Labels Like Collina Strada and Ahluwalia Have Always Upcycled. Now, the Big Guys Are Too.

Chloe Foussianes
·4 min read
Photo credit: PHOTO COLLAGE BY MARTIN VALLIN
Photo credit: PHOTO COLLAGE BY MARTIN VALLIN

From Town & Country

The New York designer Hillary Taymour is something of a fashion rebel. Instead of following the industry norm and enticing fans to buy the latest from her label, Collina Strada, she teaches them the techniques necessary to imitate her trippy tie-dyes on their own, or alter them to their liking, should they so choose. “You don’t necessarily have to buy the brand to feel like you’re wearing the brand,” she tells T&C. “You can just re-dye my shirts, draw on your jeans, or make a face mask with one of my patterns.”

Hers is an open source approach to clothesmaking that until recently was strictly the realm of DIY evangelists at e-commerce players like Etsy and among students at Parsons or L.A.’s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, Taymour’s alma mater. Then the pandemic happened, and suddenly designers like her are no longer a party of one. They are members of a growing sorority that privileges sustainability over trendiness, ethics over exclusivity—and the major leagues are starting to pay attention, firmly pushing upcycling into luxury’s mainstream.

“With their supply chains interrupted, brands realized, Oh, we’ve got a lot of fabrics, we’ve got a lot of clothes, we’ve got a lot of implements already,” says Orsola de Castro, author of the new book Loved Clothes Last.

Last June, when Chanel’s factories reopened, creative director Virginie Viard put together a resort collection using leftover but-tons and thread, and yarns that they had in stock. Around then, Burberry, which had come under fire for burning unsold merchandise, launched the ReBurberry Edit of sustainable pieces from its spring/summer 2020 collection. In October, Prada, which had introduced its Re-Nylon bags a year earlier, launched a collection of ready-to-wear and accessories that used recycled nylon yarn, and two months later the house rolled out 80 reworked vintage looks under the label Upcycled by Miu Miu. Gabriela Hearst, recently named creative director at Chloé, intends to stop using “virgin materials” at her namesake label by 2022.

Upcycling has even taken hold in haute couture. In January the Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren turned up the volume with an “Haute Fantaisie” rave that revitalized old dresses, fabrics, and surplus materials.

The high priest of circular fashion, as this practice has come to be called, is Martin Margiela, who scavenged flea markets from his earliest days. In 1994 he recreated decades-old pieces down to the stitch with a collection that was eventually called Replica. Always ahead of the curve, his successor, John Galliano, started riffing on this concept in February 2020 with a line named Recicla that metamorphoses found garments of varying sources and periods, not all necessarily from the brand’s archive. Each limited edition piece carries a label disclosing its period and provenance. Call them Second Haute Roses.

Photo credit: Courtesy Viktor & Rolf
Photo credit: Courtesy Viktor & Rolf

The renaissance of redux fashion, vintage, and DIY design coincides with a cultural wave that puts a premium on sustainable shopping. Even Elon Musk is trawling Etsy these days. When the Tesla entrepreneur tweeted in January that he had “bought a hand-knit wool Marvin the Martian” helmet for his dog, shares of the e-tailer platform took off. But that was after the publicly traded company had already enjoyed a 300 percent rally over the course of the last year, as more shoppers turned to it as a way to support small businesses and procure materials to become makers themselves. (A year ago Etsy sold $12 million in fabric face masks in a single month; it is currently valued at around $29 billion.)

“Brands have realized that in order to attract younger audiences that are increasingly more concerned with the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry, they must begin to incorporate some of these values into their business strategy,” says the stylist Rachael Wang.

For young designers, championing a collage aesthetic is as much a stylistic choice as it is an ethical imperative. In London, for instance, Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena rode their one-of-a-kind dresses assembled from unwanted traditional fabrics from Bulgaria (Chopova’s home country), trinkets, and fastenings found on Etsy and eBay to a coveted LVMH Prize last year.

Another prize winner, Priya Ahluwalia, draws on her Indian-Nigerian heritage to inform her patchwork garments, which are made of largely vintage and deadstock materials. And Raffaella Hanley makes homespun pastiches using clothes culled from the Salvation Army for her label, Lou Dallas by Raffaella. It’s not that what’s old is new; it’s that what new means is evolving.

“Fashion is a reflection of the time, so it’s always going to be changing,” Hanley says.

For her part, Taymour has figured out a clever way of inviting fans to buy into her eco-conscious journey. “If you give anyone advice, it needs to be in a very authentic way, where they will have FOMO if they don’t do it,”she says. She adds with a laugh, “And if you don’t, then you’re just a jerk.”

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