The number of licensed and collaborative initiatives that involve products made from recycled materials, or products that are recyclable themselves, has been on the rise for several years, with new examples proliferating quickly of late. One area of focus in the last year or so, and especially this fall, has been upcycling, a specific form of recycling. Upcycling is the process of directly turning waste into higher-quality products or materials, typically without intermediate processing at a recycling center.
Recent examples, many of them announced since August, include:
• Hyundai Motor Company pairing with Chile-based, eco-friendly ready-to-wear brand Zero + Maria Cornejo for a 15-piece capsule called Re:Style. The upcycled collection used leather that was left over from development of Hyundai seats, along with silk and natural dyes.
• Reebok teaming with Nicole McLaughlin, an upcycling artist who creates unique new items from leftover materials, for a collection that repurposed vintage Reebok goods. The 17 one-off pieces were raffled at Reebok’s Union Square store in New York.
• Converse partnering with Beyond Retro, a U.K.-based retailer and fashion brand that has been collecting used jeans with plans to resell the denim to other partners for upcycling purposes. The resulting Converse Renew Denim Chuck 70 line, Beyond’s first partnership with a brand, used one pair of jeans (or more) for each pair of sneakers, making each slightly different from the rest. The price was $5 higher than a pair of regular Chuck 70s. In spring 2020, Converse and Renew plan a similar initiative involving upcycled cotton.
• Designer labels Eileen Fisher and Public School, a streetwear specialist—both known for their sustainability goals—combining for a line incorporating used Eileen Fisher garments that the company collects from customers at two facilities. Production was capped at a maximum of 150 collaborative pieces of each item.
• Jahnkoy, the label of Russian-born Maria Kazakova, collaborating with Puma on a collection that included upcycled items containing materials purchased at bodegas in Brooklyn, where she lives and works, as well as apparel and footwear from recycled and sustainable fabrics and materials.
• Gap creating an upcycled collection in partnership with Atelier & Repairs that took 500 vintage Gap pieces and updated them them by distressing, patching, adding zippered pouches, and other alterations. The collection, part of Gap’s 50th anniversary celebration, was available at six boutiques in the U.S., Japan, and the U.K.
• E-commerce site LN-CC working with Swedish fashion label Our Legacy on a t-shirt collection made from upcycled materials and featuring hand-printed and hand-painted details.
• Indian designer Wajahat Rather and his label Raffughar, which launched in 2009, pairing with upcycling studio Paiwand this year for an apparel collection dubbed “Hakeemo.”
• Italian label Attico working with Re/Done, a luxury e-commerce brand that creates new fashion from vintage Levi’s and other heritage labels, for a limited capsule collection sold through Re/Done and other websites, as well as Barneys and Nordstrom.
• Andagain, a U.S.-based label, pairing with artist Deniz Sagdic for a collection of jean jackets with detailed artwork made from denim scraps. The very limited collection consisted of three jackets priced at $3,000, each of which came with a framed, artist-signed photo of the piece.
These efforts range from just a few unique items to broader, but still limited, collections. The ability to create full collections should expand as more designers and other brands save rather than discard leftover materials from their creative process, collect used apparel items from their customers, or work with the growing number of organizations whose mission is to collect vintage clothing for reuse. That said, while upcycling is attractive from a sustainability standpoint, since it avoids the processing required of other forms of recycling, it will by its nature always be difficult to scale up to any sort of mass level.
Upcycling is part of the broader trend of “circular fashion.” The implications of circular fashion on the licensing business, particularly when it comes to the apparel, accessories, and footwear categories, will be the Licensing Topic of the Month in Raugust Communications’ upcoming e-newsletter, which goes out next Tuesday, November 19, 2019. The Datapoint research spotlight will focus on the reasons licensors cite for selecting specific partners for limited collaborations. If you have not yet subscribed to this free publication, you can do so here.