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Fashion III: redesigned clothing

A trend among celebrities, DIYers, fashionistas and eco-activists may prove to be the most eco-friendly way to dress. Redesigners are recycling their wardrobes to stay fashionable without buying new.

By Kirsten Dirksen

Redesigned fashion reaches from the haute couture houses of Paris to online DIY communities: from 15,000 dollar coats made from old gloves to women pledging not to buy any new clothes for half a year. It’s a step beyond buying vintage or secondhand; redesigned fashion is about making old clothes- whether worn out, out of style or simply unloved- new again.

Considering that most of our clothing is being discarded before it is truly worn out- Brits and Americans discard on average 30 kilograms, and 68 pounds (about the same amount), per person per year respectively- the most eco-friendly fabrics are those which already exist.

Better than organic

When American designer Nick Graham (of Joe Boxer fame) began brainstorming ideas for a green collection, he rejected conventional eco-fabrics for used clothing as a source material. “I thought we could do an organic line, but then I thought that’s just more stuff we’d be creating. It’s the American way to say we need more growth, but what if we created an economy with everything we’ve already used once?”

Boxer teamed up with used clothing charity Goodwill Industries in the San Francisco Bay Area to create the line William Good. All items on sale- in the trial store in San Francisco, as well as online- are being refashioned by designers from the clothes that go unsold in Goodwill stores. The source materials are 100% recycled, except for the label which reads “Remade in the USA”.

This idea has been in place in the UK since 2000 when the charity organization TRAID (Textile Recycling for Aid and International Development) began reworking unsold merchandise from their charity shops. Today, TRAIDremade- whose customers include celebrities like Stella McCartney- is not just about cutting waste, but creating unique pieces of fashion.

Head designer Tracey Cliffe explains the emphasis is on making one-of-a kind pieces driven by current styles. “Each piece has to look fabulous as a stand-alone item that someone will want to buy. We have five designers who re-work T-shirts or use retro-bedlinen or old shirts to make dresses and skirts, which then sell for between £20 and £55, depending on the work involved”. TRAIDremade designs and sell in stores in London and Brighton and online through getethical.com.

Turning old gloves into a 15,000 dollar haute couture coat

Redesigning used clothing may sound a bit anti-fashion, but even haute couture designers like Martin Margiela, who worked for Jean-Paul Gaultier before starting his own Paris-based fashion house, has a line of “garments remodelled by hand”.

His past collections have included:

  • A dress made from old silk scarves– hand-plaited, requires 75 hours of labor.
  • A leather jacket made from old footballs- “The balls are cut up, flattened and applied on leather similar to the rubbery inner tube of the ball.”
  • A raincoat made from four umbrellas- “The original details, such as the ferrules, are maintained on the finished article and the Velcro straps become the wrist fastenings.”
  • A jacket made from elastic bands: “Various widths and qualities of elastics are plaited directly on the dummy to make a jacket.”
  • A jacket from a garment bag: “Its lining is used to create the jacket sleeves. The original piping, catches, hooks, zips and handle are all maintained on the finished article. The bag’s shoulder strap is now the jacket’s belt.”
  • Bow-ties to create a dress and top.

Margiela’s reworked designs run in the thousands of dollars- a coat made from old gloves in his 2006 collection went for $15,124-, but the redesigned trend hits every price point.

High fashion street couture for the likes of Gwen Stefani

Designers Annika Sanders and Kerry Seager got into the redesigning business after traveling extensively and viewing the “prevalence of recycling in other cities such as San Francisco and Tokyo and the resourcefulness of people in Vietnam and Thailand”.

When they began to remake clothing to wear to London clubs in the early nineties, the concept proved so popular that in 1997 they launched an entire line made from old clothes.

Today, their Junky Styling line has been labeled “high fashion street couture” by Vogue and is worn by celebrities like Gwen Stefani and according to rumors- the designers are discreet about their customers-, Kate Moss, Sadie Frost and Sienna Miller are clients.

