Three fashion brands on the benefits and challenges with upcycling
An examination of the fashion industry's relationship with upcycling, and the potential of scaling up such production. For the first part of two, this survey turned to three Scandinavian designers and brands.
By AYLIN FRANZON
November 23, 2023
The fashion industry is facing some taxing numbers. An estimated 30% of all produced fabrics doesn’t make it to point of sale, leading to 92 million tons of textiles being discarded on an annual basis. All the while, ever increasing demands (150% by 2050, Axfoundation predicts) for more textiles and fibres are feeding these already staggering numbers even further.
What these numbers show is that there is an immediate need for the industry to reprogram its relationship with materials. The efforts for such a change to be made possible are many, with one being the process of upcycling. The practice has long been limited to the idea of a creative way for the hobby sewer to reinvent a garment, but with a growing consciousness for circularity within the industry, upcycling could be a key to enable the change that the industry so desperately needs.
Scandinavian MIND turned to three founders of brands who’ve all implemented upcycling in their practices, to hear how they work with it and the future of the method on the field of fashion.
Renate Nipe’s desire to offer women a more conscious and relaxed textile alternative to fast fashion led her to launch the brand ILAG in 2020. To source additional material, Renate relies on thorough communication with the merchandisers of the factories that she works with.
— ILAG was the first clothing brand for women to receive financing from Innovation Norway due to our clothing deposit system, Nipe says. The system gives customers a discount when they give back a used ILAG garment. Said garment is then upcycled and resold on our website, extending the lifetime of an item while also making circular consumption a palatable concept for the everyday consumer.
When Felix von Bahder first set off on the upcycling journey for his brand Deadwood, he and co-founder Carl Ollson used to cut up and rework old leather jackets, bought from markets in Bangkok.
— That kind of production was fun, but also dirty, sometimes smelly and the results were often pretty uneven, he says, highlighting some of the complexities of the practice.
The journey for the brand has seen many successes and with its growth, the production and sourcing have grown along with it. The team has also reworked its processes to focus on production waste.
— Our sourcing varies depending on the material. With leather, we reach out factories and tanneries to buy offcuts, discarded skins, and overstock. It’s time-consuming, but seeing 30-40% of leather goes to waste after its tanned and cut, it feels like the only sane thing to do. In addition to this, the majority of our woven fabrics are deadstock from an array of fashion houses in France and Italy.
With his grunge tinged brand ARV®, Maikel Tawadros sought to create a sustainable brand that contrasted the neutral aesthetics he often found in other brands with a similar ethos. Carrying a mindful approach, the production of his collections by taking on fabrics and trims as circularly as possible. Similarly to ILAG’s sourcing process, Tawadros has developed a trusted exchange with suppliers located in Denmark and Portugal, securing a consistency of deadstock fabrics to be part of his collections.
— I also buy vintage jeans in bulk for the upcycled styles where denim plays a big part.
What is the scale of your upcycling production today?
— It increases every season, ILAG’s Renate Nipe says. Especially our autumn collections, where we develop new garments from previous seasons.
The Deadwood co-founder emphasizes the big role that up- and recycling plays within the brand, with the help of some major numbers.
— Around 80% of the 10,000 garments that we produce annually are made of either upcycled materials or recycled fibres.
In Maikel Tawadros’ case, upcycling garments takes on an exclusive role in his collections. Instead, making use of deadstock materials, weighing it as a more efficient way to work circularly.
— My upcycling of old clothing, such as the vintage denim, usually extends to the showpieces in my collections. While made to order styles are still available for purchase, producing a full collection wouldn’t be without its difficulties. The process of unstitching all of the jeans, laying them out and then cutting out fabric that could possibly be used is highly time-consuming and expensive. Deadstock fabrics are in contrast easier to make use of, because of the fact that you can actually find and source them from suppliers.
Time consumption, a general lack of systematisation for sourcing, and high expenses echo clearly amongst the three as challenging factors to their upcycling ambitions.
Felix von Bahder adds the immense work of communicating the process of upcycling to consumers as the biggest challenge for the circular practice.
— Upcycling will almost inevitably result in quirks and irregularities within a garment or a range of products. We embrace these qualities as they add soul to the garment. Our job is to compel buyers and customers with our story so that they see the same magic that we are seeing.
Renate Nipe acknowledges limitations concerning the upcycled production due to one prominent factor: The time it takes.
Is there a limit to your production using upcycling materials at this current time?
— As ILAG and our team are still small, our priorities have to be strict, she explains. Especially in regards to our decisions on whether and what we are going to upcycle or not.
— In a perfect world there wouldn’t be any discarded materials, says von Bahder. But we have to face the fact that there is more than enough to go around, and there will continue to be if we don’t do anything about it.
ARV® founder, Maikel Tawadros stresses costs and time as components that dictate the extension to which he can implement upcycling.
— It takes a lot of investments in all aspects to find a supplier, proficient in finding actual upcycled fabrics that can be used in production. If there were systems in place that made processes like this, cheaper and more accessible, then it would be easier to scale up production.
”If there were systems in place that made processes like this, cheaper and more accessible, then it would be easier to scale up production”
How much of the fashion industry do you think could be made up of upcycling practices?
— I don’t doubt that there’s potential for upcycling on scale in the industry, Nipe says. But it will take time and effort before the consumer will understand the value of upcycling and is willing to spend more money on it. The fashion industry has many creative and wise minds who together can make a change, and that change has already begun.
— I’ve had the chance to follow the lifecycle of clothes pretty closely, von Bahder explains. I’ve visited countless garment factories and seen the pyres in their backyards. The numbers on material waste go to show you that there’s a lot that could be upcycled.
— We are only scratching the surface when it comes to upcycling, he continues. For once, environmental goals and financial incentives actually align. Being mindful of material consumptionand finding productive use for residual materials — this is what being economical is about.
— I would like to see more of the global, big brands working to have methods such as upcycling, be a more commercialised practice, Tawadros states. They have the funds to take it to the next level, and by developing it and making it well-known, they would also make it easier for smaller brands and designers to make use of the practice.
How has the consumers’ view on upcycling changed?
— Yes, without a doubt — and that makes me think of how I could work to make my products better, to be a part of this change, says Nipe.
— When we started out more than a decade ago I don’t think upcycling was even a word, says von Bahder. Now that has obviously changed completely. I feel like fashion has gone in a direction where quirky, romantic, and rustic are qualities that are celebrated, which allows for upcycled clothes to take centre stage.
— I feel that more people have become aware of upcycling, but the people who buy are still quite limited. The price tag is usually higher compared to regular products, because of the work that goes in, Tawadros shares.
What’s your view on the future of upcycling?
— People want garments that are made in a responsible and ethical way, it’s a sign of the times, and upcycling is a way of making something good even better, Nipe shares.
— Deadwood’s DNA is made up of upcycling, so I have a hard time seeing a future where we would do it differently say von Bahder. Going forward I see fashion brands being more mindful of their waste. Technology is enabling suppliers that sit with waste materials or overstock to connect with potential buyers in a smooth way. We’re seeing a bunch of new online platforms allows you to buy deadstock fabrics directly from the mills. I feel the future of upcycling as a practice is extremely bright. And I am determined for us to help accelerate that change.
— I truly believe that it will be a common concept in the consumers’ mindset. The work to make that happen will go on for years, and it’s a constant effort. I hope that my contribution will help to make a difference towards that change, Tawadros concludes.
Featured image courtesy of: Deadwood, photo by Hedvig Moberg, Arv® and ILAG.