Upsides of Upcycling: ‘It Is a Creative Process’

Arthur Zaczkiewicz
·9 min read

Upcycling is sustainable, fashionable, and it has the potential to be scaleable, noted speakers during a Fashion Group International webinar last week on the topic, who also described the practice as a creative endeavor that is supported by a strong narrative and is increasingly accessible to consumers.

The session, “Sustainability Now: Upcycling,” featured Greg Lauren, designer of Greg Lauren; Kelsey Randall, designer of Kelsey Randall, and Gabriella Smith, founder of the Upcycle Project.

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“Upcycling is a transformative art built on creativity and mindful intention,” said Maryanne Grisz, president and chief executive officer of Fashion Group International, adding that she was grateful for the panelists sharing their perspectives and insights.

A creative process

When asked what upcycling means to them, Lauren and Randall described it as the creative process of transforming materials and garments into something new.

“The exciting part about upcycling is to be able to transform something that has been discarded, or that might be thrown away, or that has been forgotten, into something beautiful and new,” Lauren said. “The definition of upcycling is taking something, taking waste and turning it into something with a perceived value — and giving it a second life. And my entire first collection was built on the idea of upcycling and this idea of transformation.”

Founded in 2011, Greg Lauren is described by the company as “an artisanal apparel brand” and is located in the Arts District of downtown Los Angeles. Lauren’s earlier works were born from surplus military gear. Lauren said he “started climbing on this giant pile of duffel bags and I saw the most beautiful fabrics, the most beautiful details that were literally collecting dust.”

“And I thought to myself, this is what excites me. And at the time, those kinds of materials were not being used yet. I didn’t know if this pile was destined for a landfill or going to be thrown away,” he said. “But to me, I literally stumbled on a gold mine and built my entire first collection of tailored pieces out of these very functional unglamorous pieces that belonged to our soldiers.”

Lauren said the process begins with creativity, “and I know that for my fellow panelists, it’s all about the creativity and trying to approach it as creatively as possible — but then being as sustainably minded as possible.”

For Randall, who describes her brand as “a Bob Mackie for a new generation producing one of a kind and made-to-order pieces for rock stars and fashion devotees alike,” upcycling began with seeing potential in existing material and reimagining it into something new.

“The first thing I ever made was a skirt out of my grandfather’s ties,” Randall said. “And I remember making skirts out of my [My] Little Pony baby blanket. I just immediately started making things from what we had around the house. As designers, we love to be storytellers, we love to have a backstory with the garments. And with upcycling, you have this built-in backstory that you can work with.”

Randall continues to repurpose existing fabrics for her collections, and to build narratives around her designs. “In my most recent collection, I used old bedsheets from the 1960s and 1970s, which felt really appropriate for this quarantine time,” she said.

Raising awareness

As founder of the Upcycle Project, Smith “has made it her goal to raise awareness on the waste the fashion industry generates by creating disruptive events and products,” she states in her biography. During the webinar, Smith described the Upcycle Project as a “platform that raises awareness on the waste that the fashion industry creates. We do everything from workshops with students to mentorship. We now have a 100 percent recycled materials T-shirt line, and we collaborate with a lot of different fashion platforms to give that stock fabric second lives.”

Smith shared the career path that led to founding the project. She had a background in the food industry, and went to business school, and then worked in the beauty industry, “managing luxury beauty brands for the entire region of the Americas for a long time, and I loved it.” But things changed when she became a mother, and so did her priorities.

“I started really focusing on what I really loved,” Smith said. “I grew up in the food industry and very closely saw how the food industry changed from conventional into organic, and I wanted to know why fashion wasn’t there. I wanted to create the Whole Foods of fashion per se. A place where you could go and buy organic T-shirts and things that you knew were [sustainably] transparent, just like what you did with food.”

That degree of passion and following what one loves was also evident in the origin stories of Lauren and Randall. For Lauren, the impetus of offering upcycled collections “was really born out of my work as an artist.”

