Upcycling … reinventing fashion to be more sustainable, interesting and unique … inspired by Colombia’s Agua Bendita and Spain’s EcoAlf

November 26, 2018

“Upcycling” was a new word to me. Spanish entrepreneur Javier Guyeneche, the founder of a wonderful sustainable fashion brand called EcoAlf, used in almost every sentence. He has a passion for the world around us, and in particular to find ways in which we can avoid environmental destruction, whilst creating something better. And money too.

Upcycling at EcoAlf takes the form of fishing nets and plastic bottles, reclaiming them from the oceans in order to reinvent their polymers as strong but soft fashions from which to create wonderful shoes and clothes. As I have worked around the fashion industry, I found many more examples. Like Agua Bendita, the beautiful swimwear brand from Colombia, made out of the left over scraps of other production. Handmade by a women’s charity, they combine vibrant offcuts into unique pieces. Better, different and better than the typical mass-produced lines of mainstream fashion.

And then it spread further. Eileen Fisher, the premium American womenswear brand, has made Reuse a core to its proposition. Reclaiming old and used clothes, then mending, altering or enhancing them into quirky, unusual but far more interesting pieces. Major fashion brands like H&M are now jumping into upcycling too. Not just because its good for the world, but because it looks good, and is more engaging to consumers too.

The UN recently declared fashion to be the third most polluting industry on the planet, after energy and transport. Think of the huge amounts of forests cleared for forest production, the water and chemicals involved in dying, the energy required to produce and transport around the world. And then our human desire for fast fashion, buy it incredibly cheap, at prices which quest the ability to pay manufacturing employees a human wage, and and then dispose of it within a few weeks.

Of course many of us are trying to buy less and less new stuff. After all, buying new only creates demand for a whole supply chain of destruction, from planting heavily sprayed monoculture crops like cotton to pouring toxic dyes into rivers.  Yet there is a conundrum: if we buy less, that’s great for the planet but bad for not only the economy overall, but the millions of people who rely on the manufacturing industries for their livelihoods. So how can we maintain economic growth without being destructive?

There are ways – and buying upcycled fashion is one of them.

Upcycling involves using pre-existing clothing, accessories or other items and restructuring them into new garments. Think of old sweaters being unravelled and the yarn being refashioned into new ones, or scraps of fabric waste from car interiors being used to make handbags. Deadstock, otherwise known as fabric that’s leftover from the fashion industry, can also be used to make new clothing.

The benefits of upcycling are

  1. Sustainability –  Upcycling reduces clothing and textile waste by reusing deadstock or gently used fabric to create new garments and products. Making a single cotton T-shirt requires over 700 gallons of water, whereas using a pre-existing T-shirt to make something new requires nearly no water. In addition, upcycling can divert some of the 85% of textile waste that ends up in landfills.
  2. A Cheaper Wardrobe –  Upcycling can be less expensive since used or pre-existing materials are typically a fraction of the cost of newly-made materials and textiles.
  3. Uniqueness –  Upcycling requires creativity to envision the potential of existing materials to create something new and beautiful.

Don’t think for one minute that upcycled fashion compromises style. Of course there are some ‘crafty’ looking brands out there, but here are 7 great fashion brands that have truly embraced the approach to be distinctive and better:

1.  Elvis & Kresse  

Decommissioned fire hoses, boat sails, Air Traffic Control flight strips, coffee sacks, cardboard and parachutes are all refashioned into bags, belts and accessories by this innovative brand that hails from  Dorset, England.

Beyond being eco-friendly by upcycling old materials into new sturdy and quirky accessories, Elvis & Kresse are also socially responsible: a whopping 50% of profits from the Elvis & Kresse fire hose line go to the Fire Fighters Charity, which is a non-profit organization that aims to enhance the quality of life for former firefighters–many of whom suffer physical injuries while on duty. Elvis & Kresse also employs workers from Poole’s Remploy factory, an organization that helps people with disabilities find work. Sweet!

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

2. Reformation

This hip  L.A.-based fashion company repurposes  vintage clothing, rescues  deadstock fabric from fashion houses that over-ordered and also simply uses eco-friendly fabrics to create sexy, sophisticated styles – they even make wedding dresses. The brand has recently launched an app that lets you know just how much water and energy you’ll be saving by buying their goods – making your glam purchase a feel-good one, too. And it gets even better:  Reformation is sustainable in their own  business operations, too – whether using recycled paper to non-toxic cleaning supplies to energy-efficient lighting, there can be little doubt that Reformation is committed to sustainability from  top to bottom.

