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Past Meets Future: Discovering the Upside of Upcycling Denim

Whether it’s a mindset forced by financial restraints, genuine concern for the environment or the result of spending long stretches of time indoors revaluating possessions, brands and retailers are anticipating a post-pandemic consumer who will want to shop less and shop smarter. 

“The new normal is really thinking about what one wants and what one really needs,” said Mitchell Kass, owner and creative director of Trend Council, an online trend forecasting company. “It also is going to make us look much deeper into social responsibility and consumption.”

This new mindset is an opportunity for denim designers to tee up upcycled denim as a rags-to-riches story. Denim, after all, is often an entry point for designers interested in upcycled fashion. 

Eco and socially responsible production processes, cruelty-free garments and circular design are “the ingredients” in fashion’s future, said Fabrizio Consoli, founder of upcycled denim brand Blue Of A Kind. 

The popularity of upcycled denim, Consoli says, speaks to the durable and democratic nature of the fabric, not to mention heaps of jeans that exist. With jeans being part of mainstream culture since the 1950s, the quantity of old jeans made with more or less the same ingredients (cotton and indigo) may be as high as 5 billion pairs, Consoli said. And because of this consistency, he said, brands are allowed to think about small-scale manufacturing as opposed to one-off upcycled products. 

At Blue Of A Kind, sourcing garments is just another part of the creative process, alongside design. Since the women’s brand does not use any kind of industrial washing, attention is paid to unwanted jeans that already have an interesting look and feel. It is only then, Consoli said, when the focus shifts to how the garments can be reimagined into completely new products. 

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Upcycled fashion is also finding a home on the runway. A May 2020 report from fashion search engine Tagwalk reported that fully sustainable and upcycled looks were featured about 100 percent more often in F/W 20-21 collections than they were in F/W19-20 collections. 

Jean Paul Gaultier was among the designers who turned to upcycling. The designer closed out his 50-year career with a farewell collection that used archival materials from previous collections. The majority of fabrics used in Maison Margiela’s show were reclaimed. Likewise, Viktor & Rolf pivoted to using upcycled materials for its entire F/W 20-21 collection. And of these eco-conscious looks, Tagwalk reported that one of the most commonly featured materials was sustainable or upcycled denim, which made up 5 percent of the responsibly made items in F/W 20-21 collections.

Though it’s making headway on the runway now, upcycled denim began to filter into fashion as early as 2016, Kass said, when craft-minded Etsy and reseller Poshmark became a bigger part of the retail conversation. “Etsy sellers upcycled for you, launching ideas and trends that resonated on social media platforms like Pinterest and Instagram,” he explained. Meanwhile, Poshmark became a marketplace for DIYers to buy existing apparel and accessories to do their own mashup, one of a kind creations.

Months-long shelter-in-place orders around the world have led consumers to shop their closets and try their hands at re-fashioning their fashion. Searches for denim customization tips skyrocketed within the first few months of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping the world. According to data pulled from influencer marketing technology platform Traackr between January and April, influencer posts about DIY denim increased by 125 percent, with a 186 percent increase in engagement.

Pinterest searches also saw an uptick in fashion-related crafts. The two-week period between March 16 and March 29—around the same time that U.S. lockdown orders started taking effect—saw a 599 percent spike in jeans embroidery searches and a 154 percent spike in closet organization searches compared to the same searches two weeks prior.

And just as Gen Z has been the cohort to embrace upcycling as a hobby, Kass believes the group will be the most impactful in bringing upcycling forward. “This generation has just learned how to sew masks and bake bread,” Kass said. “They never experienced the ’80s thrift store thrill and they are the generation most seeded in saving the planet, as it will be theirs longer than any current generation. Less consumption equals more creative upcycling.”

“I would not underestimate that denim has represented, for decades, the uniform of youth at every latitude,” Consoli added. “Acts of rebellion and disobedience have always been performed in jeans, and what is upcycling after all, if not a statement of rebellion towards the way fashion operates?”

Designers Greg Lauren, Blue Of A Kind and more are elevating discarded denim into premium upcycled garments with a unique back story.
Blue Of A Kind

Gen Z retailers, like Urban Outfitters, certainly see the pendulum swinging. The retailer’s Urban Renewal initiative repurposes and reinvents sustainably-sourced vintage pieces. Garments—which are often one-of-a-kind—are either sold in their original state, fashioned out of deadstock materials, or remade into pieces that resonate with the current style. The line spans overdyed vintage Levi’s 501 jeans and tie-dye tees, to patchwork denim throw pillows, and is sold in dedicated areas adjacent to Urban Outfitter’s brand new products—a merchandising strategy that mimics Gen Z’s own piecemeal approach to dressing.  

The designers showing upcycled denim on the runway, however, are not Gen Z.

While the sustainable benefits of using what already exists is clear, Kass says upcycled denim may be another veiled attempt to encourage consumption, especially when the brand does not carry a sustainable ethos across its entire manufacturing process. “For many designers it is a fashion move as the very model of retail is produce, sell, repeat,” he said. “Especially pre-COVID-19 where our retail landscape was flooded with fast disposable fashion, particularly in the junior market.”

And on the opposite end of the price spectrum, Kass sees established fashion houses adopting upcycling as a strategic move to stay relevant. As luxury brands lose their older loyalists, Kass said they are struggling to find market share in a younger generation. “Many are grabbing more avant-garde designers to shake up the label into a new vision and grabbing upcycling techniques to look current,” he said. 

