As a new year’s resolution, we would all love to update our wardrobe. We would also love to make less waste and support eco-friendly businesses. For designers, the reality of creating a responsibly made collection and also make a living from it is much tougher. It’s hard enough to make it in the fashion industry. Making the choice to produce upcycled fashion adds additional challenges that mainstream labels don’t have to worry about.
Americans are filling landfills with 10.5 million tons of discarded clothing a year. There is ample opportunity for this waste to be remade into something useful. However, designers of sustainable fashion are mostly independent labels producing small runs; making it difficult for corporate retailers to work with. There is also a resistance from fashion fans to purchase clothing made from trash.
So what can designers do to compete with upcycled fashion?
1. Find consistent sources for your materials.
Many designers create their collections from what they can find. Not knowing what your next collection will be made of or how to design it takes extra time and hampers your own marketing plans. Decide on a consistent product line and how you will supply it. Oregon Company Looptworks creates its collection from neoprene and excess materials from wetsuit manufacturing. It knows where its supplies are coming from and can plan for the fabric use and design before each season.
2. Emphasize uniqueness.
Large retailers may shun an indie designer for not filling a huge order with mass market products. For a small boutique or designer, this can be your advantage. You can market to your customers that they are getting a one-of-a-kind creation. Looptworks also makes it a point of never producing more than 500 of any product. The company hand-numbers each piece to identify it as a limited edition item.
3. Have a defined aesthetic.
The Bella Sisters in Portland specialize in upcycled jackets and outerwear. They buy pieces in all colors, textures and sizes. However, their customers love their signature embellishments of peacock embroidery and romantic appliques. They also add flattering knit cuffs and peplums to create a consistent silhouette. They may have started with pre-made garments as a base, but the final product is clearly a work of their design. Re-making a recycled item as your own is a great way to eliminate the “second hand” stigma of recycled clothing.
4. Develop a service.
You don’t just have to sell products to get into the upcycled fashion game. Former brides have been finding ways to re-fashion their wedding dresses for hundreds of years. You can build a responsibly made fashion business helping clients renew pieces from their wardrobe.
Brooklyn designer Shannon South of ReMADE USA offers a service to remake your old leather jacket into a chic bag. The benefits of offering a service as an alternative to manufacturing are that you don’t have to invest funds and space to obtain materials beforehand. You only work on confirmed (and paid) orders. There is a large market for this beyond weddings. There is clothing that is no longer in style or doesn’t fit. There are always sentimental pieces customers own where the materials or heirloom value cannot be duplicated.
5. Have a story.
Shoppers and designers alike don’t choose sustainable fashion just to be cool. They pursue it because they find it meaningful. As a designer, be ready to explain what inspired your collection. Let your customers know where your materials come from. When planning your marketing, ask yourself why you chose this path?
Toronto boutique owner Nathalie Roze specializes in warm weather accessories made from recycled sweaters. She also collects donated knitwear at craft shows to refashion into stylish winter hats and gloves to give to communities in need. Detroit based Rebel Nell is a jewelry company that trains and employs underserved women in shelters to make jewelry from discarded graffiti concrete.
People pay a premium for farm-to-table dining. With upcycled fashion, they pay a premium over mass market items. Customers are willing to spend more because they are buying the story behind label as much as they are buying the end product itself. If you are a designer with a great story, make sure you tell it well!
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Images: Mariana Leung