Clean Clothes is a series examining the fashion industry’s impact on our planet, and the brands, technologies, and people helping us toward a cleaner, more environmentally conscious future.
Once upon a time, “clothing waste” was as foreign as the New World. Clothing was made by hand and frighteningly expensive: in 1750s England, a middle-class family might spend as much as 15% of their yearly income on just a few sets of garments. However, that same family would also buy sewing supplies on a weekly basis. If Archibald sullied his trousers, “new” clothing was just a cloth patch away.
And then came the Industrial Revolution.
After the invention of the “Power Loom” in 1784, wholesale cloth became cheap enough to spur some of the first modern “ready-to-wear” garment factories. The result: more and cheaper clothing, a flipping of the Old World paradigm.
Now, in a time of H&M tees, it may be more economic to simply throw out dingy clothing than repair it. For the individual, that’s great news. For the planet, not so much.
While the aesthetics of repaired clothing have long been popular (see: elbow patches on jackets), a crop of sustainability-minded labels from all over the industry take it one step further. Some, like maharishi, have more niche appeal. Others, like Patagonia, are household names. By “upcycling” waste of all kinds (from scrap textiles to ocean plastic), these brands use age-old processes to create modern apparel, fighting climate change with fire garms.
Take, for instance, Portland’s Kiriko. Founded on the values of “mottainai” (a Japanese term expressing regret over waste), Kiriko opened in 2013, upcycling everything from blankets to denim jeans with imported Japanese textiles. The boutique is famous for its “Boro” pieces, one-of-a-kind garments made from damaged vintage wear that is then patched by hand with decades-old fabric.
“We hope that we are able to convey to our customers that itʻs possible to revive the things we love and continue to create new stories with them,” the Kiriko team tells Highsnobiety. “We have had many customers come in to patch their favorite clothing from denim jackets and jeans to dresses. We also hold boro workshops where participants can bring in their own pieces to patch.”
This practice of one-by-one upcycling has also gained following in streetwear due partly to the appropriately-titled Atelier & Repairs. With just two stores in LA and London, A&R’s repaired goods are hardly mass market. However, the label’s penchant for turning the battered into the beautiful has won them space in some of the world’s foremost retailers, like SOTO Berlin.
Yet despite the small production numbers, when put in the right context, the reach of re-stitching is anything but limited.
“I started using vintage materials before I used vintage clothing,” Lauren explains. “I liked materials that had a symbolic meaning and an emotional connection, then transforming those into something completely different. Inadvertently, I realized I was becoming obsessed with using every scrap.”
Lauren’s garments – pieces like this season’s Army Vintage Denim Kimono ($2,435, if you can even find it in stock) – are the definition of a fashion statement. Although his line began as a creative outlet, Lauren soon found that upcycling garments exposed both him and his customers to a statement of a different kind.
“To me, the concept of upcycling is not only about the fabrication – it’s also about the image, and what certain garments mean to us. So, the notion of taking vintage denim, a strong representation of Americana, and turning it into a kimono presents a clash of ideas. I’m not interested in ‘remaking’ something; I want to take something with emotion and details, then turn it on its head.”
“’Upcycling’ means to repurpose, and breathe new life into something forgotten,” explains Walid al Damirji, creative director of By Walid. The label is famous worldwide for its “Ottoman” collection, an outerwear line made from reused 19th century textiles. A single piece similar to the kind seen on Playboi Carti would take, on average, six months to make.
Then, there’s London’s own maharishi. Named after the Hindu word for “guru,” designer Hardy Blechman founded his world-famous streetwear line in 1994. Maharishi’s military-influenced garments pioneered the late ‘90s “urban warrior” look seen on the likes of Jennifer Anniston back in the day, but its purpose – and its upcycling – seeks more peaceful ends.
“Recycled military surplus has always been a permanent feature of maharishi's core collection,” the brand tells Highsnobiety.
“These [upcycling] processes are carried out in India, where the tools of war have been cleansed through herbal smudging, and washed in saffron water to symbolically cleanse any previous military associations. These clothes have been reborn, symbolizing reincarnation, and represent the potential birth of positive from negative.”
The line shows at London Fashion Week: Men’s and is carried in stores across the globe. Once, it even made merch for Travis Scott.
Still, for all the headlines and show reviews in the world, labels like Lauren’s and Walid’s, by design, can’t sell enough garments to move the needle on global waste reduction. To unlock clothing’s potential for eco-change, one must turn to upcycling’s “quiet giants,” brands who use recycled textiles – not one-by-one patching – to construct garments for the mass market.
One such brand is ECOALF. Based in Madrid, ECOALF is a certified B-Corp which began “Upcycling the Oceans” in 2015. After the company’s president received a call from a Mediterranean fisherman asking he do more to collect water waste, he visited the fisherman in Levante, Spain and was shocked by what he saw. ECOALF now collects retrieved ocean plastic from 33 ports throughout Spain, turning the trash they collect into sustainable garments. In 2017, the government of Thailand contracted ECOALF to build a similar system in their country. The first garments made with Thai “SeaYarn” will launch for 2019.
Another is Patagonia, the Ventura, CA-based gear maker whose stance on sustainability needs no introduction. While founder Yvon Chouinard deserves credit for steering Patagonia’s direction, the recycled fleece now used for the brand’s iconic “SynChilla” garments is actually made by Polartec, a Massachusetts-based textile developer. Polartec invented recycled fleece in 1993. Since then, the company has upcycled over 1 billion plastic bottles into polyester yarn. Those yarns are then spun into an eco-friendly, high-performance fleece that matches Patagonia’s demanding specs.
Unexpected among these brands is ALYX Visual, the sub-line of Matthew Williams' 1017 ALYX 9SM. While Williams has spoken about designing ALYX collections with sustainability in mind, “Visual” is different. The line’s cotton jersey textile is made in collaboration with Recover Tex, a Spanish recycler who converts both pre-worn clothes and ocean waste into upcycled yarn. This yarn is then spun into a fabric used to make tees and hoodies. Your hippie aunt may not love the “Reverse Cowboy Tee” (or its connotations), but it’s every bit as upcycled as her hiking fleece.
Ultimately, upcycling waste into material is both more scalable and versatile than by-hand repairs. On one hand, it allows for larger quantities of upcycling to be processed. Last year, adidas (in collaboration with Parley for the Oceans) sold over 1million pairs of sneakers made with ocean plastics.
On the other, it’s unrealistic to expect society to walk back the use of plastics due to their economic benefits. Upcycling waste plastic into new plastic acetate for sunglasses, like the brand Sunski does, presents an eco-friendlier way to reduce their environmental impact.
Drawing from its pre-modern roots, upcycling in all its forms presents a way to deal with the environmental impact of our consumer choices, from single-use bottles to single-use “fast fashion” tees. Ironically enough, it’s this age-old approach to extending and reusing that may just solve the problems lying ahead.
For more on sustainability, here's a report from Highsnobiety's panel talk at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit.