Illustration of beautiful dress made of fresh green leafs and plants, sustainable fashion concept.
June 9, 2023
 in 
Slow Fashion

Upcycled Clothing: A Guide to This New Fashion Trend

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s we try to limit what gets sent to landfills, upcycled clothing has become an increasingly popular solution. In this article, we’re going to cut through the greenwashing and give a full breakdown of this fashion phenomenon, including 10 of the most popular brands getting it right.

Table of  Contents

Why do we call them upcycled clothing?

colorful slabs of extracted cloth hanging on washing line against blue sky backdrop referencing upcycling

The difference between “recycling” and “upcycling” is blurry, but generally, recycling requires that something like a plastic bottle be broken down to its original form before it can be used again. Upcycling, on the other hand, can often up the value of a piece of waste without necessarily breaking it down first. Either way, it’s all about taking something that was considered waste and, with design and innovation, making it something sellable again.

Fashion has a significant waste problem with most brands overproducing by at least 30%. This creates huge volumes of textiles and clothing each year that don’t actually get sold. Instead, it ends up as deadstock and when it’s not sitting gathering dust in a warehouse, it usually gets dumped. Most of what upcycled clothing involves is taking this deadstock and either updating it or making something totally new from it.

Many brands selling upcycled fashion also use vintage and second-hand clothes in their upcycling, which begs the question: what’s the difference between upcycling and simply buying second-hand? It’s simple: upcycling always involves some kind of intervention. The item is usually upgraded in some way, either with something as small as mending or, by completely taking garments apart and re-purposing them.

When this fashion trend started

illustration of large pile of clothes laying  in dump polluting a forest of pine trees

Upcycled clothing has probably been around for as long as clothes and fabric have been. War and poverty have always forced people to make one thing from another, but even the wealthy have been documented updating old gowns and the like to suit whatever new trends came around. One of the most well-documented eras of upcycling was during the second world war. Because of clothing shortages, women were forced to use silk parachute fabric to make underwear.

The first moment in fashion in history when upcycled fashion appeared as a trend rather than a necessity was likely with the Harlem design legend, Dapper Dan in the 90s. He famously took apart clothing from luxe brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton and reimagined them as streetwear that better suited the times. Nowadays, upcycling is taking off as a sustainability trend as well as a fashion one.

Brands are capitalizing on two things: the growing desire amongst shoppers to buy clothes that won’t necessarily harm the environment and to own items that can stand out in the fast fashion crowd. Upcycling doesn’t just offer designers a chance to do better for the planet, but to get more creative.

Some have argued that what pushed upcycled clothing from a niche occurrence to the kind of practice that major brands like Prada are now adopting, was the pandemic. With lockdowns came a major deadstock crisis. Clothing gathered up unpurchased and created enough of a problem that Queen of Raw, a company that helps fashion labels turn excess inventory into sellable items, saw a major increase in people seeking out their services. It helped too that a pandemic and some time at home forced many of us to reconsider how we might be able to better impact the planet.

What impact has it had so far on sustainability?

Figures showing the overall impact that upcycled fashion has had on sustainability thus far just don’t exist yet, but considering that New York alone fills landfills with 200 million pounds of clothing each year, any amount of intervention can have a positive impact. One of the major tenets of sustainability has always been about limiting waste. This is something that upcycling in fashion is actively addressing by rethinking manufacturing and fabric-sourcing practices.

As with any kind of clothing shopping, be it buying new, thrifted, or upcycled fashion, how much we consume will always be the main factor affecting sustainability. The clothing industry makes up roughly 10% of global CO2 emissions and changing that will take more than one solution. For now, however, upcycling can at least help move clothing manufacturing into a more circular production approach.

About 21 billion tons of textile waste goes to US landfills each year – anything that can help diminish that is a good thing. It’s also been encouraging to see just how many brands have combined upcycling with other sustainability practices such as limiting water use and removing plastic packaging.

Top 10 upcycled clothing brands:

Portrait shooting of a stylish woman wearing beige and white colored sustainable clothes.

Upcycling isn’t just a useful sustainability approach; it’s also helped inspire great fashion. We’ve put together some of the most popular clothing brands using upcycling in their practices, from activewear to sneakers and swimwear:

Everlane

Image of model wearing pink  Everlane short suit.

Everlane is known for their minimalist, work-friendly men’s and womenswear basics, but they also have a big sustainability focus. In April of 2021 they announced that by that point, 97% of their clothing that contained nylon or polyester was made from certified recycled fibers. Alongside using recycled material from plastic bottles, the company also upcycles fishing nets and fabric headed for landfills. Their commitment to transparency and sustainability, from upcycling to fair wages for their garment workers, has made Everlane a firm favorite for anyone wanting to shop more consciously. 

