Today, we share key aspects of the upcycling movement in the fashion Industry and analyze why more brands are joining this creation method. 

Upcycling is more than a buzzword,  it promotes a new way of thinking on how and why we should start any design process. Sustainable practices and environmental concerns are on almost every design studio’s agenda around the world, as many designers understand its active role in changing the way fashion is currently made. 

In this context, can upcycling be the same term as recycling? Or is upcycling related to second-hand clothing practices only? To answer both questions, we must start by clarifying some terminology in order to be accurate.    

Upcycling and Recycling: A Reborn Design and Technical Innovation

The term “upcycling” was coined in 1994 by German engineer Reiner Pliz. a.Recycling at the time diminished the value of old or used products, so he suggested new value must be added instead, leading to the aforementioned term of “upcycling”. Author Gunter Pauli wrote the first published book on upcycling in the year 1998, however, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart, was the first to gain mainstream recognition in 2002 , that is when  the public started to be familiar with this terms and its purpose.

According to Vadicherla et al. on Textiles and Clothing Sustainability Journal: Recycled and Upcycled Textiles and Fashion, “upcycling creates something new and better from the old or used or disposed items” it is a process that requires a blend of factors such as, “environmental awareness, creativity, innovation, and hard work”. In this perspective, upcycling “aims at the development of products [that are] truly sustainable, affordable, innovative and creative.”

There is a similarity with recycling since fibers or products can be processed to get back to their original form after the technical steps, however, upcycling is related to the design process rather than just technical innovation (although it can include both). For example, textile waste can be recycled into new yarns, such as nylon or any other synthetic fibers, because its composition makes the process easier, nevertheless, we can upcycle garments into new designs without processing the raw material at all. 

Re-Thinking and Re-Designing: Upcycling as a Creative Challenge

Several fashion brands are making attempts to integrate technical innovations and recycling fibers into the design process. For other brands, upcycling practices are rooted inside their DNA, creating distinguished and recognizable mix-match aesthetics, as some upcycling practices blend opposite garment structures, textures, colors, and shapes, as well as, second-hand clothing and textile techniques.     

Big fashion names are opting for innovation, creating singular approaches to eco-design without being less fashion-forward. For example, designer Miuccia Prada with her fashion brand Miu Miu constantly seeks new ways to connect with the current times, Upcycled by Miu Miu is a project that continues to pursue a sustainable ideology, giving new life to pre-loved denim in collaboration with iconic denim brand Levi’s. A selection of classic denim pieces has been re-fashioned by Miu Miu, seen through the brand’s maverick and determinedly playful eye. 

This is an interesting strategy combining both brand’s reputations and their shared values whilst celebrating iconic garments, such as jeans and trucker jackets from the 1980s and 1990s, and creating something new and unique, as no two pieces in the collection are the same. 

The vintage denim is hand-embellished with crystal, pearl, floral, and all-over diamanté embroideries, puffed sleeves, and bold leather patches featuring Art Deco-inspired intarsia motifs; jeans are cut off to the thigh or finished with ivory silk duchesse turn-ups; and Trucker Jackets are adorned with oversized white lace collars. 

This collection is a valuable example that dares to change the creative perspective and invites us to work with remnants of vintage materials or fabrics. The goal of upcycling is that any previous design can surely shine again.  

Brands such as Andrea Crews, Marine Serre, Bode, Patrick McDowell, and Christoph Rumpf are well-known names around the upcycling practice, integrating new design possibilities and aesthetics that set an example for the designers of the future.