The difference between upcycling and recycling
Upcycling: a new trend in sustainable style
Words— Marc Richardson
Do you remember, as a kid, getting hand-me-downs? It sucked, right? Why couldn’t you get your own clothes instead of having to walk around wearing whatever your older siblings had worn a few years prior? Well, it’s time to move past the traumatic childhood experiences and come to grips with the fact that wearing old clothes is both the cool and fashionable thing to do. That’s right, upcycling is increasingly popular and the trend is showing no signs of abating.
“You mean recycling, right?” No, actually, upcycling is different from recycling in that the premise is reusing discarded objects or materials to create something better than the original. In other words: If you were to thrift an old piece and wear it as is, that would be recycling; but, if you take, say, an old military surplus jacket, cut it up to maximize the fabric and then use that fabric to make pants, or parts of another jacket, that’s upcycling. But upcycling isn’t just limited to turning used garments into something better, it can also involve using excess fabric or discarded plastic in the production of other garments. Overall, the general philosophy is best described as one aiming to reduce waste.
Upcycling’s transition from a relatively niche DIY movement to a bonafide fashion aesthetic — and a broader business strategy — has really only occurred within the last few years. For context, in the early 2010s, right after the North American recession there was a shift in menswear buying trends that was directly related to the economic uncertainty that many faced. It saw customers value well-made and durable goods, which were more expensive but would need to be replaced less frequently and there was also a renewed interest in giving a second life to vintage goods — passed down, perhaps, from a parent or grandparent, or thrifted.
Part of the appeal for some of the goods that took off in the qualitative era of hashtag-menswear was that they were “upcycle-able”. Brands like A.P.C., the Parisian denim purveyor, launched upcycling programs like Butler, that sought to take back old garments, rework them and then sell them again. It was a hit on both aesthetic and financial front, with companies able to generate some additional income and customers happy that they were paying slightly less, or getting some money back for old clothes.
Patchwork denim has always been a celebrated aesthetic at all levels of fashion, from Junya Watanabe to discount denim; so, too, has the time-honoured look of a well-worn blazer or sweater with elbow patches within the prep community. But the current wave of upcycling has taken on a life of its own outside of a select few garments, to spawn entire brands and collections at the highest echelons of fashion.
One such brand, London-based maharishi, is actually among the oldest in the high-end streetwear market, with roots dating back to 1994. The brand has always sought to reappropriate the military aesthetic for peaceful and fashionable ends, through a liberal use of camouflage and a commitment to upcycling military surplus jackets and pants into ready-to-wear garments that have been shown at London Fashion Week Men’s. The brand went through a bankruptcy in the mid-aughts but has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in recent years, which may owe to an increased mainstream interest in upcycled garb.
Other brands have emerged only relatively recently, but have enjoyed tremendous success as purveyors of repurposed clothing. Needles — a subsidiary of New York-based retailer Nepenthes — offers a “Rebuild by Needles” collection that, as the name implies, is founded on upcycling T-shirts, jackets, hoodies, and dress shirts. The brand cuts up garments and sews them together piecemeal, to create aesthetically distinct garments that have garnered a feverish following and come to typify the upcycling movement to a certain extent.
Some point to Greg Lauren, the nephew of Ralph, as the movement’s foremost ambassador. His style has been described as raw and deconstructed and is predicated on the use of upcycled fabrics that are well-worn and unmistakably distressed. But, his creations remain out of reach for many. Wearing an entire outfit made up of Greg Lauren pieces will probably have you mistaken for an extra on the set of a dystopian post-apocalyptic film and set you back a down payment on a condo — Greg Lauren pieces often cost upwards of 1,500 American dollars. But, when singular pieces are worked into an outfit they are awesome, in the sense that they literally inspire awe.
It may seem like upcycling is a very elite thing, with the prices of maharishi, Needles, and Greg Lauren alienating many customers who are ready to make a conscious decision about reducing the waste associated with their wardrobes. Of course, there’s always the DIY method of repurposing your own garments, but, better yet, the trend had trickled down the fashion pyramid. adidas has been at the relative forefront of the movement within the mainstream, teaming up with Parley to create running shoes and club football shirts made from upcycled ocean plastic. Other brands have followed suit — quite literally.
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Frank And Oak will be using broken down and recycled wool to create suiting and coats outerwear as part of the brand’s Fall-Winter 2018 collection. It's just another way to keep reusable materials out of landfills while providing a quality garment; eliminating the impact on animals; and reducing the need for water, dyes, chemicals, and energy compared to the process used for virgin wool.
Ultimately the success of upcycling boils down to consumers’ willingness to cut down on waste. Buying fewer things is always an option, but true minimalism’s popularity ebbs and flows and self-limiting one’s wardrobe is never an easy decision to make. There are those who like the aesthetic of demonstrably upcycled garb, while others enjoy knowing that their new suit is environmentally responsible. The advantage that upcycled garments offer is that they allow you to expand your wardrobe without necessarily expanding the waste associated with it. And, if the customers want it, then the brands will be willing to make it for them.
Marc Richardson is a writer based in Montreal. He has written for Grailed, Vice, and others. Check out more articles by Marc. He is also on Twitter.