Was Scarlett O’Hara one of the first upcyclers? “I just saw this in the window and couldn’t resist,” Carol Burnett famously deadpanned in a skit as she pranced around in those iconic green velvet drapes, curtain rod exposed at her shoulders. These are the thoughts I’m having after yesterday’s FGI Zoom treat “Sustainability Now: Upcycling” featuring Designers Greg Lauren and Kelsey Randall; Gabriella Smith, Founder of The Upcycle Project with moderator Arthur Zaczkiewicz, Executive Editor, WWD/Fairchild Studio.
Yes, everyone is jumping on the sustainability bandwagon (duh Earth Month), but this event had the (ahem) “goods.” Zackiewicz introduced the “upcycling pioneers” defining up cycling as a “more sophisticated sibling of recycling;” repurposing, transforming, and giving an item a second life.
On how the panelists broke into upcycling:
Ralph’s nephew Greg Lauren may have fashion in his blood – he was bit by the upcycling bug as an 11-year-old artist. “I bought these vintage army pants at a secondhand store which I wore until they had holes in them and didn’t fit me anymore. I turned them into a bag,” explained Lauren. Transforming things that might have been thrown away launched him into his first collection of tailored pieces. “A vintage source of mine had a scary pile of old army duffel bags, soldier’s backpacks, and tents. They had these beautiful details in the fabrics. It all begins with creativity – I try to create at the most innovative level but in a sustainable way.”
Demi-Couturier Kelsey Randall recalls making a skirt out of her grandfather’s ties and using her “My Little Pony” blanket for another garment. During the pandemic, she used old bedsheets from the ’60s and ’70s as fabric as she embraced the timely idea of “ripping the sheets off the bed to make a fabulous dress.”
Gabriella Smith began with a pile of uncollected clothing from a dry cleaner’s $1 rack. “After one year, he said he can do whatever he wants with it; however, it was taking up valuable real estate in his shop,” said Smith. Her idea was to donate the pieces to a design school, “giving more value to something that was considered waste.”
On career paths:
“My career path involved a lot of zig-zagging,” detailed Smith, who traveled in her corporate business career too much as a young mother. “I noticed that the food industry was changing to organic – I wanted to create a Whole Foods of fashion – seven years ago sustainability didn’t exist.”
Randall was a 2009 graduate of Parsons discovered that organic cotton (the only recycling then available) was too expensive and actually was no savior with a greater carbon footprint than regular cotton (she recommends you watch “The True Cost” film detailing the waste in the fashion industry). By 2014-15 she was building the foundation to launch her company. “I cut down on samples and only did two collections a year made-to-order, so nothing would go to waste. By 2016 she had a vision – “The world doesn’t need another leather jacket – I can go to the thrift store and modify a jacket – make it one-of-a-kind.” It became the “backbone of the work I do. I make chainmail out of old keys that Ace Hardware throws out. I’m not relying on virgin materials.”
Lauren’s collection was “born out of work as an artist repurposing archetypes. Deconstructing is where the magic happens to create a business suit out of another type of (perhaps military) uniform.” Lauren finds that “scraps are treasures. Every scrap gets used until its stitchwork.” He will also try to find his own fabric if it was overbought and reuse it as well as vintage, deadstock and old textiles as it is his “responsibility as a designer.”
“I love the pile of scraps – they truly are treasures,” chimed in Smith. “Not everything is going to be upcycled into beautiful pieces – it can be recycled into a t-shirt.” Her t-shirt incidentally read “Don’t Be Trashy” – undoubtedly a part of her “diverted cotton and water bottles from the landfill” textile. “We don’t need to use virgin textiles – we need to take the resources that we have.”
Randall, who has two lines – a luxury fashion line sold to celebrities (Lizzo was photographed in one of her “faux fur bikinis”) and a diffusion line labeled Georgia by Kelsey Randall, mixes some new fabrics with deadstock and even scraps from her own past season lines. Happily, she admits that those “leftovers” fit (appropriately) in a few Tupperware containers. Some of her old sample pieces are given to artists to draw or paint on creating a limited edition launch artist’s collection. “How can I work on what I already have?”
All three panelists mention that deconstructing is where the price and skill level is raised. Lauren’s prices are based on materials and labor, pointing out that artisanally made pieces require a new skill set that goes into deconstructing rather than just working with canvas. His direct-to-consumer model eliminates the middle man allowing him to keep some costs down.
Scale-ability is another hot button. “There’s not technology to turn everything into new yarn,” explains Smith. “Post-industrial waste is easier since the yarn is the same color (from hospitality and uniform industry), but post-consumer waste is more challenging.” Here, deconstruction is where price gets driven up. ‘The private sector needs to fund us for cutting buttons and zippers off,” she adds.
Feeling inspired? You too can start upcycling – here’s how:
“Find a single piece to breathe a new life into. Be willing to make mistakes – tear it apart, make a mess and start creating,” advises Lauren. “If you don’t sew, go to a fabric store and get Velcro, glue, and scissors. Use your creative voice – you have to be you – not anyone else. The first time someone says, ‘Can you make me one?’ you’re in business. Be patient! Learn the process from others and enjoy!”
Randall’s advice is to “start from what you already have and go from there. Rework something from your own wardrobe. I took my grandmother’s mink stole and made it into a vest because I would wear that. It sure beats what designers like Burberry do burning their old stock or what H&M does dumping stock on Third World countries. Make something fit that maybe doesn’t or make it cool.”
Final words from the panelists?
“One person can’t do everything, but everyone can do something.” – Gabrielle Smith.
“You already have something you can start with. Look within.” – Kelsey Randall
“Create your artistic process. Nothing is more important than telling your story. Look at something and be willing to see it as something else. Have fun!” – Greg Lauren