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

3. TRMTAB

A lot of people aren’t sure if leather is eco-friendly, but any brand that uses leather scraps from factories around the globe is ok in our books. Founded by friends Mansi and Cassandra who named their label after their favorite systems theorist, Buckminster Fuller  (who once said, “Call me trimtab”, in case you’re wondering) TRMTAB aims to reduce the amount of leather scraps that typically find their way into landfill by cleverly using these scraps to create beautifully woven  bags and electronics cases. We’d like to see them become the new Bottega Veneta!

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

3. ASOS Reclaimed Vintage

Ok, so ASOS may not be a full-on ‘luxury’ brand, but we have our reasons for putting them here. Forget about Raf Simons or Marc Jacobs – the true design stars are those at the high street stores! Their clothing is worn by far more people, and is far more popular. Using  Levi’s denim, pre-loved leather and vintage fabrics that may or may not come from fashion houses like Dior, Lanvin or Chloe, Reclaimed Vintage reworks and upcycles the old into new limited-edition collections. Upgrade your boho swag with its uniquely printed co-ords, festival-ready cover-ups and cool military details.

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

4. Triarchy Atelier

It’s a fact that   jeans use the most water consumption of anything in your wardrobe. And given that there are potable water shortages increasing around the globe, it’s pretty hard to justify wearing denim. Unless it’s upcycled, that is.

Triarchy Atelier is a fashion line owned by two brothers and a sister who create new denim designs made from vintage stock sourced from their base in Los Angeles. Since the launch of the brand, over 1,000,000 gallons of water have been saved by their upcycled denim productions.

But not only is Triarchy Atelier eco-friendly; they’re also ethical, since they focus on giving back through through their charity partner, Isla Urbana, an NGO that provides people in Mexico who lack fresh drinking water with rainwater catchment systems.

Luxury Fashion Brands That UpcycleLuxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

 

5. Bottletop Fashion

It seems a shame that those  aluminium ring pulls on drink cans get thrown into the bin. Especially when they can be upcycled into glamorous clothing and accessories like those made by Bottletop Fashion! The ethical fashion brand is based  in the UK, Africa and Brazil, where it helps to create a sustainable livelihood for the highly skilled craftsmen as well as supporting young people through their foundation, which is focused on educational projects. The label created by  Cameron Saul  son of the founder of Mulberry (Roger Saul) which explains why these beautiful bags are aimed at the luxury/ designer market.

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

6. Charlotte Bialas

Every single item in this Paris based designer’s collections are made from vintage textilesdating back to the 50’s.  All her fabrics have been handpicked for their exceptional quality, print technique and origin, ensuring that each piece is a numbered limited edition or unique. It’s not easy to find these: such textiles are rare and need to be expertly sourced from antique fairs, auctions, vintage stock and mills from around the globe, but Bialas talent for hunting these down and creating chic, feminine fashion from them, have made her a favourite sustainable designer with fashionistas from Japan to New Jersey.

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

Charlotte Bialas Straight top and assymetric wrap skirt

7. Boom Shankar

Australian based free spirit Dui Cameron was travelling through Asia and India when she was struck by a great idea. After admiring the elaborate colour, movement and style of women in the places she visited, she wanted to capture a bit of that elegance, and sought to do that by sourcing second-hand wedding saris and transforming them into unique garments. And that’s how Boom Shankar was born.

Today, the brand still uses Indian sourced fabrics, but its ethical production and sales are focused on Australia’s sunshine coast. Boom Shankar creates everything from casual trousers and blouses to Boho dresses and pajamas, whose patterns clash thanks wonderfully, thanks to a meshing of upcycled fabrics.

Luxury Fashion Brands That UpcycleLuxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

8. Will and Pop

Streetwear doesn’t get much cooler than Will and Pop! The brand creatively recreates casual wear by up-cycling pre-loved clothing.  The team selects from responsible suppliers to create limited editions and one-of-a-kind bespoke pieces in their design studio in London.

Individuality is fundamental to the brand, with no more than twenty five pieces forming their limited edition collections. The brand also provides personal customisation services, allowing customers to discover their individual style and create unique pieces for any occasion.

Luxury Fashion Brands That Upcycle

All images courtesy of the brands

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