LVMH-owned Givenchy nabbed headlines for a S/S 20 collection dense with upcycled denim garments, including Bermuda shorts, bleached cutoffs, distressed jeans and a two-tone coat dress. The pieces were paired with silk blazers and blouses—a juxtaposition that then-Givenchy artistic director Clare Waight Keller said was a reflection of fashion in the ’90s when she began her career at Calvin Klein. During her trans-Atlantic travel, she saw women in New York dress relaxed and casual; in Paris excess and luxury were still en mode. 

While Givenchy was lauded for the visually-compelling and wearable approach to sustainable denim, the luxury house retreated to its wheelhouse of strong shoulder suiting and red carpet looks for F/W ’20.

U.K.-based designer Matty Bovan sourced donated garments from heritage Italian brand Fiorucci to upcycle into new denim pieces for F/W 20-21. In Bovan’s case, however, the deconstructed Swarovski crystal-covered denim garments fit into the young designer’s collage-like aesthetic and small scale production. 

The most recognized designer specifically creating upcycled denim, Kass noted, may be Lutz Huelle, the German-born, Paris-based designer who has made repurposed denim outerwear a signature in his eponymous women’s collection. Though Huelle has introduced softer fabrics like metallic lame and dotted mesh into his work, upcycled denim continues to punctuate his collections for 2020. Items like gabardine trench coats spliced together with a jean Trucker jacket and a belted denim vest with a Victorian-esque collar made from black tulle, have become some of the plays on duality that fashion and denim watchers have come to expect from the designer. 

Huelle, for one, believes he has only scratched the surface of what’s possible with denim. “Denim is one of those basic, everyday wardrobe materials,” he said. “I love how universal and iconic it is, and because it’s so iconic, it’s easy to push it in different directions, reinvent it and rework it in different ways.” 

That same appreciation for denim runs through designer Greg Lauren’s blood. The Los Angeles designer based his eponymous label on upcycling military and denim garments into pieces that offer a fresh new vision for American men’s wear. 

Lauren, the nephew of Ralph Lauren, grew up around vintage clothing. “I was taught at a young age how beautiful a piece of clothing’s patina was, how different fabrics age and what that meant,” he said. But he grew conflicted about how a garment’s history, and the story of the original wearer, could be purchased.

“I started to feel like, wait a minute, so I’ve earned this garment because I woke up early and got to the Rose Bowl before anyone else to find the perfect piece, so that I could feel like I actually experienced the stories that that piece was so rich with and so full of,” he said. 

Designers Greg Lauren, Blue Of A Kind and more are elevating discarded denim into premium upcycled garments with a unique back story.
Greg Lauren Courtesy

That feeling led Lauren to explore how existing fashion can help tell new stories, starting with a suit made from deconstructed vintage duffel bags. “I was not thinking about efficiency. I was an artist trying to explore this idea of who we are and who we want to be and who we should be,” he said. “What I didn’t realize [was] that those ideas were actually very much in alignment with upcycling and sustainability.”

Nearly a decade later, Lauren hasn’t turned back, and upcycled denim remains a stronghold in his collections. “Faded denim is such a part of our collective consciousness that upcycled denim will always have a home in the fashion world because it’s the one fabric that we always want used and soft and worn,” he said. “It’s one of the great contradictions of denim. We want it to look like we’ve had it for 10 years, whether we do the work or not.”

Just as exhaustive, he pointed out, is designing upcycled garments. “Upcycling is completely antithetical to scaling,” Lauren said. Though he describes it as a “joyous” process, he said upcycling requires manpower and it takes people wanting to do it, starting with the owner of the company.

The biggest challenge, he added, is replicating samples. “Once you have the vision, then you have to deconstruct it, you have to respect it, you have to take it apart in order to rebuild something,” Lauren explained. “What we’ve learned through trial and error is how to bring an operational approach to the artisanal production of pieces that use repurposed fabrics that are all different. They may have a similar anatomy but, like fingerprints, are all unique.”

It’s a process that his team has nailed down, resulting in a high-profile collaboration with streetwear purveyor Kith in 2019 and more recently, the F/W 20-21 launch of GL Scraps, an initiative that began when Lauren realized he and his team needed to use a growing accumulation of scraps from production, not just store them. Local quilters are now turning scrap materials like vintage U.S. army tents into yardage that Lauren then repurposes in new garments, including a three-piece suit.

Repurposed military garments are in the cards for Blue Of A Kind, too, as the brand is working to extend its upcycling process to different materials and categories. “Denim and military apparel are hands down the two winners in upcycling,” Consoli said. 

The transition toward a fully responsible fashion industry, however, is a longer process. But upcycling will remain one tool in the designer toolbox to produce more sustainably. 

“I believe at the moment ‘sustainability,’ it is on the lips of many but in the collections of few,” Consoli said. “The direction is right, but we are not quite there yet.” On the other hand, he said the audience is now going from curious to interested. “Undoubtedly, seeing upcycled garment on catwalks will significantly help accelerate a process, which, in my opinion, is now simply unstoppable,” he said.  

Lauren expects the walls built around sustainability to come down as more designers showcase how upcycled and sustainable fashion can be executed in beautiful and desirable ways. “We’ve been able to create pieces that still appeal to those who love fashion and who are excited by fashion and want pieces they can covet,” he said. 

Upcycled fashion, he added, doesn’t have to be strange or made with fabrics that don’t work together. “It can be incredibly cool, aesthetically innovative,” Lauren said. “It can do what fashion should do—be a reflection of the times.” 

This article appears in Rivet’s new report “New Wave: Alternative Solutions for a More Sustainable Denim Industry. Click here to download the report.