Making something new out of old clothing is a technically complex process. Sourcing, cutting and re-sewing textile waste requires more time, creativity and skill than constructing a garment from a bolt of new fabric.
Though the process is more expensive, upcycling has significant environmental benefits. It also gives people who struggle to find vintage – due to size or accessibility – a chance to shop secondhand.
But not all garments are upcycled equally. One of the most important pillars of circularity is keeping materials in circulation at their highest value – in other words: not ruining a perfectly functional garment by being too scissors-happy.
When upcycling clothing at scale, it is also important the materials being used are actually waste that otherwise be destined for landfill.
Despite these challenges, a growing number of designers are tackling fashion’s excessive waste problem head on, and creating genuinely beautiful garments from unwanted clothes.
Dresses from T-shirts and scarves: Conner Ives
Conner Ives made his first dress from upcycled T-shirts when he was 20 years old. Now the garment is one of the signature pieces in every collection he releases under his eponymous London-based label. T-shirts aren’t the only waste textiles he reuses. “Scarves, piano shawls, vintage sequin, denim and military blankets are categories we will revisit with a new shape season after season,” he says. Most of the Ives range is made from secondhand or deadstock pieces he sources through vintage wholesalers in the UK who import from the US.
Old jeans made new: ELV Denim
ELV Denim was founded on the principles of upcycling. In 2018, the brand’s creative director, Anna Foster, decided to turn unwanted used jeans into one desirable pair by cutting them up and sewing them back together. “It’s much more rewarding to use existing material, and this can be done at scale, but at the same time maintaining quality and originality,” Foster says. Earlier this year, she teamed up with The Outnet, an online multi-brand retailer, to create an upcycled collection from unsold stock.
Over 50 styles were made by deconstructing and reconstructing dresses, shirts and jeans from different brands. “Once retailers are aware that not only is upcycling a creative and conscious way to use excess stock but a revenue-generating way, I hope other companies will sit up and take note,” she says.
Streetwear with a bit of love: Homie
Since 2019, Melbourne label Homie has been turning its own stock, faulty stock and the deadstock of other brands into its Reborn collection. One of its biggest collaborators is the streetwear brand Champion, which donates unsold hoodies, T-shirts and track pants.
“It’s a zero-waste system, [the garments] are cut and jigsawed back together, they can be screen-printed or embroidered afterwards,” says the brand’s creative director and co-founder, Marcus Crook. Because Homie gives “a bit of love” to the garments, they can be sold for more than the original retail price, so “it’s a solution to heavy discounting and ruining profit margins”. The project has been so successful they’ve partnered with the manufacturer ABMT Textiles to set up an upcycling facility in Melbourne.
New garments from discarded denim: KitX
KitX founder Kit Willow set up the Future From Waste Lab with the property developer Beulah in 2022. From the project studio in Melbourne’s South Bank, Willow has created a range of blazers, coats, skirts, corsets and dresses from secondhand denim. “There is an enormous supply and surplus of textiles in the waste streams, combined with fashion’s other environmental impacts,” says Willow. “The solution to these problems are multifaceted, but using waste to create desirable fashion is one of them.” The project has hosted other designers in residence, including Heidi Middleton and Charlotte Hicks.
Factory fault fix-ups: Maggie Marilyn
New Zealand label Maggie Marilyn has always placed the environment at the heart of its designs. When designer Maggie Hewitt realised about 2% of stock was deemed unsellable due to small imperfections such as dropped stitches, marks or holes, she came up with Restore. Now every imperfection is covered by a small embroidered red love heart, and released at a discount through her online store. The range is currently sold out, but stock is added throughout the year.
Vintage fabric, new designs: Romance Was Born
For a few years, Sydney label Romance Was Born has produced an upcycled range called RWB Forever. Each item is crafted from a collection of vintage garments, accessories and scarves as well as souvenir tablecloths, doilies, crochet remnants and upholstery fabrics. “We have a funny knack of inheriting things from friends and random people who know we are doing this kind of thing now,” says co-founder Anna Plunkett. Recently an acquaintance donated some old crocheted blankets. “It feels nice that people can trust us with their precious heirlooms too,” Plunkett says.