New York – Upcycling might seem like a millennial phenomena but it’s been around for a while. Remember when Molly Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink” remade the Pepto-Bismol-colored polka dot 50s dress her father bought her, recycling decorative bows into stand-up collars, into a dress for the prom. Or back even further to when Scarlett O’Hara instructed Mammy to tear down the drapes and make her a dress in “Gone With The Wind.” They were upcycling and didn’t know it. Closer to home, our grandparents and parents did it on the down low as a means of making ends meet, unaware it was trendy or screenworthy.
Photo: Pretty in Pink screenshot
According to Oxforddictionaries.com, the definition of upcycling is “Reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original.” It is different than recycling which also refers to the reuse of materials but those which cannot be used in their original composition and must be degraded––in the case of plastic bottles––to create an entirely different product––such as a sneaker.
The luxury of upcycling
But upcycling’s never had such a luxury spotlight. It has shed its grass roots and been welcomed in the corridors of power. Cast-offs have never been more coveted as designers stockpile deadstock. After Marine Serre’s fall 2018 debut show at Paris Fashion Week critics used the words “couture techniques” and “wet suits” in the same sentence. Serre fills warehouses with old T-shirts, vintage scarves, fleece blankets, then twists, collages and ruffles them into unlikely partnerships far beyond their humble origins for her ecofriendly haute Futurewear. When Prada and Dries Van Noten raided their print archives in recent seasons, we didn’t think they had run out of ideas, but applauded them for revisiting our old favorites, deepening our attachment to bananas and flames. For fall Missoni collaged variations of its archive zig-zag knits into a limited patchwork coat selling for 11,760 dollars which would look great with Vetements’s repurposed Levis which sell for 15 times the price of a pair of new Levis.
Photo: Marine Serre SS18, Catwalkpictures.com
Limitations can enhance creativity and lead to new levels of freedom as old practices are rejected and the comfort zone of past generations evacuated. Young designers have been lumbered with the weight of their forebears’ misdemeanors and are primed to act on the knowledge that fashion is the second most polluting industry. So it’s no surprise that top fashion schools, including NYC’s Parsons, Fashion Institute of Technology and Pratt, have built upcycling into their curriculum as they mold the minds that will shape tomorrow’s industry. Graduates are not only well-versed but enthused to make lemonade from lemons. Internationally respected trend forecaster, Li Edelkoort, told Metropolis magazine earlier this year, “when man started out as a species, almost everything was made from textile, such as transportation and architecture…I feel passionate that we’re going back to considering textiles when it comes to knitted jet planes and crocheted buildings. Textile is and will be the matter of the 21st century.”
Demand for discards
Brooklyn-based non-profit, Fabscrap, sends trucks to pick up remnants, headers, samples from the cutting room floor of brands and design studios throughout NYC, and anyone can volunteer to help sort the collections in its Brooklyn warehouse and be rewarded with 5 lbs of free fabric. Ever alert to issues of budget and sustainability, fashion students are among the happiest to help, knowing their graduate collections could be realized in Marc Jacobs’s fabrics that would have ordinarily been outside their price range. How’s that for the old guard fueling the new wave?
On the up
In a circular economy rejects and outcasts energize the supply chain as they once energized a John Hughes movie. Reclaiming is upgrading. So while the fast-fashion fiends await the Moschino x H&M drop next month, the more upwardly-mobile are looking beyond, sizing up our favorite brands and upsizing our expectations…Goodwill x Gucci? Oxfam x Oscar de la Renta? Salvation Army x Supreme?
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Photo: Marine Serre SS19, Catwalkpictures.com