“And the reason why that’s so important is my creative approach and the use of upcycling began with this idea of repurposing image and repurposing archetypes,” Lauren said. “I felt it was time to deconstruct and examine what were the classic archetypes in fashion at the time.”

Lauren said it was also “magical” to make fashion apparel out of a forgotten and discarded uniform, which reflects a certain archetype. “Collection after collection, it was important to me to deconstruct these archetypes,” he said.

Scraps of treasure

There was also a love for the material itself. “I couldn’t let go of the scraps from these pieces because, artistically, I was in love with every scrap as an artist,” Lauren said. “We’d cut these tents up, I’d say, ‘No, no, no, don’t throw that away. That’s going to make an incredible pocket flap, or a collar.’ I literally called our scraps treasures. And I’d say, ‘Let me see the box of treasures. Let’s go, let’s look through them.’ And they were scraps, some too small to use; I would pull them out of a wastebasket at our studio because I just felt connected to them.”

But having a connection to the material and a creative process is not enough, Lauren acknowledged. “The responsibility part comes in actually creating a system around [the upcycling process]. You have to have a team, and you have to have a like-minded team that believes in it. And we do, and through trial and error and a lot of not cost-effective measures, we’ve created what we call ‘scrap work,’ which is a very common practice, but for us it’s patchworking all of our scraps together to make yardage from our waste,” he said.

For Smith, there is also a clear admiration for the material. “I love piles of scrap material,” Smith said. “They truly are treasures. Looking at trash and thinking that it’s treasure makes us more resourceful. And honestly, we have enough trash, or waste, in the world to make everything that we need.”

“Not everything is going to be upcycled beautifully as [Randall] and [Lauren] do it into couture pieces, but all of those scraps could go back into yarn — and that’s where we upcycle,” Smith said. “The T-shirt that I’m wearing right now, it’s 100 percent recycled cotton and 100 percent recycled polyester. Why? Because the technology’s there to be able to recycle those scraps.”

Lauren then noted that upcycling is “not exclusively turning something into something else.” There are other dimensions to the approach that should be considered. “Sometimes it’s in the process, where we use vintage textiles, or deadstock textiles, or old textiles that you see on a shelf and you think, ‘Wow, I’m seeing a whole new way,’ four or five seasons later.”

Simultaneously, Lauren said there needs to be ongoing research and sharing within the upcycling community, “where we’re following each other’s lead and then maintaining our own voice,” he added.

Where do you start?

For anyone looking to start an upcycling business, Lauren said “it’s not going to be easy at first because it is more expensive, it’s more time-consuming. But with the willingness and the right team around you, even your own, even if you’re just making something at home, that’s where it starts. I think the responsibility as a designer, as a brand, is to look at it as a way of life, as a variation on the concept of a lifestyle.”

Lauren said prices are based on materials and labor, “so the tricky part is the price, and we have to make adjustments.” With Lauren’s early work with vintage duffel bags, he said the cost of the bags and surplus canvas tents was higher than just buying new canvas by the yard.

“And then there’s the work that goes into deconstructing those, and it’s harder to sew them,” he said. “It’s worth it if, over time, we perfect the process and actually are able to bring the costs down. More importantly, I would say, we’ve created new positions [at the company] as a result of it. We have a team of people now whose job is vintage prep and deconstruction. So there are new skill sets that will support this movement, I think, and that’s exciting.”

Randall said for brands to get involved in upcycling, they should ask, “How can I work with what I already have?”

“It’s great to go out and source vintage products to work from, but plenty of brands have stuff sitting around in-house that they can start the upcycling process from there,” she said.

Smith said the first step for a brand or designer to start upcycling is to “find something, a single piece. If your vision for upcycling is taking a garment or an object and transforming it, first allow yourself that creative process. If you have something that you want to breathe a new life into, then literally just start.”

“Yes, the most sustainable garment is the one that’s already in your wardrobe,” Randall said. “Just starting with something that you already have, and maybe you like it, but it’s not quite right. Just think about how you can rework it.”

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