The Girlfriend Collective

model in yoga pose wearing black Girlfriend Collective outfit

Similar to Everlane, the Girlfriend Collective uses fabric made from recycled plastic, fishing nets, and fabric scraps, just with a focus on creating inclusive and stylish activewear. This upcycled fashion brand offers a size range of XXS-6XL and their social and sustainability standards are certified by independent organizations. As a bonus, we love that they sell a micro-fiber filter so that you can wash your items without worrying that you’re adding more plastic to our waters.

If you're looking for more eco-friendly workout clothing choices, our sustainable activewear article covers a larger variety of environmentally conscious brands ,and shares the types of sustainable activewear fabrics to look for and their benefits.

prAna

photo collage exemplifying rock climbers wearing prAna clothing

This lifestyle and activewear brand brought the very first Fair Trade Certified item of clothing to market in 2011 and today prAna is still known for their use of recycled nylon and cotton in their clothing. Because nylon is an entirely manmade textile, nylon clothing that gets thrown out isn’t biodegradable and will just collect in landfills. Upcycling this discarded material into things like swimwear means less waste and more wear.

RE/DONE

Close up of model profile wearing light blue RE/DONE denim shirt and pants

This trendy denim brand began with the concept of upcycling vintage Levi’s into new, modern styles. While they’ve since expanded their offerings, their main business is still focused on sourcing discarded jeans and turning them into something wearable again. RE/DONE claims to have upcycled over 158 300 pairs of vintage Levi's, with over half of their sales volumes made from upcycled and recycled items.

Chromat 

a group of models with pool backdrop wearing different Chromat style bathing suits.

A bodywear and swimwear brand, Chromat the nylon they use is all recycled or made from fabric scraps and other waste. Their designs are colorful and most importantly, gender and size-inclusive. In 2022 they launched a collection of entirely gender-inclusive swimwear so that however shoppers identify, and whatever their size is, there’s something for them to feel confident in. They’re proving that the narrow scope that sustainable fashion has often taken, need not continue.

Eileen Fischer

Side profile of model styled with Eileen Fischer canvas tote and linen pants and shirt

Over the years, this classic brand has invested more and more in using sustainable fabrics, be they from recycled materials or things like regenerated wool. The long-term goal with upcycled clothing is to create a circular manufacturing system and that’s exactly what Eileen Fischer is committed to.

Veja

close up of a running model's legs wearing Veja sneakers.

Upcycling isn’t just an option for your clothes, but for your footwear too. Veja is the first sneaker brand to make all their shoes from recycled plastic bottles and polyester. You’ve definitely seen your favorite fashion icons wearing this brand, and for good reason. Their innovative manufacturing and design work has made them one of the most popular and stylish sneaker brands of the last few years.

For more information on sustainable shoe brands including the environmental impact switching to a eco-conscious pair, check out our ultimate guide to sustainable shoes.

Patagonia Recrafted

model wearing Patagonia clothing while rock climbing

Patagonia has always had a strong reputation in the sustainability space thanks to things like their WornWear program and a company mission that seeks to protect the very outdoors that their clothing is designed for. They managed to move that a step further with Patagonia Recrafted, which takes secondhand clothes from the brand that otherwise seemed irreparable and patches them up to create new items. The result is some seriously unique pieces with a great history and less clothing waste heading to landfills. This is upcycling at its best.

Frankie Collective

Profile of model wearing Frankie Collective top and pants

Anyone who thinks that sustainable and upcycled fashion can’t be cool clearly hasn’t checked out Frankie Collective yet. Their Rework line is all about salvaging vintage garments and turning them into unique streetwear pieces. What’s great about upcycling done this way is that, like with RE/DONE’s approach, the fabric doesn’t need to be processed into its basic form to be re-born. It’s all about unpicking, re-sewing, and rethinking how one person’s garbage could become someone else’s new favorite item.

Outerworn

model wearing Outerworn sweater and pants

With their resell initiative, Outerworn, this men's and womenswear brand has kept over 1000 garments out of landfills. They’ve also partnered with Project Vermont to provide a collection of entirely upcycled clothing pieces, while also extending the practice to homeware and pet accessories.

Your Upcycled Wardrobe

An illustration of a person evaluating a neat and clutter free closet.

Whether you choose to support brands that sell upcycled clothing or even just find ways to upcycle what you already have, anything that helps keep unnecessary waste from landfills is a win and who knows? Maybe you’ll find some unique pieces for your wardrobe in the process too.

In addition to upcycling, other ways you can help support the sustainable fashion movement include:

  • Going through and organize your closet regularly to have a clear inventory in your mind of what's in there! This ones very crucial because it can help you get very creative and put together something nice instead of reaching for the usual default items or buying more versions of something you already may have.
  • Selling or buying your pre-loved clothes to stores such as Plato's Closet instead of throwing them out. (You could also donate your clothing if they are not sellable)
  • Shopping the local of online vintage selections
  • Buying clothing made with responsibly sourced sustainable fabrics and processes
  • Caring for your clothes properly to increase their lifetime

Don't forget to have fun and take it slow so you can enjoy the process!