WORDS BY HANNAH ERNST
The upcycling movement is gaining momentum and for a good reason. Aside from serving environmental purposes by reusing garments, upcycling adds value and new meaning to clothes. In an era of fast fashion and throwaway culture, don’t we all crave a more emotional connection to our clothes? These eleven upcycling designers show us how fashion can be wearable art, history, and the future of fashion.
Upcycling challenges our take-make-waste society and allows us to express our individuality by wearing truly unique pieces. Inspired by this approach, we are featuring ten upcycling designers who believe in quality over quantity, rendering the decision between style and sustainability obsolete. They breathe new life and surprising layers of meaning into discarded textiles through creative visions and careful craftsmanship. By avoiding sourcing raw materials and combining unusual elements, their garments tell nostalgic tales of the past, raise issues of the present, and look into a more conscious future.
With her upcycled menswear collections, London-based designer Marie Lueder addresses masculinities and mental health. Drawing from the experience of being with a partner who dealt with depression, she views her garments as mental armour, ready to be worn when the wearer seeks to feel empowered and protected. For that purpose, Lueder tailors formal wear and athleisure to create unforeseen androgynous silhouettes. She consciously juxtaposes hard and soft materials, flowy and edgy shapes as well as formal and sportswear.
Producing in London according to her sustainable values, Lueder has accomplished an accelerator programme with Cambridge University for Sustainable Leadership. She showcased her work at the Fashion Revolution exhibition for designers with a purpose and has been a part of four London Fashion Weeks with the British Fashion Council’s Discovery Lab. Through her meaningful work, Lueder addresses mental well-being and provides garments with an emotional and spiritual depth as a countermovement to throwaway fashion.
Milan-based upcycling label Garbage Core turns clothes into art pieces that tell nuanced, detailed stories about their previous lives and possibly even their former wearers. Founder and creative director Giuditta Tanzi claims she has always wondered why people are attracted to trash and wanted to play with this idea in fashion. The designer mainly works with second-hand clothes, deadstock fabrics, and upcycled materials collected at Italian flea markets, charity shops, and other vintage suppliers.
A typical Garbage Core piece consists of many details: holes, colourful broken buttons, intricate embroideries, and seams turned inside out. Techniques like mending with colourful patches deliberately refer to the garment’s previous life and emphasise its flaws, rather than hiding them.
Ukrainian designer and former Fashion Director of Vogue Ukraine Julie Pelipas views the upscaling of upcycling technologies as the most important factor in the transition towards a sustainable society. With BETTTER garments, she aims to question social constructs such as femininity and the objectification of bodies. She views clothes as emotional membranes that help define oneself and find one’s inner spirit. Comfort and convenience are key design principles and result in androgynous suits with interesting cut-outs and straps that aid in adjusting from an oversized to a fitted silhouette, somewhat reminding of mid-2000s Helmut Lang designs.
BETTTER adds “passports” to their clothes, helping make supply chains more transparent by informing about where the garments were sourced and how they were produced. Benefitting from an abundance of second-hand clothes in Ukraine, BETTTER clothes are sourced from online resale platforms, second-hand markets or deadstock factories. They are reworked according to smart design algorithms. Pelipas is one of nine finalists for the LVMH Prize 2023. The winner will be announced in June.
Since launching her namesake label in 2018, Priya Ahluwalia translates cultural codes and traditional craftsmanship from her Indian-Nigerian heritage into a contemporary context. During her studies, Ahluwalia visited her family in Lagos, Nigeria, and got to learn about the enormous amount of textile waste that is discarded in Nigeria and India. By upcycling textile waste, she addresses the problem of waste colonialism and aims to raise awareness of this form of systemic racism.
By upcycling vintage and surplus clothing as well as post-consumer fabrics, the designer creates one-of-a-kind pieces that often feature colourful patterns and ready-to-wear silhouettes with visibly upcycled elements. After being awarded the LVMH Prize in 2020 and the H&M Design Award in 2019, the designer recently collaborated with the Scandinavian fashion brand Ganni.
Ancuta Sarca has won the hearts of celebrities like Bella Hadid, Dua Lipa and Rihanna with her hybrid footwear that adds upcycled sneaker parts to dainty heels or pointy boots. The Romanian-born designer mixes eighteenth-century rococo opulence with a contemporary subculture feeling, creating a futuristic yet vintage vibe about her sneaker heels. Her logo evokes memories of vintage race cars, perfectly encapsulating the combination of sports attire with luxurious, polished elements.
One of her recent coups was a collaboration with Nike. She has also worked with brands such as Skims and Vans and has shown her work for several seasons at London Fashion Week, first under the support of Fashion East. For AW23, Ancuta Sarca teamed up with denim brand Lee to design bags, shoes and even clothes.
Founded in 2017 in Stockholm, Rave Review is one of the most established high-end upcycling brands worldwide. Creating treasure from trash, they have shown their work at Fashion Weeks in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Paris, and recently collaborated with Gucci. The Swedish designer duo is driven by a feminist mission to make women seen and heard through colourful, empowering clothes that allow their wearers to occupy space. Their ultimate signature piece, the blanket coat, is a perfect example of a powerful piece with broad shoulders that turns heads and is crafted with robust materials to serve as a shield.
