It’s not an exaggeration to say that as long as there has been clothing, there’s also been upcycled clothing. Torn clothes were mended, holes were patched, and young children complained about hand-me-downs from their older siblings.
But as the fashion industry starts to recognize its role as a driver of pollution, upcycled clothing is becoming a growing niche in the fashion apparel market. Given the industry’s track record of waste and abuse it’s no surprise that conscious consumers are skeptical. In this article we’ve tried to sort out what to look for and where to find it. Let’s start with a broad definition.
For starters, ask anyone who has made clothes on a sewing machine at home and they will confess their love of fabric. There’s an impulse to make upcycled clothing that can best be described as a creative outlet or an artistic medium.
Instead of mending clothes so that the defect is invisible, it’s a thrill to create something that is deliberately decorative. Search for upcycled clothing on websites such as Etsy and you’ll find hundreds of small artisans making one-off pieces. You’ll also find incredible upcycled women’s clothing on Instagram, (we’ve profiled two designers in the U.S. and France on this blog).
Beyond the realm of makers, crafters and textile artisans there are upcycled clothing brands that are producing at scale and commercializing the clothing. Here are two designers who have expanded this niche market in the fashion industry.
Upcycled Clothing Brands
Conner Ives is a young U.S. designer best known for his upcycled women’s clothing: slinky cut-and-sew tees and reconstructed scarf tops. While still studying at the prestigious London fashion institute, Central Saint Martins that schooled other fashion notables John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, his recognition as a designer took off when he designed the gown for model Adwoa Aboah for the 2021 Met Gala. This brought him to the attention of singer Rhianna who brought him on to help design her own fashion brand, Fenty.
Ives’ ‘reconstituted’ designs are slashed and spliced together from recycled vintage fabrics, vintage t-shirts and deadstock (overrun surplus fabric). His best-known pieces are t-shirt dresses. “I figured it out, but it’s more difficult and often more expensive to make something from deadstock materials, diving through a bin in a store and piecing them together in a way that a consumer can buy in a store. It’s a longer process, but I wouldn’t change it.”
Ives’ upcycled clothes are designed with a passion to make clothes for women that look and feel amazing. “The thing that’s always the most reassuring is to get responses from them. When I hear ‘I feel amazing in these clothes,’ that’s the reason I’m in this. That is my job done.” Connor Ives Website
Rebuild by Needles is a Japanese brand of upcycled clothes for men; it's the latest venture from veteran menswear designer Keizo Shimizu. An aficionado of American iconic style, his interest in American men’s fashion started with a fascination for relaxed sport jacket worn by ‘Birth of Cool’ era Miles Davis and continued with reworkings of traditional American work clothes.
The collections from Rebuild by Needles are inspired by flannel of 1990s grunge rock. The signature ‘7-Cut flannel’ is a shirt created 7 strips of cloth from different shirts and is deliberately sewn with imperfect stitching to and an uneven hem. It’s a funky deconstructed reinterpretation of the classic flannel.
Assembled from vintage stock, the pieces are one-of-a-kind and sewn in Japan. In the words of Keizo Shimizu “When you come right down to it, it’s all sort of like a hobby”.
Zero Waste Fashion
‘Zero waste fashion’ takes upcycled clothing to yet another level with the credo: design beautiful clothes while abiding a principle of zero waste. The idea behind zero waste is to create apparel entirely from reclaimed fabric remnants (cuttings from large garment factories). The other idea behind zero waste fashion is to design patterns that will leave as little cut wasted fabric as possible. Reengineering fabric waste to create circular fashion is not easy. That’s why big brands haven’t made much of an effort to figure it out. These two companies are blazing the trail.
Tonlé is an amazing sustainable fashion brand on a number of levels: it makes beautiful upcycled women’s clothing with a guiding goal of eliminating manufacturing waste; it’s organized as a group of makers who have a say in the business; its culture is deeply Cambodian. (The name Tonlé comes from a river that is the life blood of Cambodia). Tonlé clothing is made in the company’s base in Phnom Penh using remnants cut from large apparel factories. The team of co-creator, Rachel Faller and 30 local artisans manage the complicated balancing act of manufacturing and also sourcing choice cuts of materials from second-hand scrap markets. These scrap pieces are woven to create gorgeous, ‘twice recycled’ woven garments that has a texture that is immediately identifiable to the brand.Tonlé Website
Zero Waste Daniel
Textile waste is not only found overseas, New York fashion manufacturers also generate plenty of textile scrap in their own cutting rooms. Zero Waste Daniel is a Brooklyn-based upcycled fashion brand that sources remnants and then sews them into reconstituted roles of fabric. The fabric is then cut into garments – one-off shirts, jackets, pants – primarily street wear but also a range of other styles, sometimes with mosaic insets made of colorful scrap. Started by Daniel Silverstein in 2015, his zero-waste fashion approach has gotten a lot of industry attention as well as a celebrity following including Lin-Manuel Miranda. With sales in the U.S., Europe and Latin America, ZWD (as well as Tonlé) will now have to grapple with the complexity of how to scale production while maintaining zero waste.
Zero Waste Daniel. Photo: Courtesy of Zero Waste Daniel by Aidan LoughranWebsites Where You Can Buy Upcycled Clothing
- Since 2004, Escama Studio has worked with Brazilian artists to design and hand-craft purses, bags and accessories using something that most people throw away - recycled pop tabs.
- A place to where you can buy from small artisans. Look for garments made from vintage deadstock.
- Another great place to find artists and aficionados of upcycled clothing is Instagram.
- For used clothing – (not exactly upcycled but still a good sustainable option) – there are numerous websites including thredUP.com, PoshMark, Craigslist and Shop Goodwill.com
For upcycled clothing boutiques, most are specific to one region but there are a few small chains in the U.S. including Buffalo Exchange.
Shop Upcycled Clothing
Visit our shop to learn more about various upcycled products we offer.