Cuts, styles and colors come and go in fashion. What may be trendy today can be a thing of the past before you know it. In the now-immortal words of “Project Runway” host Heidi Klum, “In fashion, one day you’re in, the next day you’re out.”
In this day and age, however, there is a particular trend that many hope will never be outdated — one whose aesthetics are rooted in environmental consciousness and known as the innovative movement of “upcycling.”
Last year, the Paris and London fashion weeks made a statement by going fur-free. This year, efforts toward sustainability are stronger than ever, with brands deliberately using excess textile waste to produce entire collections, by incorporating plastics in fashion in ingenious ways as well as repurposing old materials into brand new clothing and accessories.
Upcycling is most prominent in the reinvention of old materials that would have previously gone to waste. To cite a much talked about example from overseas, French designer Marine Serre upcycled old scuba outfits into parachutes to create luxury garments while brands like Los Angeles’ RE/DONE and Triarchy use old pairs of jeans to create new denim.
At this point, the reader’s obvious question must be “How about the Philippine fashion industry?” Are its stakeholders open to upcycling? If so, do local labels have the capacity to produce upcycled clothing? And more significantly, are Filipinos willing to buy brands that upcycle?
The Manila Times sought answers to these questions and more from experts on the subject — De La Salle College of Saint Benilde’s chairman of Fashion Design and Merchandising, Christine Cheryl Benet, and faculty member Tracey Tabora — and here are their thoughts on the future of upcyling in the Philippines:
The Manila Times: Can you define what upcycling means in the fashion industry? Would you actually call it a fashion “trend”?
Benet: Upcycling is basically having old items or products redone or redesigned into another product and make them of higher or of another value. What’s important is, it’s still the same product line — if it’s ladies wear, when upcycled, it remains ladies’ wear.
In terms of it becoming a trend, upcycling actually has been done a lot of times in different translations. One example would be, when the avant-garde movement came along, upcycling was actually called “deconstruction.”
Tabora: To be clear, upcycling is different from recycling because in the former, you give the same product higher value. Let’s say the original item is from old vintage, but you make it relevant, up to date or trendy. Whereas in recycling, the outcome is a totally different product. Recycling is [done] more just to save. In upcycling you have the concept to make it better.
I think it’s a trend that goes with the “Go Green” or “No Plastic” or the sustainable lifestyle trend today.
Having said that it goes with the ongoing sustainable lifestyle trend, do you think it’s the desire of consumers that prompted the upcycling movement or is it the initiative of brands and designers?
Benet: Both. Consumer-wise, there came a saturation point where everybody started to look the same. So, for those who are in the creative industry, especially fashion, they want to differentiate themselves and express their individualism through fashion.
Tabora: I think it started because with the advent of fast fashion brands, ang daming nasasayang na clothes (Many clothes go to waste). It also became an issue that 40 percent of the total items brands sell go to the trash at some point within a year. So, people became more aware and wanted to buy something that’s more valuable.
Are there any disadvantages to upcycling?
Benet: These can perhaps be found in the designing process itself. Unlike when you make a garment or a product from the normal flow, you have to really think of the function of the fabric before using it — as simple as if it’s water repellent or not. In upcycling, most of the time, you are after the design and the function of the material is only secondary. I think that’s one of the cons of upcycling — it can be that the material is no longer applicable to the function you are trying to use it for in the new product.
In terms of economics, that’s also another challenge. Going back to sustainability, there’s also an issue that upcycling and recycling, the process of doing these, might not only be costlier for business but also more harmful for the environment.
When we are just talking about fashion, we would say yes, upcycling is worth it because what you get out of it is a new design, a new concept.
But if you think about the whole supply chain, not everyone will agree.
Tabora: That’s because sometimes, in upcycling, since you add value to it, you tweak it in a way and you add more materials to the product so that in the long run, it’s no longer sustainable. Yes, you have something that’s original and one of a kind, but it can become even more costly than say when we get a new one.
Is fashion upcycling sustainable? Does it really create a positive impact on the environment?
Tabora: When we talk about mass production and retail, it’s really hard for upcycling to be sustainable. You have a number of stores, deadlines to meet, and you have to be consistent with the products. It’s not like when you make something from scratch. Upcycling is a limited market.
For me, since it’s like a trend right now, you have to adapt the lifestyle. Remember the metal straw trend that saw people bringing their own straws? Right now, it has kind of died down and they are back to using plastic straws.
So, for trends like this to really have a great impact for the environment, you really have to put the effort. If you incorporate it in your lifestyle, it will work.
Do you believe Filipinos will patronize upcycled fashion?
Benet: It’s ironic. If it’s going to be commercial, ang tatangkilik ng (the ones who will patronize) upcycling will be the upper class. I say it’s very ironic kasi (because) supposedly it would work better kung ang makaka-intindi n’un (if those who understand) are the people who cannot afford new things.
But the thing is, Filipinos are very more on aesthetics. They’d say, “Wala akong pakialam kahit gawa ‘yan sa plastic, basta maganda ako (I don’t care if it’s made with plastic so long as I look good).”
It is very challenging to advocate sustainability in the Philippines, so lumalabas (it appears) it’s just a trend.
Tabora: It’s hard to educate people on the real meaning of upcycling especially those in the BCDE market.
For them kasi, ‘yung (the) value ng (of) upcycling, hindi nila masyadong iniisip yun (they don’t think much about it). Mas gusto pa nila bumili ng bago kasi parang sa (They prefer to buy because it seems in) upcycling, gamit na ‘yan (it’s used) and all.
Pero (But) for the higher market, mas gusto nga nila ‘yung ganun (they prefer), upcycling, because they see the value of labor, that it’s one of a kind and that there’s purpose behind that upcycled product.
Benet: If it’s really like a part of a trend and it’s accessible, the majority will buy it.
Do you think upcycling will go mainstream in the future?
Benet: It boils down to the fact that before, people were more crafty — all mothers would know how to sew and schools had home economics subjects. Today, only a few Filipinos really want to be crafty. So how would you make upcycling a way of life if they don’t even want to bother to learn how to do it? Then comes the question, who will do it?
Fashion designers can actually do it but not the fast fashion and the mass production brands.
Tabora: The things is, in fast fashion, they have a production line on how they create the clothes. If a particular material isn’t like a flat canvas it would be difficult because everything in their factories are systematic — sa isang (in a) station, dito ‘yung (here you find the) cutting of patterns, then tatahiin mo (sew) in a certain way; dito (here) collar, dito button, gan’un. In upcycling, you have different canvasses, so it’s a big challenge to do it in mass scale.
Given the very early presence of upcycling in the Philippines, how can consumers who truly want to make an impact through sustainable fashion help?
Benet: Actually, coming from a perspective of a Filipino, fast fashion basically is the one that causes most of this commotion. Everything that’s happening in the industry, and it’s not just the sustainability but how fast fashion also affects the local brands economically.
So, unfortunately, even if we educate consumers with upcycling or recycling, if we depend on materials from outside, it defeats the purpose. You still import.
The solution, I think would be to love your own first and go local. Sometimes doing so can be more expensive but they have to understand that it is because may (there is) substance ‘yung pagkaka-produce — the labor, the people who made it is the community.
Tabora: I guess matagal siya bago ma-instill (it would take time to be instilled). But the key here is to educate the masses with sustainability.