Upcycling is revolutionising the fashion industry

The fashion industry is seeing a dramatic and strong shift towards sustainable fashion, with clothes-swapping apps and resale platforms growing in popularity. And as Vogue pointed out, upcycling is the biggest trend in the fashion industry this Spring/Summer. 

For a long time, there was a negative stigma around wearing second-hand or upcycled clothing. It was assumed that you were from a lower economic status household, and could not afford new clothes. Unfortunately, that way of thinking has been perpetuated by the industry. We as a society have been manipulated into thinking we need to be on-trend, and always seen to be wearing something new in order to feel worthy and respected. There is an immense emphasis on the instant gratification phenomenon in the marketing and advertisements we are fed (which extends beyond the fashion industry), and subsequently our unhealthy relationship with consumerism and fast fashion was developed.

The irony of the title of this article is the fact that upcycling is nothing new, but rather our perception of it is what is revolutionary. It was once commonplace to mend torn clothing and repurpose excess material. Since the 1960s however, the fashion industry has increasingly become faster, cheaper (in both price and quality), and crucially, more unsustainable and unethical. Now, thankfully, both brands and buyers are becoming more conscious of the impact our consumption has on the environment, and consequently our lives, health and wellbeing. 

With luxury brands like Miu Miu, John Galliano and Maison Margiela setting an example and rebranding the connotations around upcycling, the rest of the industry is following suit and thinking creatively about how to make use of unsold stock and fabric that previously would have gone to waste. Many brands like Stella McCartney are now even sourcing some of their fabric from suppliers that create thread from recycled or reclaimed trash, embracing a more circular economy.

As part of Fashion Revolution Week, I sat down for a chat with Dan Pontarlier, Sustainable Fashion Activist and avid upcycler, to discuss his personal journey and insights. Originally from a small town near Barcelona, Dan has delivered talks and workshops in Paris on the topic of sustainability, was appointed the Director of Digital Strategy and Influence at Global Fashion Week in Budapest 2020, and is a brand ambassador for the likes of Vestiaire Collective, Remake, and Timberland.

When did you first become aware of the climate crisis and the importance of doing something to solve it?

It started when I was doing my second Masters in Tourism, Sustainability and IT. At the time, there wasn’t much awareness in Spain around the climate crisis, and I didn’t fully realise the relevance or impact that people have on the environment. 

I have since learned there is so much we can do to help people and the environment through the work we do. I was already working my way up within hospitality, and ended up being in charge of Corporate Social Responsibility for 450 hotels in the Barcelona Hotel Association. I went on to develop the Strategic Sustainable Development Plan between 2017-2019 in collaboration with the Barcelona City Council. I realised that it’s in our hands to change the climate crisis and protect our world in a better way.

You have a very unique aesthetic —  what inspires your fashion sense and style?

I get inspiration from many places, from being open-minded and able to embrace anything. My style really started to develop when I came out as homosexual. As a child, I would always try to pass under the radar. But when I grew up, I decided I would express myself through what I wear, and not guide myself according to the principles or ideals that other people have. When I embraced who I was, I found my style.

What do you think are the biggest challenges to sustainability in fashion?

There are two main problems. Firstly mis-information, with too many companies greenwashing and appropriating things that other real sustainable fashion brands do. 

Secondly, circularity. Fashion brands need to try to close the loop. It can be done with incentives: for example once you’ve worn out your shoes, if you take them back to the store they give you a discount for your next purchase. Meanwhile, they take care of the process of recycling the old shoes into new ones. 

When did you start upcycling?

It actually started when my parents passed away in 2017. I didn’t want to throw away any of their clothes for sentimental reasons, but at the same time, I didn’t want them hanging in my wardrobe collecting dust. 

So I decided to do a sort of homage to them, to create something that would remind me of them. I unstitched the clothes I wanted to use, and then sent the materials and new patterns I had designed to my seamstress in Barcelona. Now I have a pair of trousers made from one of my father’s shirts for example, and everytime I wear it, I think of him. 

There has been a lot of conversation lately about sustainability only being possible for the more affluent members of society. Why do you think this is?

Unfortunately yes, sometimes the processes of the operations, the production of materials and even packaging is more costly, so the price of the items are higher. Also when the manufacturing has been done locally rather than being outsourced internationally for cheap labour, there is less pollution with delivery and less risk of unethical labour, and of course, this increases the price. Some companies definitely try to take advantage though, and make more profit under the guise of being sustainable. 

How do you think we can combat this?

I think we can push the companies that we know aren’t being sustainable. If we can get them to change their supply chain and operations to be completely sustainable, this will decrease the price. With higher demand, the costs will decrease. Governments should also offer a lot more support for the benefit of the company, the consumer and the environment.

What led you to write the book, From Trash to Runway?

The idea of the book wasn’t to show my designs. It was more to show people that they’re able to do the same thing with their own clothes. Many people throw away clothes they already have from unethical/unsustainable high street brands when they decide they want to be more sustainable. This is so wasteful. Also, donating fast fashion items isn’t great — your clothes will often either end up going to landfill or to developing countries. And when they rely more on second hand items from us than on their local producers and manufacturers, it’s detrimental to the social and economical development of that country.

I want to show people that instead of throwing things away and spending loads of money on a whole new organic wardrobe, you can reconstruct something you already own. Even if you don’t know how to sew, you can hire a local tailor/seamstress in your community, and contribute to your local society, as well as being sustainable. 

Finally, let’s talk about an inspiring luxury brand leading the way with upcycling. What did you think of Jean Paul Gaultier’s upcycled collection from last Spring/Summer?

It was fantastic! He created everything in that collection from what he already had in the atelier. This is what we should all be doing! Why throw things away when they can be used again? Did you know that some luxury brands in France were burning unsold stock because they didn’t want to sell it for less than the full price. It’s so obnoxious (thankfully now it’s now illegal).

I think the media focussed on the fact that that collection was upcycled because it was during the boom of the sustainable fashion conversation in 2020, but Gaultier has actually been upcycling for a long time. He’s always taking unsold stock and unused fabrics and applying parts to other garments for new collections. He’s also always been so transgressive and supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, creating gender neutral clothing for example, so I just love everything that he does. It’s so inspirational!

The move to sustainable fashion and a fully circular economy is something that needs to happen fast. Find out more about easy ways to become more eco-conscious, and you can learn more about the how the fashion industry is changing at Fashion Revolution.

One Comment Add yours

  1. In a way, upcycling is better than recycling. Thank you 🌍

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