Upcycling: turning trash into fashion treasures

Morgane Nyfeler

By Morgane Nyfeler03 août 2021

As the world’s second most polluting industry, the fashion industry is waking up to the value found in using existing resources in order to minimise its waste. Upcycling is slowly becoming the new trend emulating the second-hand and vintage market, and the luxury sector, from innovative high-end brands to pioneering independent designers, isn’t short of exciting, eco-friendly initiatives.

The Rafael Kouto brand's creations (DR)

According to the French Ministry of Ecology, an estimate of 10,000 to 20,000 tons of new textiles are discarded every year. In the past, luxury brands would have burnt or secretly thrown away unsold goods to preserve their exclusivity and avoid counterfeits. This detrimental practice has now been banned in France since brands like Burberry and Louis Vuitton received criticism for not addressing this issue in a sustainable way. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the accumulation of unsold garments reached new heights and many designers pointed the finger at the fashion industry’s overproduction practices happening despite consumers already owning more clothes than they actually need. For the spring/summer 2020 collections alone, between €140 and €160 billion worth of excess inventory were produced, according to the McKinsey study– more than double that of previous years – which came as a wakeup call for the luxury sector to rethink their supply chain and generate less waste.

A shift towards a greener industry

Miu Miu released a capsule collection of 80 one-off dresses for the holidays restored from antique pieces, from the 1930s through to the 1980s (Miu Miu)

In a context where 99 per cent of all textiles and fashion becomes waste, upcycling comes as a solution to safeguard the environment, consume more responsibly and embrace the circular economy. Unlike recycling which is performed on less than one per cent of the clothing material that is broken down and transformed into new fibres using complex technology, upcycling requires creative thinking to elevate second-hand pieces and deadstock fabrics into highly desirable garments by preserving their unique character and history. For a very long time, upcycling was a forbidden term in the luxury sector but today, major brands are embracing this practice, marking a shift to a more thoughtful production and the need to polish a more eco-friendly image. In April, the LVMH group launched Nona Source, an online resale platform giving access to certified fabrics, lace and leathers from the group’s houses at 70% off the original wholesale price and destined to young creatives, fashion schools and charities, amongst others.

Upcycling emerged as one of the overarching themes of the spring/summer 2021 collections as designers slowed down fashion’s frenetic pace during the pandemic and reworked existing stock or archive pieces. At Balenciaga, 93.5% of the materials are ‘certified sustainable or upcycled’ which translates into fur-like coats made from shoelaces or sophisticated dresses made with basketball net chains. In Milan, Marni is putting sustainability at the forefront, creating a collection of coats crafted using archival pieces and fabrics in an eccentric patchwork. Elsewhere, Miu Miu released a capsule collection of 80 one-off dresses for the holidays restored from antique pieces, from the 1930s through to the 1980s, that were sourced from vintage dealers worldwide and refashioned at the label’s atelier and finished with the brand’s signature embellishments and embroideries.

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