Ask the expert: turning waste into fashion

Make it last's sustainability expert about five inspirational designers who turn waste into high fashion.

Every other week, Make it last’s sustainability expert Anna Brismar of Green Strategy answers questions about fashion and sustainability. Have a question you want answered? Send it here! And read more about what sustainable fashion really is, or at least how we define it with the help of Anna, here.


Orsola de Castro, co-founder of From Somewhere, interviewed by Make it last here

The concept of turning waste into high fashion and quality design has become a hot issue over the last years. Can you mention some inspirational designers that work along these lines?

Yes, more and more fashion designers are discovering the sustainability gains and positive creative challenges of working with discarded textiles. Some designers make use of secondhand clothes (so-called post-consumer waste), while others turn to spill material and leftovers from garment factories (so-called pre-consumer waste). When new pieces are designed to hold higher value than the original items (e.g. a sheet made into a blouse), the design practice is referred to as upcycling. When the final product is expected to have a similar consumer value as the original material, the process is referred to as “redesign” (e.g. an old men’s shirt made into a blouse). Although still quite few, there is today a growing number of designers and brands working with discarded textiles, sometimes as their only source of fabrics. Some inspirational and talented examples are:

From Somewhere, founded by Orsola de Castro and Filippo Ricci in 1997, is possibly the most well-known upcycling brand and is still pioneering the field. The brand uses primarily pre-consumer surplus material from manufacturing houses and textile mills of the luxury fashion industry, and has cooperated with various brands and actors such as Top Shop and Speedo.

Kévin Germanier, who is a young Swiss designer and the winner of The EcoChic Design Award 2014/15, with an obvious talent to create high fashion pieces from wasted clothing. In the coming year, he will create an up-cycled capsule collection for Shanghai Tang. All Award finalists were shown at the Grand Final Fashion Show in Hong Kong on January 21, 2015.

Frau Wagner, a German brand located in Berlin, who produces both couture and ready-to-wear pieces using vintage and quality secondhand clothing. The ambition is to create unique designs with contrasting elements, by mixing clothes of different styles and social codes, such as sportswear, uniforms and men’s shirts. Each finished piece is tagged with the name of its buyer! (Read more in an article by Sass Brown or see a couture line in Italian Vogue).

Reet Aus, a ready-to-wear Estonian brand founded in 2004, which since 2013 is able to “mass-produce” upcycled clothing in collaboration with Beximco, the biggest fabric and garment producer in Bangladesh, by using textile spill from Beximco’s garment production. The S/S 2014-collection’s lookbook contains details on all item’s water and energy savings.

As for children’s wear, the Swedish brand Stormie Poodle creates high quality garments with timeless design using discarded linen and terry cloth from Swedish hotels, with production in Estonia. In the US, Little Grey Line makes one-of-a-kind, custom-made children’s clothing from old men’s shirts in North Carolina, based on pre-orders in 17 available designs.

The sustainability gains of upcyling and redesign are quite evident. When wasted textiles are used as raw material in production, the demand for virgin fibers such as cotton and polyester is reduced, and so is the fashion industry’s total impact on water, soil, air, climate, biodiversity, ecosystems, etc. In fact, today’s global flows of discarded textiles constitute an enormous and – for most parts – underutilized resource. Their potential economic value has only recently been properly estimated. In the United Kingdom alone, WRAP estimates that 140 million pounds worth of clothing goes to landfill every year. In addition to saving limited natural resources, the upcycling industry can also create new job opportunities of benefit to most societies.

For further reading, I can recommend an article in Triple Pundit by Redress, Sass Brown’s article on Eco Fashion Talk or her article for the Textile Tool Box, or the book by Gwilt and Rissanen (2011).

Top picture: Picture from Kévin Germanier’s winning show at the EcoChic Design Award

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