The uprise of upcycling

What is new is old. Why are more consumers venturing into upcycling and DIY fashion and what will this mean for the industry?

Vintage coats are trending. Photo: Charlotte Spraggs

At the back of a garage sale hangs a fur-lined coat. The musty scent lingering in the fabric brings to mind the 1970s: an era of Hollywood stardom. An elderly Italian man guards it like a sleepy Bullmastiff. His attention is focussed on the late model television he expects someone to buy. After years of hanging still, gathering dust in the darkness, the old coat is about to become the prized possession of an ecstatic buyer keen to contribute to a circular economy.

The saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” has never been so true. Upcycling and ethical fashion have increasingly become central to discussions about how to make the future sustainable. More and more brands are promoting the idea of a circular economy, with reduction of waste at the forefront of fashion.  

“Capitalism and the rapid transition between trends have contributed to the growth of fast fashion and I think it will continue if we don’t elicit change.”

Pauline Sanchez

CSIRO says that all resources are kept in circulation in a circular economy. Value-adding therefore occurs multiple times during the item’s lifecycle, transcending the take-make-dispose model that previously dominated the economy.

O’Clery Clothing owner Samantha O’Clery is the 20-year-old from Perth who was ecstatic to pick up that Penny Lane coat from the garage sale, as part of her mission to make upcycled and vintage garments people’s first choice of clothing. Her business has grown, having amassed nearly 2000 followers on Depop since starting in 2016. She says being able to make fashion her business is a result of what contemporary shoppers are valuing when they buy.

O’Clery packs and posts multiple packages a day to happy customers. Photo: Charlotte Spraggs

“The biggest part of my business is curation and that is what people are paying for. I can walk into an op shop and spend the time to look through every single garment and picture it styled in a bunch of different ways. I know the trends, know my audience and what people are in to. It then has to be presented to them in a way that is enticing,” O’Clery says.

“People aren’t just buying the clothes, they are buying the person. Something that I think differentiates small businesses from large is a personal interaction with the customer. I know when I buy something and somebody personalises it with a little note or some stickers, it makes the experience so much more enjoyable as a buyer and makes you want to do it again,” she says. 

So what actually is upcycling?

The term upcycling is commonly confused with recycling, as these words are often thrown around in discussion of ethical fashion. However, there is a difference and an important one at that. 

Blogger Intercongreen describes recycling as a process through which an item is brought back to the cycle of daily contribution to society rather than discarding it to the trash, whereas upcycling is reusing the material without degrading its value for the next use.

Greenpeace recorded that 73 per cent of recycled and donated clothes were sent to landfill or the incinerator every year and Textile Exchange reports that 95 per cent of textiles could probably be recycled but only 25 per cent actually are. 

Upcycling is, therefore, a more favourable approach for the environment as it maintains the integrity of the original item while also eliminating the high costs associated with recycling processes and the one-time use of the fabrics. 

Some examples of upcycling by luxury brands include Burberry, who teamed up with Elvis and Krusse, creating new products from leather cut-offs. Nike also teamed up with MINIWIZ to build a store that was constructed from used shoes, the soles used for carpets and furnishings. 

After travelling to Melbourne and exploring the fashion scene there, O’Clery says Perth’s scale of upcycling is much smaller but due to change soon. 

“In Perth we are so isolated, the quality of stock is restricted and harder to source because there are no big suppliers or wholesalers or warehouses. It is definitely up and coming here rather than already being established”. 

Photo: Charlotte Spraggs

Changes in consumer trends; DIY and modular fashion

Forbes Magazine listed DIY as one of the most rapidly growing fashion trends in based on an Instagram study in 2020. People exasperated by the rules of lockdown have turned to DIY fashion techniques to upcycle clothing and ensure value is maintained. Similarly, fashion designer from Western Australia Paulin Sanchez, says that creating clothes at home is integral to contemporary fashion trends. 

“In the early 2000s when I was growing up, there was quite a negative stigma towards DIY and thrift shopping. You would only do it if you were on a tight budget or if you didn’t really have enough money to spend on clothes. I’m glad to see it being more normalised, especially with vintage trends coming to surface and more influencers like Emma Chamberlain and Ricky Thompson destigmatising it. There are also popular DIY brands that are on market as of late, such as SKOOT Apparel, which normalised the fashion-at-home mentality,” she says. 

Photo: Charlotte Spraggs

Course coordinator and senior lecturer of fashion at Edith Cowan University Justine McKnight says the fashion course has reflected this change in trends and values for designers, not just buyers. 

“Repurposing used clothing and finding innovative ways to repair, rework and redesign garments have certainly been more important to many of our fashion students in recent years. These approaches are also incorporated into our projects as part of our design methodology, so students are incorporating existing, pre-loved clothing into their work and design development.”

The ‘scarf top’ is an example of DIY fashion made popular on the internet with ‘#scarfshirt’ racking up over 7 million views on TikTok. People are eager to find new ways to turn something as simple and cheap as a scarf into multiple different outfits by tying it a different way. Sanchez says this type of multi-use fashion is growing. 

Designer Sanchez says: “Modular fashion is increasing with consumers becoming gradually more aware of their purchase decisions; they want pieces that are versatile and endure different seasons of trends. With the growing acknowledgement of negative environmental effects that the fashion industry has caused, as a buyer, I am more likely to invest my money into modular pieces that can be worn multiple ways and for various amounts of time than just a one-off buy.”

