Upcycled fashion is no longer just for hard-core environmentalists. The idea of wearing items made from cast-off skateboards, inner tubes, plastic trash bags, car seat belts—even wartime bombs and bullets—is no longer considered bizarre but beautiful, as consumers pick up today’s conservationist zeitgeist.
“Upcycling” means taking something disposable and creating something of higher value with it—making a purse from a tire, for instance. (Recycling, on the other hand, decomposes items into materials that can then be used to create something else, such as turning wood chips into paper.)
The rebooting of an item with a history and unique story that might otherwise end up in a landfill is what attracts many consumers to upcycled goods. And, as often happens where trends mature, upcycled fashion pieces have transformed from kitschy and sometimes embarrassing to quite ingenious, well-crafted and even high-end luxury clothes and accessories.
Here’s the lowdown on a few fashion-focused companies that specialize in upcycling.
Some people get ideas in the shower, but Heather English got the inspiration for her eco-company about 10 years ago while floating a creek on a rubber inner tube.
She’d been searching in vain for a vegan handbag, and “it occurred to me that this inner tube could be made into the [one] I’d been dreaming of,” she says. The first bag she made was just for herself, she says, but when she carried it, she got so many inquiries about it “that I naively went into business.”
Today, her company, English Retreads, uses inner tubes to make purses, totes, wallets, belts, and iPad and laptop sleeves. The colorful linings are made from recycled plastic bottles. Prices range from $9 to $158.
“Normally, fashion is designed to last one season before the industry tells us we can’t wear it anymore and to get rid of it,” English says. “Many products are mass produced so they fall apart after several uses; things are made by people who are taken advantage of due to their socioeconomic position. These are all nonsustainable situations.” The idea behind her company is “to keep stuff out of the landfills and use as few new resources and [as little] energy as possible.”
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Canadian Trevor Kehler found the inspiration for his company’s upcycled seat belt bags and purses while contemplating the creation of a product he could feel good about and that would be useful but also speak to the “disposable society” he saw all around him.
“When I first started U.S.E.D., I was making sandals out of car tires and seat belts,” he says. “I made two pairs. They were ridiculous. … [But] I realized the potential in the seat belts.” He taught himself to sew, made the first bags from his home in British Columbia in 2002 and gradually grew the company to nine people with a 1,300-square-foot shop. Today his products sell in 62 retail outlets across North America and online. Prices range from $36 to $198.
The company upcycles more than 5,000 pounds of cast-off seat belts annually, Kehler says. All of them come from vehicles that have reached the end of their useful lives and they would otherwise be shredded and sent to a landfill.
Kehler believes his business model can work for other industries.
“I think our industrial waste is quickly becoming our greatest unnatural resource,” Kehler says. There’s “tons of trash, a sky full of ideas—we need to work together. Bend over and pick up the garbage. … The truth is in your trash.”
Akawelle Jewelry is Lovetta Conto’s fashion offering inspired by her past. She’s a 19-year-old Liberian who grew up in a refugee camp in Ghana after fleeing with her father from her country’s civil war. In the camp she was selected for the Strongheart Fellowship Program, a U.S.-based nonprofit that helps rehabilitate and guide children traumatized by war and violence through entrepreneurship as an exit strategy from poverty.
She was sitting in traffic when the idea came to her to design a necklace with two pendants hanging side-by-side. One is a leaf made from a melted bullet shell with the word “life” engraved on it; the other is the round bottom of a bullet casing. Together they represent the transformation from struggle and conflict to life. Thousands of these bullets still litter Liberia.
“I think many people understand how serious a thing it is to wear a bullet that’s been fired in a war that hurt people I love,” Conto says. “I feel like when people wear it, I’m asking them to remember the lives that were affected by the materials I use—and to know that those same materials are now being used for good.”
“It’s a big beautiful world, but not an infinite place,” Conto says. “Materials can have a life far beyond what we usually allow them. Transformation is possible and can be beautiful—whether from bullets to jewelry, or products that have hurt into products that can heal. You don’t have to throw things away; let the past speak to you and show you how it wants to be reborn.”
The ubiquitous plastic shopping bag recently banned in Los Angeles and several other cities is not just a menace in the U.S. but also the world over. So Philadelphia-based entrepreneurs Lucy Lau Bigham and husband Herman Bigham conceived of a way to transform the trash into handbags.
For seven years, the Bighams have worked with communities in Lucy’s native Kenya developing green textiles and products. When they approached a major Kenyan supermarket chain called Nakumatt and proposed collecting clean used bags from the market’s clients, creating the handbags with their community groups and then circling them back to the retailer to sell, “they thought this was a brilliant idea,” Herman Bigham says.
Today, more than 130 women in 15 underserved Kenyan communities crochet the colorful bags using techniques passed down from their ancestors. The finished bags sell in 15 supermarkets throughout Kenya, and the company is gearing up to enter tourist hotel boutiques and the U.S. market.
“What do people do with the many plastic bags they come home with from the supermarket?” Herman Bigham says. “If they bring them back clean to the supermarkets, we can make a product that will probably outlive them. … We see this as a great intervention in making sure these plastics don’t get into the environment. Most of our customers simply can’t believe [the purses] are made out of plastic trash bags.”
When Muscovite business partners Julia Voitenko and Daria Golevko decided to start a fashion company in 2005, they wanted to combine their love of vintage and scarves. Both designers relished their vintage flea-market hunts across Europe, and soon they fell on the idea of making shoes with one-of-a-kind vintage scarves.
Judari is their Milan-based shoe company and Russy their new line, which produced 600 limited edition colorful and bright sneakers made from the old scarves they found across Europe. The sneakers can be laced with shoelaces or scarves.
“At first, the production was difficult because the scarves were all of different sizes and that was not a normal thing for a production of sneakers,” says Voitenko. “Although even with that problem at the end we were happy with the results.”
She says this is part of what makes upcycled fashion so appealing—“each item is unique,” a stand-alone, with a one-only story. “We’re so sure of the idea that we’ll create more in the future,” she says. “At first, some customers didn’t understand and even called to verify if there had been a mistake. But now, people love the idea.”
When Oregonian skateboarder Lindsay Jo Holmes started her MapleXO jewelry line—flipping used skateboards into funky jewelry—she went to a local indoor skatepark and asked if she could put out a skateboard recycling bin. “They were so enthusiastic I baked them cookies when I picked up the boards, and it started a trend,” she says. “Each time I go to pick up boards now, I bake cookies and even to this day, we still sit up at night baking cookies for the rad people who send us boards.”
The boards are generally made out of maple, hence the name (XO was added “as a feminine touch,” Holmes says). And it’s the boards that produce the colors in the jewelry. “It usually takes a second [for people to understand] and then they get it,” Holmes says. “The scratches on the graphics, the layers in the wood, the contour the pieces have from the shape of the board—even people that don’t know much about skateboarding can recognize these qualities. It’s so awesome because each piece really has a story all its own.”
She gets the used boards now from skateboard shops, skateboard companies, her friends, friends of friends, random people met at skate parks, the guys she works with. “Now, more than ever, I think people crave a connection to the things they buy,” she says. “The plastic world of mass production and sweatshops has revealed its unglamorous truths.”
The company sells to 40 outlets across the world.
“We love thinking about getting a board that has traveled on skate-trips through the U.S. and Spain perhaps, and then sending jewelry from this board to an order in Japan,” Holmes explains. “So many pieces of the world can touch each piece.”