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The business of remade, redesigned, refashioned fashion

Despite lacking a unified name- some call it redesigned fashion, others refashioned fashion, repurposed clothing, restructured design, etc- it’s a fashion genre that’s creeping into the mainstream. British Vogue calls it the “new movement in recycled fashion”, though in many ways it’s been around since we began to think about fashion. 

Remaking old clothes to fit changing fashions was at one time a tailor’s bread and butter; today, it’s the provenance of both a growing field of designers concerned about the waste involved in the fashion industry and a legion of dedicated DIYers who are finding inspiration online to breathe new life into old clothes.

Back when an article of clothing still cost more than a hamburger, a piece of wardrobe could live nine lives or more before finally hitting the scrap heap. During World War II, the “Make Do and Mend” campaign encouraged Britons to update old clothes instead of buying new.

Pillowcases would be turned into white shorts for summer. Wedding dresses would be worn several times, borrowed by sisters and friends, until the original 1939 bride in desperation for new items, remade the dress up into underwear, French Knickers or nightgowns. The only way to have feminine underwear was to sew it yourself.  Skirts were made from men’s old plus fours or trousers. Cast offs would be made into children’s clothes.  Collars would be added and trims applied all to eke out a limited wardrobe.”

Make Do and Mend, again

Today, wardrobe refashioning has made a comeback, this time less out of economic necessity and more because of a renewed consciousness that we are buying and discarding our clothing much too quickly. 

Oxfam recently held a Make Do and Mend fashion fix day in London with a redesigned fashion show and a customizing corner where you could “breathe new life into old garments”. The online group Wardrobe Refashion hosts a “Reconstruction Zone” at Australian craft fairs.

American clothing company Anthropologie has hosted a series of “reinvention workshops” teaching customers how to “to refashion blouses, rework cardigan sweaters, revamp gloves and hats and renew scarves”.

Even British prime minister Gordon Brown and his wife have joined the movement by donating the clothing they wore at a Labor Party conference to be refashioned and sold for charity.

Open-source patterns

Partly responsible for bringing attention to the current movement for refashioning clothing is the design duo Annika Sanders and Kerry Seager, cofounders of the redesigned clothing label Junky Styling. Sanders and Seager had no tailoring experience when they started the line in 1997, they simply were inspired by what they’d seen other do with old clothes while traveling the world. 

Today, their re-fashioned clothing has been worn by Sienna Miller, Kate Moss, Gwen Stefani, they show at London and Paris fashion weeks, and their line has become so successful they’ve had to outsource much of the labor, but they are still very connected with their DIY roots.

Wanting to help others re-make old clothes new again, Sanders and Seager are eager to give away their secrets. In their recent book Junky Styling: Wardrobe Surgery, they not only document their personal journey, but they offer a how to section full of details so readers can make some of their trademark designs, like a suit-sleeve scarf or a “shirt wrap halter top”. 

In a very open-source spirit, they have also published patterns in The Guardian. With the step-by-step instructions for their popular “fly top”, they show you in six steps- with just trousers
, T-shirt, scissors
, pins
 and needle and thread- how to “turn any pair of trousers into a fitted top with a wide structured neckline and a zip detail”.

Mixing old and new

Junky Styling are creating a legacy not just as a name in fashion school textbooks, but as mentors of a new generation of redesigners. In the summer of 2008 Mia Nisbet apprenticed in the Junky workshop and by fall she had won the “Make Your Mark In Fashion” award at London Fashion Week for her re-made clothing.

Today Nisbet is making her mark with her own approach to clothing redesign. She started her line MIA after seeing firsthand the effects of our throw-away clothing culture on other countries. “Inspiration for this collection came from my time spent in Malawi,” she blogged in 2008. “In the street markets locals are selling copious amounts of second-hand clothing, which are donated and imported from the western world. The sheer volume of clothes was astounding. It became apparent these clothes markets would be a great place to source clothes for recycling.”

Nisbet has created a hybrid refashion line, using both secondhand clothing dumped on the Malawi markets and traditional Malawian textiles (and local tailors to help reinvest in the community). Nisbet hopes her line will help raise awareness back home about the affect of an industry that continually encourages us to buy new, even for those who don’t choose to buy her clothes.

“I think designers like myself and Junky Styling can be a great inspiration and example for people at home who then can view old clothes they have and be inspired to try recreate them in any way they can manage,” Nisbet explained by email with faircompanies. 