Fast fashion taking advantage of consumers’ sustainable values

Though ethical fashion and slow fashion have been a focus, the industry is not seeing a huge decrease in fast fashion. Market research firm Ibis World reported that $1.8 billion industry had seen revenue growth of 1.2 per cent per year since 2016, fueled by new technology and population increases. Sanchez says that from both a designer and environmental perspective, fast fashion is still a significant problem.

“Capitalism and rapid transition between trends have contributed to the growth of fast fashion and I think it will continue if we don’t elicit change.”

A lot of brands such as Cotton On and Pretty Little Thing, have adopted the vintage market mindset, including specific sections within their website for sales of solely vintage items or a recycle section. Some however are selling new clothes and labelling them as ‘vintage’. O’Clery believes that stores adopting these ideals is a positive but could have negative impacts. 

She says: “Since I started this business when I was 16, I have seen a huge push for vintage clothes and big brands doing remakes of vintage pieces. I am always supportive of vintage and it is good for companies to get used to a process they may have to go down entirely in the future.

“However, not all of these places are re-lifing and a lot are just re-making. I would hope for it to not fuel the fast fashion brands by providing them with financial resources for further wrong-doing and abuse of things like sweat shops and cheap labour. It has to be a complete fundamental and societal change in ideology completely for it to work,” O’Clery says. 

Effect of the internet on sustainable fashion

Scrolling is second nature for a lot of us these days. Forbes reports that Gen Z makes up more than 60 per cent of the TikTok population alone. O’Clery says this means that naturally, there is a strong correlation between social media and the fashion trends.

“Social media has a huge influence on what people are buying especially because now young people are getting most of their inspiration as they scroll every day. We are retaining most of that information, sometimes without knowing it and it is helping us to gauge our own fashion sense.”

Sanchez says not all impacts on the fashion industry by social media platforms are positive. 

She says: “TikTok has been very influential, especially for the upcoming Gen Z; negatively because it endorses fast-fashion brands like Shein and Pretty Little Thing quite frequently. However, also positively, because I also see many creators who encourage DIY fashion and thrifting on the platform. I would say TikTok is mainly an influence on the masses for the purpose of trend.”

“Depop, however, I feel has more positive influences than negative. The app encourages thrifting and the upcycling and recycling of clothes. It gives garments a second life and helps aid in making clothes last longer than their expected life cycle,” she says.

Fast fashion shaming

Not only are there ethical and environmental reasons to shop slow, like decreasing landfill waste, water usage and unethical labour, but now there are social reasons too.

Shame can be defined as the condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute – fast fashion shaming is a term used to define the social pressure of wearing brands that are accepted in society. 

Social media expectations and reactions can guide the decisions subconsciously made as a consumer. If you aren’t deemed to make a ‘good decision’, you will be sent to ‘social media jail’ and will reap the repercussions in the form of unfollows, dislikes, and online vilification.

O’Clery says young people are the key demographic for upcycling with, sustainable ideas at the forefront. 

She says: “The process of being a consumer is your impact on society and the environment. Our parents and grandparents grew up in a generation where the priority was more so to destroy the environment for economic benefit so there has definitely been a big shift in mindset for our future. Younger generations are very aware of how climate change is going to affect our future. Taking small actions now will hopefully aid the future and help us become more familiar with the process of working with the environment instead of against it.”

It is important to highlight the major impacts of fast fashion and it is notable that the feeling of guilt is influential in making a change. However, it has to be understood that buying slow labels can be expensive and not everyone can afford to with accessibility boundaries around location, money and supply issues. 

We have to allow time for the market to adjust. With more businesses like O’Clery’s starting, access will hopefully increase and a shift in the market will be accommodating to the everyday buyer. In the meantime, understanding, patience and thoughtfulness is needed as people adjust. 

Owner of clothing site Vitamin C Vintage Catie Conradie, has made it one of her priorities to make vintage clothing affordable and accessible to the everyday person, to counter claims that sustainable fashion is classist.

She says: “Holding companies accountable in making sustainable and humane choices, will inevitably mean the end of fast fashion and the beginning of a more sustainable future. That being said, when consumers are shamed for supporting fast fashion, the class divide of sustainability really starts to show. The lack of affordable sustainable options plays a key role in the ongoing support for fast fashion and the copious amounts of pollution and waste it results in. We need industry action that isn’t just tokenism but actually creates fundamental long-term change.”

Future of fashion

McKnight says that we should be looking for clothes based on more than just trend and affordability.

“The future of fashion may not be too dissimilar from now but hopefully with much less of the cheaper, mass-produced items. We need consumers to value better-made clothing that lasts and is recognised for its craftsmanship, narrative and design.” 

So, take a long hard look at those ‘ugly’ clothes you were about to throw in the bin. Someone might want them and it could buy you a ticket to participate in the circular economy. Maybe buy a sewing machine and turn an over-sized shirt into a trendy two piece, give your old cabinet a new coat of paint or melt your spoons into rings. The options are endless. 

To understand more about ethical fashion read Kate Geldart’s article Passion for slow fashion on the Western Independent or visit

Categories: Fashion, General

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