Part of the Junky line is ready-to-wear, or “off the peg” items, that are “recycled from the best quality second hand clothing, deconstructed, re-cut and completely transformed into a new product that belies the former identity of the raw material.”

Clients can also request “wardrobe surgery” for their own clothes that may be out-of-date or damaged. Sanders and Seager meet with clients for a personal consultation on their goals for the outfit, charging £30 pounds to re-work a pair of jeans up to about £200 to restructure a pant suit.

Sanders explained the process to the Daily Mail in 2006: “We will take all their measurements and then give them some idea of what we think is feasible, sometimes adding textiles from our own stock. We have a fitting process that ensures everything is bespoke, and can work with anything from an old tour T-shirt, or a pair of jeans to a three-piece suit or an evening dress.”

A wedding dress from old mens shirts

The Junky team aren’t the only designers performing custom refashioning. Fellow wardrobe surgeon Alice Fogel, who has won acclaim for her wedding dress made from 22 used mens’ tailored cotton shirts (which she bought for $1.50 a pound), encourages clients of her Lyric Couture label to bring their favorite- “stained, out of date or shape, ill-fitting”- garments in for refashioning. She lists the following as possible procedures for “languishing loves”:

  • Shorten or shrink.
  • Lengthen or widen by piecing.
  • Modify neckline & sleeves.
  • Change the buttons.
  • Overlay or replace stained areas.
  • Bleach, de-color, dye, print or paint.
  • Refit & reshape with darts, seams, panels, godets, etc.
  • Trim or decorate with new (old?) fabrics, lace, yarn, etc.
  • Modify styling, such as pullover into cardigan.
  • Collage several of your pieces together into a new garment.

Lyric Couture pieces, like other refashioned clothing, are all created from already-existing materials and therefore, as Fogel writes on her site, are “made without the use of pesticides (like cotton & other “natural” fibers), petroleum (like synthetics), or abused laborers (like most “reasonably-priced” clothing).”

Like Fogel, the Junky Styling team guarantee their clothing is fair trade, organic and ethically produced. They also claim to be everything that fast fashion isn’t:

  • Junky doesn’t conform to fashion trends because they want to promote timeless original designs and offer a repair service to customers (that has in some cases helped garments last more than 5 years of extensive wear).
  • The individual is the focus at Junky as they ensure no 2 garments are the same – they can be cut from the same pattern but the raw materials will always be different.
  • Junky hope to inspire all their customers to look at their discarded clothes and general waste items with fresh eyes and a resourceful frame of mind.

New thrifters

Wardrobe recycling can range from massive surgery to simply paying to have things fixed instead of throwing them away. As Helen Kirwan-Taylor explained in the Evening Standard in January of 2008, a growing number of “new thrifters” are choosing to hold onto their clothes longer with a bit of professional help. “My girlfriends used to trade shopping tips: now they trade business cards of seamstresses, cobblers, cashmere darners, dyers and valet services.”

With celebrity role models like Helena Bonham Carter, Sienna Miller and Kate Moss, the new thrifters often focus on buying high end pieces and making them last. Sam Robinson, owner of Notting Hill’s Cross boutique, explained to Kirwan-Taylor that in this era when most clothing lasts about six months, she has worn her black cashmere Chloe coat for the past five years. “Every year I give it a new lining. The whole point of luxury is that it’s for keeps.”

A closed-loop closet

Not everyone can afford a Chloe coat, but wardrobe surgery doesn’t need to be expensive, especially if you do it yourself, and increasingly more wardrobe refashionistas are using the web to spread their ideas.

In July of 2006, blogger Alex Martin- after the success of her Little Brown Dress experiment (she wore it for 365 days)- embarked on her Recycled Intentional Wardrobe project, or a bit of “fashion detox”, wearing only her existing wardrobe- “recycled, re-mixed, re-fabbed”- for an entire year.

