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A primer on upcycled fashion and redesigned clothing

When Colin Firth’s wife Livia Giuggioli (AKA Livia Firth) wore an old wedding dress on the red carpet at the Golden Globes, her goal was to publicize one of the greenest fashion trends that few of us have heard about. “So tonight I’m repurposing a wedding dress,” she told the TV Guide cameras. “So this used to be a wedding dress and I repurposed it so it looks less bridal.”

It’s not clear whether the reporter even understood why she was bothering to wear an old wedding gown as he didn’t bother with a follow-up question, but my guess is Giuggioli’s intention of dressing sustainably, as part of her “Green Carpet challenge“, was lost on him.

What do you call a jacket made from men’s ties?

Repurposed clothing isn’t an easy concept to follow: it’s not just about wearing vintage or secondhand clothing, but remaking it to fit a different purpose- a different season, fashion trend, body type, etcetera. It’s been dubbed customized clothing and reincarnated rags; the designers are clothing remixers or wardrobe surgeons. The colorful language around the trend may be one of the problems.

Maybe deconstructed designs haven’t gone mainstream like organic cotton, partly that’s because no one can decide on a name for ______ (insert word: reworked, refashioned, restyled, remade, restructured, refurbished, recovered, reclaimed, redesigned) clothing (See our story that we chose to title Redesigned Clothing).

The greenest fabrics aren’t bamboo or organic cotton

It’s a shame surgically-altered styles haven’t gotten more attention given that secondhand clothing is one of the greenest fabrics. When you use old clothing as a source material, there is no waste involved in manufacture, instead you are recovering what might otherwise end up in landfills. 

In the US alone, more than 20 million tonnes of textiles are thrown away every year (1 million in the UK). So by simply recycling clothes as a source material, we not only avoid the waste involved in manufacture (even for organic cotton and bamboo, this is significant), but we prevent more landfill waste so refashioned fabrics could be considered net negative waste materials.

When Giuggioli stepped out onto the red carpet in her reincarnated wedding dress- in this case a Christiana Couture gown remade less wedding and more old Hollywood with a simple black bow- she was making a bolder move than her other Green Carpet outfits made from milk or bamboo, but the larger point may have gotten lost.

After one television interview, Livia’s partner in the Green Carpet challenge- UK journalist Lucy Siegle- complained, “beautifully done though I’m not sure the interviewer quite gets the repurposing thing. He keeps going on about wedding dresses”.

The A to Z of upcycled clothing

Green blogs like Treehugger and Ecorazzi avoided the repurposed label all together and chose to call her gown a more generic “upcycled”. Upcycled is really more a close cousin to reworked clothing, since it refers to using waste materials for a higher purpose (e.g. using recycled plastic bottles to make fleece jackets). 

Technically, it’s not wrong to call clothing that is destined to become rags- and instead recovered to be used as clothing again- upcycled, but it is unspecific, and with that unspecificity allows us to remain hazy about just how cool, and truly green, this entire area of clothing design truly is.

  • Upcycling, in general: turning waste into something useful, in this case clothing. Patagonia was probably the first to go mainstream with this process when they released their fleece jacket made from soda bottles in 1993.
  • Pre-consumer waste: materials generated by manufacturers- industry by-products such as trimmings, proofs, swatches, overruns, off-cuts, end of rolls and obsolete products. For the Dutch clothing company Kuyichi that falls under this category is labeled their “spare” line (they “re-use fabric leftovers and yarns from previous collections or dead stock and turns them into spare denim and tees”.). Other labels using pre-consumer waste include From Somewhere, Looptworks, Sara Shepherd and Worn Again (some of it).
  • Post-consumer waste: anything we- as consumers- have already used. This includes used clothing that was headed to the landfill (recycled cotton and polyester), as well as plastic bags (PET), plastic signboards (PVC), glass bottles (labels like Playback are using cotton scraps and plastic and glass bottles to make t-shirts and sweatshirts), or even VHS tapes.

Whether it’s pre, or post-consumer, the point is it’s all about the process of avoiding YAOTs (Yet Another Organic Tshirt)- or bamboo dress (which often isn’t green to begin with)- and instead trying to re-use what we already have and would otherwise hit a landfill. 

Why recycled clothes cost more

Upcycled clothes- whether redesigned clothing or a pre-consumer waste line- may be created from trash, but that only makes them more expensive. Those at Britain’s Worn Again label explain why it costs more to create a new bag out of an old train uniform jacket or a hot air balloon than from conventional textiles.

“The companies who donate their disused materials to us have to organise the the collection of the materials and get them to us. Worn Again then has to clean and transport them to our factory. Factory workers then need to de-construct materials created for one purpose into uniform pieces to be cut into something completely different. This could include cutting a whole hot air balloon into manageable/ washable strips before even thinking about cutting them into patterns for bags.”

Of course, they point out that it’s worth all the extra work in the savings in CO2 emissions from not producing new textiles- energy and raw resources, shipping costs (assuming the upcycled fabrics are local waste products) and cheap labour sources (avoiding sweatshops, etc).

“I’m not going to wear recycled plastic bottles or recycled newspapers!”

Besides the cost barrier, there’s that small problem that for some wearing a plastic bag or old clothes doesn’t feel glamourous. When Guiggioli began her Green Carpet challenge, she was skeptical that upcycled clothing could work on the red carpet. “I don’t want to showcase something that isn’t in fact beautiful,” she explained to Siegle on Vogue’s video blog at the start of the challenge. “I’m not going to wear recycled plastic bottles or recycled newspapers.”

The following month at the London premiere for her husband’s film The Single Man, Guiggioli and Siegle were both kitted out in pre-consumer waste gowns, and both were singing their praises, though their on-screen interchange was a short lesson in upcycling terminology.

Guiggioli: What are you wearing tonight?

Siegle: I’m wearing From Somewhere so this is all upcycled. What are you wearing?

Guiggioli: I’m wearing Sara Shepherd and she’s an English designer based in San Francisco and she works only with waste. So she collects waste from the houses, her local houses in the San Francisco area.

Siegle: The local fashion houses [i.e. pre-consumer waste].

Guiggioli: Yeah, the local fashion houses [i.e. post-consumer waste].

Siegle: Not like houses.

Guiggioli: No.

I just wanted to be sure (laughs).

Though I would add, there’s nothing wrong with getting old clothes from local houses (i.e. people’s houses). After all, that’s what repurposed clothing is all about.