When Old Becomes New—7 Stylish Upcycling Brands to Know
Shopping you can feel good about.
One good thing to come out of this pandemic was a tangible shift in shopping habits. When we were no longer getting dressed on a regular basis, each purchase was met with a little more hesitation—an added moment's pause regarding our actual need for the item. Not only did we consume with greater purpose, but we turned more towards sustainable practices like shopping vintage and upcycled options. "Though we've been designing clothing using vintage textiles for a few years now, it wasn't until the pandemic that people really took notice," says Natalie Mumford, founder of upcycling shopping destination 3 Women. "With time for reflection, people are more mindful about their spending. They want to feel a connection with the pieces they buy and the companies they support."
In a chicken-or-the-egg type of situation, garments that appear to be upcycled, whether that's a patchwork motif or a retro silhouette, are trending, which only helps the trajectory of brands like Mumford's. The granny-style quilt aesthetic that comes from piecing scraps of fabric together is more popular than ever, with those nowhere near the age to qualify as a granny.
Due to the inherent process, the garments themselves are often unique, if not truly one of a kind. "I love my vintage fabrics not just for their fun prints and old-fashioned high quality, but also for their inherent scarcity,'' says founder of Girl of the Earth Ruby Sinclair. "Sometimes I find an entire roll, sometimes just one remaining meter." It's a tricky business—shoppers need to act fast, as quantities are, by default, limited.
While labels like Bode and Chopova Lowena have attracted a luxury-focused high-fashion clientele, their emerging counterparts are garnering significant attention, as well. These more nimble brands are even letting their customers have a say. You can pick your fabric or quilt base, perhaps send in old items to be reworked, then select the style you prefer. The designer may even reveal the story behind your discarded fabrics to ensure that you have a true conversation piece.
Below, we've gathered seven brands that are redefining the idea of upcycling, offering the essentials for a wardrobe rooted in sustainability. While it's always nice to know nothing new was produced, the best part is knowing you're receiving something special and made with care. "The sustainable fashion movement is on the rise," adds Mumford, "and it's a beautiful thing to witness and be a part of."
Photo: Courtesy of Girl of the Earth
Founder Ruby Sinclair was raised by a family of antiques dealers in Manhattan, so she had basically inherited relationships with vintage suppliers, flea market owners, eccentric grandmas, and just plain hoarders, from whom she sources her fabrics. The unconventional supply chain and practices are meticulous and at times painstaking. "These leftover pieces of fabric are so small, even self-proclaimed sustainable deadstock brands would never bother to use them, and I understand why— it's a super time-intensive business model," says Sinclair. "I am always spending way too much time negotiating prices, inspecting fabrics' condition, and giving my seamstress complex instructions about which remnants are for which styles."
Girl of the Earth offers a slightly more upscale take on a lot of Gen Z trends—she takes the idea of a scarf top to new levels. That's because Sinclair simply designs according to silhouettes she finds intriguing, which is why you'll see an abundance of '60s-style miniskirts and '70's-inspired halter tops.
Photo: Courtesy of 3 Women
Founded by Crystal Lee Early and Natalie Mumford, California-based 3 Women made a name for itself by upcycling cherished vintage textiles, specifically old rice, flour, and feed sacks. The practices are personal. "In a sentimental nod to Crystal's family, our first jacket was made using a 1950s rice sack saved from her family's Chinese frozen food business, Dragon Foods, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada," explains Mumford. "Using family heirlooms to create custom clothing is a special way to preserve and carry on one's family history."
A rarity in the industry, customers are encouraged to participate in the design process by selecting their own fabric. The garments are then made to measure to ensure the perfect fit (and to adhere to a diverse range of sizing requirements). "Many people ask, 'Who is the third woman?'" says Mumford. "We like to say that the third woman is anyone and everyone we've had the privilege of connecting and collaborating with."
Photo: Courtesy of 2 Mai
Launched on May 2, 2018 (hence the name), the brand began with a line of one-of-a-kind varsity jackets, all, of course, sewn from deadstock and vintage fabrics and tapestries, but have since expanded to iconic shirting. Parisian-based 2 Mai's creations are made from vintage fabrics, recycled material, and canvas acquired in flea markets. Their goal is to emphasize the human component of fashion—each item requires someone's unique handiwork. So naturally, each piece comes with a little bit of history, and they'll tell you the story.
2 Mai recently sent Chloe King one of the varsity jackets and broke down the process for us. "The nude needlepoint tapestry was found in a flea market in the Champagne area in France. Then the camel wool was found in a warehouse selling deadstock fabrics only in a suburb of Paris," explains founder Alice Rio-Derrey. "The manufacturing was then made in our atelier in Champagne, so the whole process happens within 150 km of the selling point."
Photo: Courtesy of Farewell Frances
Another brand indulging in the quilt aesthetic is Farewell Frances. Founder Carly Scheck says that she "chose to use vintage and antique textiles because they remind me of my grandmothers and are full of nostalgia and romanticism," but also for obvious environmental reasons. The garments are made from discarded quilts, which she sells alongside curated self-care items and fanciful antiques. Scheck's philosophy, like many others on this list, is to simply make do with what we already have versus creating more stuff.
She treats the design process as a puzzle. "Usually, you would sketch out your idea and then source the materials," she says. "However, with vintage or deadstock materials, what usually happens is I find the fabric and then let that guide the design." The key, she says, is to pay tribute to the original piece. "I want my garments to take you to another place and time, like reading a great book. I want it to transform the way you feel when you're wearing it."
Founder María Bernad launched Les Fleur her second year in university as a way to combine her love of both fashion design and sustainability. Her designs are made from deadstock fabric and reworked vintage items. "I simply started reusing materials because I considered there were way too many existing pieces that I could use to create my own brand from scratch," she says. "I have not considered any other way of designing since then.
"When upcycling, you basically limit yourself to the material, so the design process is a lot more focused on the technique rather than the pattern or the piece's shape," she explains. This ensures each item is visually unique. Though Bernad loves creating pieces that come with a bit of history, the most exciting part is the idea of owning a one-of-a-kind piece of apparel.
Psychic Outlaw's artistic sartorial creations will have you channeling your inner granny, dressing in head-to-toe patchwork quilts in no time. Founded in Austin, Texas, in 2018, Psychic Outlaw is an extension of founder Rebecca Wright's love of unique clothing. You can either supply your own quilt or bandanas, or purchase one of theirs. Then you select the style you want, and they do the rest for you.
Also inspired by her grandmother—notice a theme here?—Wright's goal is to create simple designs that you won't tire of after a season or two. A less scientific approach to sustainable design, she is a proponent of curating items in a wardrobe that last forever.
Photo: Courtesy of Sibling Vintage
Sibling Vintage breathes new life into shirts you may be tired of. Simple button-downs become backless styles adorned with tie-style embellishments and eyelet motifs. Designed to combat the idea of "new" clothes, founder Emily Bryngelson is making something fresh without producing any more product. With experience at J.Crew and Sea New York, she carefully sources 100-percent-cotton men's button-down shirting with high-quality, beautiful design and color. Each piece is then handmade in their studio and is one of a kind. So think again before discarding an old shirt—send it to Sibling instead. "I usually just have an idea for something and will sit at the sewing machine and create it, thinking about how to make this surplus item feel new, feminine, special, but not crafty," she says. As her styles are currently sold out, she is taking custom orders via Instagram.
Top photo: Courtesy of Girl of the Earth
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