Nisbet is still winning awards for her work, but she doesn’t set herself too far apart from the thousands of amateurs picking up needle and thread to remake their wardrobes. “Clothes DIY can be as simple as restyling an old garment with a few stitch lines, taking a hem up, dying or it can be more sophisticated changes depending on the level of experience the owner has with sewing machine etc. But all in all the outcome is as important. If it is enable old discard clothes to be worn again and given a new lease of life the job has been a success.” 

From refashioned crafter to Etsy entrepreneur

Now with online marketplaces for crafters like Etsy, stay-at-home seamstresses can take their refashioning from hobby to business, but it’s not an easy field. Melbourne, Australia’s Hayley Lau launched her redesigned online clothing shop on Etsy in November of 2008. A little over a year later she posted her resignation on her website. 

“I will not be continuing with Heidi & Seek for the forseeable future. I used to enjoy making clothes with my hands, but having to churn them out for business and profit has truly dulled the joy. I’m still passionate about creating and repurposing, and am really looking forward to doing it as a hobby again, for gifts and for myself.”

For Lau, the DIY spirit is an important element of the refashion movement. In an email interview with faircompanies, she explained that whether redesigned clothing companies like her own stay in business is beside the point. “What I’m thinking is more important is that people learn to make things themselves, and I’m hoping that making things gets more and more popular. I’m loving seeing people try out online tutorials or reading handmade books that teach you a new skill. You know what they say about teaching a man to fish. Also, if you make things yourself, you can create things that are truly you (her emphasis).”

The million-dollar world of used clothing

Even for the bigger players, launching a fashion line based on used clothing is tricky. In 2007, charity thrift giant Goodwill and Joe Boxer’s Nick Graham launched a repurposed fashion line with select stores’ secondhand clothing rejects. “By creating the William Good label, we are initiating a business model with a triple bottom line: People, Planet and Profit” explained Graham at the time. The line never made it past a trial run. 

“After a very successful pilot where we saw interest in the fashion line after its debut at LA Fashion Week, we did a cost analysis and found that it would cost more than $3 million to successfully launch a full line,” Goodwill communication manager James David wrote to me via email in February 2010. “As the economy turned south, these funds were unavailable to us… We hope to revisit this project again when the time is right for us.”

Recycling clothing can be a costly business because of all the customization involved. While conventional fashion houses can set up assembly line style processes because of the uniformity of virgin fabrics, redesigners are forced to go through more steps. Britain’s fashion house Worn Again describes the upcycling process- primarily the prepping of the materials required before manufacturing- as “labour intensive and, quite frankly, fiddly”. 

To avoid prices that are “disproportionately high compared to similar products which have been produced in the Far East for much cheaper” Worn Again founder Cyndi Rhoades explained in August 2009 that the company had decided to sell their products exclusively online.

Pledging only shop your wardrobe

Wardrobe refashionistas now have plenty of resources to draw upon when looking for inspiration. There are dozens of DIY books on redesigning clothing, like minds at craft fairs and online sewing communities. There is even an online support group for those who want to pledge to “refashion, renovate, recycle preloved items” instead of buying new for 2/4/6 months. 

“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,” Wardrobe Refashion founder Nicholas Prested explained to us two years ago, “and have them recycle and create their own, saving money (hopefully) and learning new skills along the way”. (For more on Wardrobe Refashion, see our story on Redesigned Clothing).

While Prested would love to see the refashioning movement go mainstream, she recognizes that it’s unlikely everyone will pick up a needle and thread. “In today’s world people are busier and crafts such as sewing and knitting aren’t widely taught like they used to be.  It’s too easy for people to hand over their cash/credit cards and have that quick fix shopping trip on the weekend after their busy week of work.”

Re-fashion with passion

British designer Lilli Rose Wicks disagrees. “People say that they don’t have time to sew, but they could watch less TV or sew in front of the TV.” Wicks, who was a 2007 winner at London’s Graduate Fashion Week, is now devoted to teaching even sewing novices how to customise their clothes. 

“Sewing is something you can learn,” she claims and she’s out to prove it. She offers day-long apprenticeships, in conjunction with the British Soil Association, where participants learn “a few seamstress tricks to transform tired and unwanted clothes into newly fashionable outfits”.

One of her courses was entitled “re-fashion with passion” and Wicks believes that re-making old clothes is the more fulfilling way to dress. “Customising your own clothes is creative and satisfying, as you feel you’ve produced something that is completely yours. Consuming is dull.”

See the last comments on Twitter related to DIY fashion (below)