LONDON — Having witnessed the amount of waste that fashion has spawned over the years, many up-and-coming designers have developed a natural instinct for upcycling, looking to charity shops, landfills — and even the natural world — to source materials for their collections.
Among them are Kevin Germanier, whose glamorous, sequined creations are made using beads found in Hong Kong landfills; Conner Ives, who produced two successful capsules for Browns by sourcing vintage T-shirts at charity shops; Ingy Stockholm whose oversize earrings are made out of dead wood; and Hôtel Vetements, which turns old hotel fabrics into garments.
Still a nascent concept in design circles, upcyling can prevent designers from scaling their collections and keeping up with the production demands of major retailers, resigning them to forever be niche labels.
Sourcing itself is one of the first major obstacles, but these young designers are seeing opportunity in limitations, too.
Hôtel Vetements designer Alexandra Hartman started her business by calling Parisian hotels and asking for their old fabrics. But finding the right ones took a lot of time and effort. “The hardest part is the sourcing. My requests weren’t always very well received and it takes time to find the diamonds in the rubble. Luckily, I’m a real textile geek: I go to auctions and reach out to my network all around France. I look for old curtains, sheets, home linens, cloths, embroidered handkerchiefs,” said Harman, adding that one of her greatest finds was a pair of embroidered silk curtains that belonged to the Ritz.
Designers have also been building communities with those who share their values, which is helping them overcome their sourcing challenges: “It’s very 2018. People reach out on Instagram, saying ‘I have 10 meters of black organza, do you want it?’” said Germanier, explaining that this type of limitation has also become an integral part of his creative process.
Earlier this year Bianca Balti, an Italian model who is based in L.A., launched a capsule collection of short, snappy maternity dresses and matching shorts underneath. She works only with deadstock fabrics and the collection is produced in an L.A. factory that allows women to bring their children to work.
Balti said she loves working with deadstock because it means the pieces automatically become limited-edition and when a certain fabric runs out, that’s it. “They’re almost one of a kind,” she said, adding that she’s planning to expand beyond the handful of styles she showed in Milan in September, “depending on what fabrics we find.”
Ives, who is still a student at Central Saint Martins, echoed her thoughts: “For me, sourcing is always the first step and serves as somewhat of an inspiration pull. Larger design houses will pull vintage pieces for references and often copy them, while I see vintage pieces as the textile source. My challenge is to see how I can twist it and make it my own. I’ve become a bit of a hoarder because of this: My studio is filled with boxes of vintage ranging from categories of T-shirts to sequin blouses from the Eighties.”
A new set of rules also needs to come into play with regard to retail partnerships, as designers working with waste cannot abide by industry standards of designing four collections a year and then producing them in large quantities, given the finite nature of their resources.
“It’s almost like haute couture: It takes a lot of work to create a garment, you have to adapt to the fabric and not the other way around,” Hartman said. “Shops didn’t understand the way we functioned: They would ask for large quantities, which was impossible for us. Luckily we’ve found stockists that understand and support our concept. We have five stockists worldwide, including Holly Golightly in Copenhagen, and will be launching our e-shop next year.”
Ives admits to still not having found a factory that is willing to work with the deadstock fabrics that he uses, but he refuses to give up and shift to a more traditional production process that would make him “like every other design house contributing to the problem.”
Instead, he handmakes everything he produces, from blouses featuring 40 panels of vintage scarves each, to the T-shirt dresses he created for Browns using vintage pieces sourced from organizations such as Salvation Army or Goodwill.
“Seeing how something so individual and bespoke can be adapted to work en masse has been a challenge for me these past few years,” added Ives. “The way I see it, however, there should be no excuse not to make it work. We have a consumption problem in fashion — it’s evident in the amount of vintage there is out there. If we can do what we do from bolts of fabric that pollute the environment with chemical dyes, then we can surely do the same with materials that have already been in circulation and therefore often have more character. This also ultimately makes each piece entirely unique which I don’t see as a disadvantage but rather a selling point.”
For the French designer Coralie Marabelle — who staged a successful upcycling campaign in Paris last October — the answer could lie in working with a mix of upcycled and mass-produced pieces to counter-balance the costs incurred by upcycling. “When you mass-produce a shirt, design, pattern-cutting and prototyping costs are absorbed as you can produce a lot of them. An upcycled piece requires the same work and same number of steps, but there can only be one or two end garments,” explained Marabelle.
While pieces made of deadstock and vintage fabrics are hard to replicate, they also present a different, untapped opportunity for retailers: To offer their customers handmade, one-off pieces without the couture price tag.
“Unless you go to a couture atelier, you don’t get that kind of level of detail. I could pretty much guarantee that the [Conner Ives capsules] would be gone too quickly,” said Ida Petersson, Browns’ women’s wear buying director, about Ives’ exclusive collections for Browns.
Matchesfashion.com’s Natalie Kingham created an Innovators initiative to celebrate designers working “outside the normal fashion remit.” And even though they were not able to guarantee quantities or frequent collections, Kingham saw value in working with these designers under different terms and offering the Matches audience a new proposition.
“Our customers are really interested in investing in unique, one-off pieces that have a point of difference and this includes designers who use deadstock fabrics such as Kevin Germanier and Edeltrud Hofmann. These pieces have such a unique story and aesthetic to them, we want to support and work with them in a different way to give them a platform and amplify what they are doing,” said Kingham.
Livia Firth, who runs the consultancy EcoAge and has been working with Matches to spearhead its sustainability mission, also pointed to the advantages that come from staying niche and not participating in the traditional fashion cycle.
“It’s a very smart business,” she said. “I think when you produce tons and you’re not in control of your supply chain, you might be profitable in the next quarter and maybe in the next year or two, but soon enough you are going to have a huge problem because raw materials are becoming more and more scarce. If you are small and in control of every single element, you can be so much more efficient from a business point of view, too.”