By upcycling home textiles like plaid blankets and floral bedsheets, the designers Josephine Bergqvist and Livia Schück create powerful silhouettes that bring to mind Vivienne Westwood's designs or 90’s John Galliano collections. Their vision is to become the first high-end fashion brand with an entirely circular business model, using only recycled and recyclable materials. To source their materials, they mainly work with large recycling companies in Sweden.
Sydney Pimbley, a British upcycling designer based in London, graduated from Central Saint Martins BA in Fashion Design with Knitwear and received the LVMH Grand Prix Scholarship. Pimbley’s handmade designs are based on sustainability and authenticity, which have earned her a reputation for creating one-of-a-kind, delicate garments. The knitwear designer sources her fabrics from vintage markets and charity shops, but also from her Welsh grandmother, who she claims was the muse for her BA collection.
Before launching her slow fashion brand in 2019, Sydney honed her skills as an assistant to John Galliano in the couture studio of Maison Margiela, where she learned to appreciate the beauty of handcrafted garments and the attention to detail. Her Welsh roots have inspired her to use exceptional vintage fabrics that she enhances with layers of embroideries, pearls, or buttons, resulting in romantic, delicate ethical garments.
Swedish Designer Ellen Hodakova Larsson aims to create a utilitarian culture for conventional people, resulting in collections centred around a clean, minimalist colour palette with interesting materials and textures. For her recent “Conventional Collection 112303”, Hodakova upcycled belts, scraps of leather jackets, paper, silver spoons and even bras into dresses, providing them with a futuristic appeal, but still posing questions about the items’ past. She was able to show the collection in Paris through the support of the Swedish Fashion Council.
Hodakova claims she wants to tell stories through portraits of time which is why she enjoys working with durable, high-quality materials. By repurposing unusual resources like spoons or paper she breaks the boundaries of what can be seen as fashion. Just recently, the upcycling designer has repurposed emblematic Gucci belts into bags, tops and skirts for Gucci Vault.
The Copenhagen-based upcycling label (di)vision, founded by siblings Nanna and Simon Wick, is one of the more wearable, down-to-earth upcycling brands. The two siblings tell how they went into the industry with the naive desire to disrupt the fashion industry. They first became known for their split bomber, an oversized model-off-duty bomber jacket split in half and put together with zippers in the front and back. Recently, they went viral with their AW23 show “Dressed for Disaster” at Copenhagen Fashion Week where the model’s dress turned out to be the tablecloth that was dragged along when she stood up. A few weeks later, (di)vision announced a collaboration with Asics on upcycled sneakers.
Their aesthetic is highly inspired by workwear: patched denim jeans, thick flannel shirts, distressed leather jackets and trucker hats. All collections are unisex and often modelled by the siblings and their friends, adding to their inherently authentic, down-to-earth vibe. With their credo “Create from what already is”, the brand usually produces upcycled pieces from deadstock materials or military surplus in Italy.
With his eponymous London-based label, Conner Ives draws inspiration from his American heritage and transforms elements like denim or college shirts into gracefully feminine pieces. With his collections, the designer seeks to tell nostalgic tales of the women he grew up with, making the American effortlessness palpable and consumable. Vogue described him as a true fashion fanboy in an interview which authentically translates into his designs: Many items are hand sourced and carefully crafted into entirely new silhouettes, such as a Carrie-Bradshaw’esque midi dress with an asymmetrical hemline made from vintage silk scarves.
Conner Ives graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2020 and is already one of the most bespoke emerging designers showing at London Fashion Week. Initially, he did not even plan on launching his own label this early, but he did so because of hiring freezes in the fashion industry as part of the pandemic’s aftermath. Now, his designs are available at some of the biggest fashion retailers worldwide.
Clothing as physical and spiritual armour has been an ongoing interest for the designers Serhat Isik and Benjamin Alexander Huseby of Berlin-based brand GmbH. The two met on a dancefloor and quickly bonded over their experience as children of immigrants. Inspired by Berlin’s techno community and diverse street culture, the two designers include workwear and club references in their organic, recycled, upcycled or deadstock pieces. Drawing from their own multicultural origins, the founders often raise political issues. Their garments range from Ottoman soldier’s undergarments from the sixteenth century to tight tank tops inspired by queer club culture and shiny pants with two zippers, one of their signature pieces.
Combining political awareness with sustainable production is what made them so successful. In 2017, GmbH was shortlisted for the LVMH Award. Later, from 2021 until February 2023, the two designers were appointed creative directors to the Italian fashion brand Trussardi while continuing their work for GmbH. Now, they can concentrate solely on their own label again.
Each of these designers is making a difference in the fashion world, and their work is inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. Upcycling is not just a trend but a movement that challenges us all to rethink our relationship with clothes and their impact on the environment. By supporting small upcycling designers you contribute to combatting fashion waste and learning that fashion is not a throw-away product.
What inspires Hannah:
Interview with Garbage Core’s Giuditta Tanzi for 1Granary about the importance of supporting independent designers
Video that offers a peek behind the scenes at Conner Ives’ London atelier
Track by Mall Grab to listen to while reading this article