For years, fashion insisted that upcycling was too hard.
As defined by Merriam-Webster, upcycling means “creat[ing] an object of greater value from a discarded object of lesser value.” But it goes beyond merely recycling: Though that’s definitely better for the environment than letting garbage accumulate in landfills, the mainstream fashion industry has long claimed that upcycling isn’t scalable. You can’t earn enough off of upcycled pieces to make them worth your while, the argument went, because it takes serious effort to turn trash into treasure.
For a long time, the main challengers to this notion were independent brands focused on sustainability. When Eileen Fisher built a “tiny factory” for the purpose of upcycling old clothing into new at a large scale, it was seen as so extraordinary that established designers with their own labels, like Heron Preston, asked if they could come intern to learn how she did it. Meanwhile, other ethics-focused companies began to champion deadstock fabrics, based on a similar desire to keep usable materials from being thrown out.
These practices took longer to catch on in the mainstream, but they did start to trickle into runway collections. Alexander McQueen and Eckhaus Latta reused old materials on and off for years. By the end of 2019, designers like Prabal Gurung, Tanya Taylor and Jonathan Cohen were repurposing past-season fabrics into new product. Menswear label Bode’s one-offs, upcycled from vintage linens and quilts, won the designer a CFDA award. And rising stars Gabriela Hearst and Marine Serre built their visions for sustainable luxury labels in part by using upcycled materials.
But the movement really gained broader momentum in the Spring 2021 collections. And it’s not hard to see why: As the first collections designed entirely in a global, pandemic-induced lockdown, these clothes were conceived during a time of smaller margins and a greater sense of the need for frugality without compromising on creativity. Suddenly, it seemed every brand was using deadstock textiles or upcycling or both.
In the U.S., Coach included updated vintage pieces in its presentation, while Collina Strada created dresses from secondhand T-shirts. Across the globe, PH5 wove its knitwear from old yarns, and Ellery made its spring line by cutting up and putting back together archival pieces. Stella McCartney sewed together dresses entirely from lace trims left over from prior collections. Miu Miu announced its “Upcycled by Miu Miu” capsule with a dress worn to the Green Carpet Fashion Awards. Even John Galliano chatted happily about crafting new Maison Margiela pieces by splicing together old ones and Demna Gvasalia, as avant-garde as ever, upcycled basketball net chains into a dress for Balenciaga.
Some of those were brand-new to upcycling or using deadstock, while others were bringing back practices they’d used before. Either way, the cumulative effect was to send the message that upcycling is finally, sweepingly en vogue, even for brands not known for their sustainability efforts. The question now is whether it will stay that way.
In fact, that’s the question that could be asked of all the environmentally positive changes that happened to fashion month as a result of the pandemic, of which upcycling was only one.
By far the change with the largest impact was the sudden decrease in flights taken. Though accurately tracking and quantifying the environmental impact of various fashion weeks is relatively new, one fact that every auditor seems to agree on is that the carbon impact of flying models, stylists and attendees from show to show outweighs the planetary impact of anything else that happens during fashion week. So when the pandemic ground international travel to a halt, it shrunk that part of fashion week’s environmental footprint, too.
That shift may have a lasting impact: A number of brands adapted rather well to the digital format, and it’s quite possible that they may continue to opt for online-only presentations in the future. But considering the number of powerful players that remain committed to in-person shows, it seems likely that fashion week and its CO2-spewing flights will be back to some degree as soon as international travel on a broad scale becomes feasible again.
Upcycling may face the same fate. If the movement toward upcycling was motivated primarily by limited access to funds and new materials, it’s easy to imagine designers abandoning it once those limitations are removed.
But it’s also possible that the practice will find a more permanent place in the capital-F Fashion world. After all, this season proved that upcycling is possible for brands of many sizes and that it has a place — on the luxury runway, in the collection of brands that have never claimed sustainability a brand tenet and inside a wide range of aesthetic preferences.
Now that the industry has seen that, maybe designers will opt to keep looking to the old to create something new. Heaven knows that the planet — and the growing number of fashion-lovers demanding more sustainability — would thank them for it.
Stay current on the latest trends, news and people shaping the fashion industry. Sign up for our daily newsletter.