“I wore only things I made myself (clothes, jewelry, shoes, underwear, bags, everything) and my source materials were clothing items already in my possession – a completely closed loop, 100% recycled from my own closet,” she explains on her blog. Here she has photos of herself in a bathing suit she made from a long t-shirt, but her site is less pattern-making and more idea-based.

A no-shopping pledge

Inspired by Martin’s experiences with wearing her little brown dress for 365 days, but not wanting to be quite so extreme, Australia-based Nichola Prested took an online oath to buy no new clothes for a year. “I was looking for ways to save money and be more eco-friendly… I wasn’t prepared to wear the same garment every day nor was I financially able to afford organic/eco friendly.”

“I also sew a lot and wanted to improve my sewing skills so I came up with the idea that I wouldn’t buy any new clothing for a year. Instead I aimed to refashion secondhand clothing and clothing I have in my wardrobe already or to sew my clothes from scratch using new and recycled materials. I posted on my blog nikkishell asking if anyone was crazy enough to join me and I was surprised at the response I received.”

With interest from DIY types worldwide, Nichola formalized the shop-free vow in launching the online group Wardrobe Refashion. Anyone is welcome to join, as long as they’re willing to sign this pledge:

  • I [xxxxx] pledge that I shall abstain from the purchase of “new” manufactured items of clothing, for the period of 2 / 4 / 6 months. I pledge that i shall refashion, renovate, recycle preloved items for myself with my own hands in fabric, yarn or other medium for the term of my contract. I pledge that I will share the love and post a photo of my refashioned, renovated, recycled, crafted or created item of clothing on the Wardrobe Refashion blog, so that others may share the joy that thy thriftyness brings! Signed [xxxxx].

Want spurs creativity. Wardrobe refashionistas make dresses from tablecloths and pillowcases and skirts made from tshirts, curtains, sweaters and sweatpants.

The blog is also covered with tales of radical surgery on outdated, or outgrown, trends. In March of 2008, Philadelphia mom Anna Wulick posted the results of her operation on a shirt from her bolder past. “This used to be a pretty boobtastic belly shirt, shirred under the bust, and way too revealing. But the material is the softest jersey of this lovely lavender color, so I couldn’t let it go. Instead, I used the drawstring casing that used to be the shirring to add length to the straps.”

No item of clothing is overlooked. Wardrobe refashionista Aynex Mercado turned a “too stretchy” shirt into underwear and posted the directions for fellow members to copy the “relatively easy” operation.

“I took a pair of mine that I liked how they fit. I made a pattern on tissue paper. Then I cut the shirt following the pattern, sewed it, added elastic in the waist and the leg holes and added a flower to make it pretty. It is very comfortable. In the waist I used 1/4″ elastic and in the legs I used 1/8″ elastic.”

The blog at times appears like many other craft sites, but there is an underlying message behind most of the posts. As Nichola explained to us in an email, this is her way of encouraging others to abstain from corporate fashion, and its nearly systemic inequalities.

“The goal is to get as many people as I can to stop buying new manufactured clothing which in most cases is made in sweat shops and have them recycle and create their own, saving money (hopefully) and learning new skills along the way.”

Whether you perform your own surgery or let someone else do it for you, the refashionistas all seem to agree their way of doing things results in a very low impact wardrobe. Owner/designer Kate Goldwater of Manhattan’s AuH2O redesigned clothing store explained to us in an email that her clothing may have the lowest carbon footprint possible.

“I do not grow any cotton, whether it’s eco-friendly or organic or not, produce any materials, ship any fabric (soy or hemp or bamboo or anything) so no emissions there, and I live in New York so I walk or take the subway everywhere to obtain my materials, and I make everything myself right on my table top sewing machines and sell it right in my store.”

Resources for reworking a wardrobe

Refashion designers:

Clothing refashioning/altering/swapping resources

DIY Wardrobe refashion books:

Online refashioning/sewing communities:

Custom clothiers/alterations:

Wardrobe swaps: