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All about upcycling: understanding fashion’s conscious keyword

April 19, 2020By Francine Heath

In her first piece for THEFORWARDLAB, Francine looks closely into upcycling, this much-talked about concept in ethical fashion.

When Jean Paul Gaultier signed off from his indelible 50-year career in January, he decided to mark the occasion with an upcycled Haute Couture collection. Over 200 looks were presented at the storied Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, each repurposed in some way by using fabrics plucked from the archives. The nod to humble beginnings (when the designer would transform his father’s worn-out trousers into skirts and use little else but recycled denim thanks to a shoestring budget) was subtle, but the overarching message was clear: look at what can be done without the need to produce an abundance of new materials.

After the show, online shopping searches in France including the keywords “recycle” and “upcycle” collectively went up by 25% over the following 24 hours, according to The 2020 Conscious Fashion Report generated by Lyst in partnership with Good On You – an organisation that helps consumers to make more considered purchasing decisions with its ‘People, Planet, Animals’ ratings system. Other stats in the report reveal that an interest in discovering upcycled clothes is increasing, and ranks alongside other sustainability-related terms like “pre-owned” and “second-hand”.

Of course, upcycling isn’t a new concept (think back to Make Do and Mend or to the world of interior design) and Gaultier isn’t the only major luxury name to back it. Sarah Burton’s eco-responsible efforts at the helm of Alexander McQueen are of note, particularly her team’s use of silk jacquards, organza, lace and taffeta from previous lineups for SS20. Dutch designer Ronald van der Kemp has been fuelling a mindful movement for years by turning even leftover scraps into remarkable garments with impeccable tailoring and construction techniques.

There are also plenty of likeminded changemakers in the industry right now who are attracting attention by choosing to create using the upcycling method – Patrick McDowell, E.L.V Denim, Hôtel Vetements, The R Collective, Bode and Les Fleurs, for example. What links the success of upcycling appears to be a dedication to helping reduce the amount of waste that the fashion industry is accountable for, a passion for art and innovation and a distinct knowledge of craft. Upcycling isn’t about unnecessarily chopping things up, but instead seeing the beauty (and potential) in something old, imperfect or unused.

Here at THEFORWARDLAB, we’ve consciously collaborated with the French atelier Maille Creation, a 27-year-old cooperative that specialises in luxury knitwear and is trusted for its expertise by Chanel and Dior. Our limited edition series of knitted sweaters and tops has given unwanted, deadstock yarn a second life by spinning the different threads and ribbons together in easy-to-wear silhouettes in fresh colour combinations, including black and orangerainbow and sunset. What’s more, these pieces are designed to last – we want you to wear them for years to come and hand them down when you’re done.

Shop the collection here

Francine Heath is a contributor to THEFORWARDLAB.
London-based product editor and sustainable fashion journalist who advocates conscious consumerism and loves discovering those who are determined to drive change and create a better fashion future. She’s previously written articles for British Vogue, Eco-Age, Refinery 29, Mr Porter and i-D.