – creativity is. As she told It’s Nice That, producing exciting, unusual textures that incite curiosity is her number one prerogative.

Patrick McDowell takes the conceptual framework underlying the niche even further: he doesn’t use just any type of waste, but the waste sent to him by luxury houses. He discovered his trademark methodology by accident: he emailed the head of creative at the time, Christopher Bailey, asking for his permission to use all trash produced by Burberry whilst on a placement at the brand. Much to his surprise, not only did Bailey agree, but he also sent a catalogue charting all the items due to be incinerated. This led McDowell to establish connections with a number of luxury firms, using Oakley markdowns and faulty, unsellable jewellery by Swarovski for his last collection. Like the others, McDowell’s practice was greatly enriched by upcycling: for the collection, he envisaged the hybrid of skiing gear and evening wear, slicing apart the boxy-shouldered, stocky, thick polyester jackets and adorning them with bell sleeves, plunging necklines and silky lapels for a more feminine effect.

Kevin Germanier discovered upcycling instinctively. As he told Business of Fashion, the possibility of using non-traditional materials dawned on him as early as the first year of university, during which time he was facing severe financial limitations. Unable to source the fabric for toiles, he nicked his flatmates’ bedsheets. It all picked up swiftly thereafter: by the time he was in second year, his fully sustainable collection won the EcoChic Awards.

During a residency in Hong Kong – sponsored by EcoChic – he stumbled upon a merchant vehemently trying to get rid of bags and bags of beads. Germanier knew what to do: he paid the man $0.15 in exchange of 93 kilograms worth of beads, crammed it all into suitcases once the time came to fly back to London, and used them for his first collection as an independent designer. As Germanier’s example shows, designers know no limit when it comes to pursuing this line of work.

Upcycling is a new niche that concerns a relatively small number of people.

This may yield difficulties – which Germanier and co. responded to with solutions as creative as the garments themselves so far. Carzana became known for manufacturing his own textile, McDowell built a practice on emailing luxury brands for their waste, Williams earned renown for revolutionising textile production. The story behind the clothes is just as important as the end results – not something you would applaud mass retailers such as Inditex for.

However, not every challenge is easy to overcome. In the interview with BoF Germanier describes the complications when it came to upscaling the brand, explaining that working with large retailers poses problems for a production system geared for small-scale, individual orders. As he explains, he was fortunate with because they were open to compromises and respected his ambition to adhere to a zero waste policy. However, he advises designers to take courage and refuse to take an order if needed, stating that it’s completely fine to say no if one is faced with a choice between keeping a business sustainable and branching out. Arguably, this could pose issues for small labels working with tight budgets.

Faustine Steinmetz tells Dazed and Confused that finding a fabric supplier is hard because most sustainable manufacturers refuse to take small-scale orders. This can be a problem for a newly-founded brand. Good Luck Vintage’s Olivia Horan cites sourcing sustainable packaging as one of her recurring stressors, whilst John Alexander Skelton regards keeping up with the rapid development of the scene as a line alongside which exclusion might play out. According to Skelton, making every aspect of a business sustainable requires time, energy and research – a luxury not every emerging designer can afford.

Some might feel daunted by the sheer prospect of having to teach themselves about the cryptic, hard-to-decipher terminology and the complicated biological processes underlying climate change, or else, too alienated by the topic to take up an active interest. These are all issues that will have to gain a resolution eventually – easy access knowledge banks, a sustainable manufacturer directory, a change in retailer attitudes- though, for the time being, the scene is too small to necessitate changes of this scale.

All of the above designers refuse to discuss sustainability in interviews. This should come as no surprise: their work is decidedly not sustainable – not in the way the concept is being thrown around in marketing and PR campaigns. As Sarah Mower’s article – comprising of interview snippets of various members of the next generation explains, what we evince here is a rapid change of mentalities. McDowell, Williams, and the like approach the designing process from a fundamentally different angle. Evoking any connotation to olden ideas about eco-fashion, environmentally-friendly clothing or any of the sort would do more harm than good to the business.

Most find sustainability an unattainable idea because working in fashion can never be fully sustainable. Textile manufacturing, garment production, and sales yield to waste, there’s nothing to be done about that. Upcycling, however, affords people the opportunity to use the waste being generated, and thereby forge systematic change. What’s more, this niche is characterised by a more progressive and open-minded approach, which, in the right hands, can engender solutions outside the level of individual transactions (i.e. you won’t have to buy your way into feeling less guilty about climate change by spending some pretty penny on a few t-shirts).

As these designers exemplify – people can contribute to the fight against climate change by approaching their own lifestyle more inventively, by being conscious about how they inhabit their surroundings, instead of buying products that embody the idea of a new lifestyle. Investing in a mass-made sustainable shirt does no good to the earth – keeping an open eye and picking up beads from angry merchants on the streets of Hong Kong in a random spur of inspiration might.

The fashion industry is built on the exchange of goods – the sheer idea that young people might pick up stuff from the street for free and make clothes from it is a novelty. Supporting their work won’t cancel global warming – but it might just be what’s needed in order to achieve systematic change. So far, they’ve been successful, and if it all fails – just look at Carzana’s pineapple-leaf-died cloaks without feeling a sudden rush of admiration.

It’s impossible.

We champion the freelancers and every entrepreneur who took a leap of faith with their idea.

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