It’s hard to think of an industry that relies more on the power of new-ness than fashion. Designers are expected to produce as much as six new collections every year. Just the thought of that would cause a stress reaction in any normal human being. It also, needless to say, puts enormous stress on our planet’s finite resources. From raw materials to manufacturing to shipping, fashion has a huge carbon footprint. To minimize this impact, designers are turning to recycled materials.
“I decided to use recycled materials after I discovered beautiful high quality excess leathers on their way to landfill,” says Belinda Pasqua, founder and designer of The Sway, whose edgy leather pieces are worn by celebs like Amber Valletta, Santigold, Jesse J, Lykke Li and Rain Phoenix. “The amounts that were available was astonishing. I flew overseas to check it all out. I was shown beautiful leathers that had no end use, which included remnant hides and smaller pieces coming off the cutting tables. How could I place an order for new leather after seeing that?”
The leather Pasqua found often comes in different shapes and sizes, which creates an interesting design challenge. She solved this by using the larger pieces for jackets and oversize bags, and coming up with a unique patchwork style — which has become an important part of The Sway’s signature design aesthetic — for smaller pieces.
“Clothing used to be an artisanal (not an industrial) trade,” says Lanni Lantto. “Items were made at home or on demand by placing a custom order with a local tailor. The beginning of the 20th Century ushered in an era of the industrial economy and mass-produced commodities. The production of clothing became an assembly line and the industry of ready-made clothing was born. We no longer need to resourcefully remake our pillowcase into a pair of bloomers in an age of so many choices for so little money, but fast fashion has made us slaves to consumption.”
Lantto is a self-described fashion redesigner who only works with upcycled fabrics. Her label, (re), is built on principles of reuse, reduce, redesign, rethink, reinvent and recycle. “The overall desired outcome of (re)’s entire message is that we can all have a better quality of life. That is what upcycling is. Taking something that currently exists and making it even better.”
So what is the difference between recycling and upcycling? Lantto explains: “recycling is taking something that already exists, downgrading it, using energy and making it into something. An example is taking a plastic bottle, making it into a fiber and then using that fiber to make clothing. Upcycling is making something better without transforming it, giving it a second life in another fashion — no new energy is used to break the material down or make a fiber.” In upcycling there are two main categories: pre-consumer and post-consumer ‘waste.’ Pre-consumer waste is created on the manufacturing level and can be material that is damaged, discarded or simply leftover. It’s technically new material, but is still considered upcycled because it would otherwise be thrown away. The big benefit for designers is that large quantities can sometimes be found, and the prices are often very affordable. Post-consumer waste is used or second hand clothing which is already in circulation. The obvious downside to that is that it’s nearly impossible to find anything at a quantity large enough for a traditional collection. Lantto sees that as a fun challenge. “I never sketch a design ahead of time because I am most inspired by what I find and that is a thrilling way to create one-of-a-kind pieces.”
Recycling is taking something that already exists, downgrading it, using energy and making it into something. Upcycling is making something better without transforming it, giving it a second life in another fashion
LA-based jewelry designer Andrea Gutierrez works the opposite way, designing first and then finding the recycled and ethically sourced materials needed to create her eye-catching pieces, worn by PINK, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Ashley Judd and Kelly Wearstler. Gutierrez says that finding suppliers and resources can often be challenging, mostly because the manufacturing community (casters, stone dealers, etc.) are not keeping up with demand for more conscious materials.
The Sway’s Belinda Pasqua, on the other hand, says that finding excess leather suppliers was incredibly easy. “I could buy ten tonnes a month if I wanted to, there is so much available you wouldn’t believe it,” she says. “What was harder to find was a small artisan factory that wanted to make our designs from the excess as there is a lot of patchworking of small pieces. It took about 6 months, then I finally found a genuine leather factory that has been making motorcycle accessories and jackets since the 60s, crafts many of the pieces by hand and, and to top it all off, are certified in reducing carbon emissions. Finding them was like finding the last piece to the puzzle. It’s a small business run by a family who have also operated a cotton recycling plant next door since the 50s. The had recycling in their veins and totally understood what I was trying to achieve with my excess leather creations and my sustainability ethics.”
There is a global movement happening, where as a species, we are evolving to a new level of thought and action.
Swedish brand Nudie Jeans are pioneering reuse and recycling in the denim market. Last year, the brand achieved the goal of making its entire denim line 100% organic. The brand actively encourages users to wash their denim as little as possible — to preserve the environment and the appearance of the garment — and offers repair services in many of their retail locations. They’ve even managed to create a bit of a cult around reuse, posting photos submitted by customers showing off jeans they’ve worn every day for years to Instagram.
Nudie is constantly looking for ways to extend the life of its denim, turning worn out jeans into new. Using a process that cuts and mills the old ones into a cotton-like pulp, they become raw materials for recycled yarn used to make new jeans. The spring collection also introduces the use of recycled wool. Nudie has also experimented with upcycling, often using patchwork denim to upholster furniture for their offices, showrooms and shops, and releasing a line of upcycled rag rugs made from strips of denim.
Patagonia continues to push the sustainability envelope with their new Truth to Materials capsule collection, which introduces seven styles made from reclaimed or alternatively sourced fabrics. Discarded scraps of cotton, rescued from the factory floor, are spun into fully functional fabrics and mixed with virgin organic cotton to make hoodies and crew sweaters. Reclaimed wool made from discarded wool sweaters shred into fiber are used to make a parka and jacket. Each of these unique materials have been developed in collaboration with artisans and manufacturers who are pioneering the use of recycled and upcycled materials. The collection also includes a collaboration with designer Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin, who takes old Patagonia down jackets that are beyond repair and upcycles them into numbered, limited edition scarves. “Creating these scarves is powerful in that we are giving new life to something old, something with history — and maybe passing on to the next user some of the energy or experiences in those old Patagonia coats,” says Chanin. “The scarves are, in their own way, already heirlooms because they are being passed down from one person to another.”
Curated by Pharrell Williams, G-Star’s recently released RAW for the Oceans line introduces denim made from ocean plastic. It’s the first time the groundbreaking material, called Bionic Yarn, has been used to create denim. The issue of plastic in our oceans is an ever-growing concern, but also a great opportunity for innovations like this to start transforming the way we make things.
“There is a global movement happening, where as a species, we are evolving to a new level of thought and action,” says Lanni Lantto. “We are seeing the negative consequences of how we have designed our lives over the past couple hundred years and we’ve realized this is not working for the planet or us. Long-term sustainability, limited raw resources, and ethical accountability will not allow fashion to continue like this for much longer. The fashion industry is running on the toxic fumes of pesticides, immense water waste, CO2 pollution, landfills overflowing with last season’s trends, low wages and inhumane working conditions. I became a fashion designer because I was an environmental activist who saw the role reuse could play in reshaping our future. The solution is in the design.”
I became a fashion designer because I was an environmental activist who saw the role reuse could play in reshaping our future. The solution is in the design.
“I think more and more designers are becoming increasingly aware,” says Belinda Pasqua. “Sustainability comes under so many umbrellas. If they can’t use recycled textiles then maybe organic or vegetable-dyed fabrics is where it’s at. Whatever it is, I don’t feel they is any reason in this day and age that designers aren’t incorporating some kind of sustainable aspect in their collection. It’s just dumb if they aren’t.”