English Version | 3, 2, 1, born again

02 Sep 2021
By Sara Andrade

Upcycling, second-hand, vintage… the terms are not new nor are the clothes that are described by them. New, however, is the opportunity they gain, as they stop being waste to have a new beginning in our wardrobe.

Upcycling, second-hand, vintage… the terms are not new nor are the clothes that are described by them. New, however, is the opportunity they gain, as they stop being waste to have a new beginning in our wardrobe.

Fotografia de Corey Olsen.

This is not just another article about upcycling. Not just another text about vintage. Not just a few more considerations about buying second-hand clothing. Well, maybe it is. But here you may discover not only the benefits of this conscious choice for the planet, but also for the businesses that survive from it. Perhaps you will find advantages in terms of the originality and creativity of a conscious choice. Perhaps zero waste is inversely proportional to the amount of style. Maybe you already know all this. And “maybe” here is the keyword. Maybe you don't know what you don't know yet without reading everything til the end.

For example, talking about zero waste and clothing recycling is not a 21st century trend stemming from a need to reduce our carbon footprint. In olden times, the wardrobe was bought with an essentials perspective in mind: it was the seamstresses who usually made the pieces and the ready-to-wear, contrary to what happens today, was much more expensive than bespoke. And it had to last - not just because of the length of the process, but also because of the cost. If a dress became too worn, it was turned into a smock for a child until it became patchwork to fill in pillows. With the arrival of the industrial revolution, at the beginning of the 19th century, along with mass production, clothing gained a more disposable aspect as it became more accessible in price. The consumption of ready-to-wear (and not only) has increased and, at the same time, the waste as well, since the growth of population density in urban centers has resulted in a decrease in housing spaces, as noted by Jennifer Le Zotte in the book From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies. This also meant the emergency of new businesses that would allow this consumption turnover to flow, which is why concepts such as pawnshop spaces and second-hand stores were born. But resorting to used clothing was frowned upon, as well as being interpreted as a sign of few possessions, so the second-hand enjoyed some initial bad rep. Its charity virtue made it more acceptable for a middle-class housewife to be a client of these spaces and helped to annihilate the negative connotation.

Today, the stigma may have almost completely disappeared, and, although some stores continue to take on their charitable aspect, they all gained a greater purpose: that of serving the circular economy. Within the list of options, there are many focused on vintage (they are not just second-hand pieces, they are also relics) and a curatorship that rivals in originality with the trends that appeal to the most demanding consumers. Another one of its business cards is durability: as pieces from the past were made to last longer, they arrive to these days immaculate. And the offer is as diverse as any mass production conglomerate, but disregarding the molds of manufacturing from scratch, a nuance with more weight in the consumer's decision than you can imagine: Forbes reported, in 2019, that a study by Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) found that 93% of global consumers expect more from brands they use when it comes to supporting environmental, social and local themes and that many are willing to pay up to 20% more to purchase environmentally friendly products to the detriment of others without this eco-awareness. They are not alone: ​​in a survey carried out by Element Three + Smari, entitled Millennials and the Modern Buyer, 87% of the millennial generation in the US is willing to pay more when sustainability is an attribute, confirming what RILA also approaches in its study — purchasing decisions are increasingly linked to values ​​linked to personal, social and environmental issues. Tiago Andrade and Bruno Lopes, specialists in the field, agree: “The demand for vintage has increased in recent years thanks to new generations”, underline the founders of a sort of second-hand empire in Lisbon, which includes the original Ás de Espadas (2010) and now also New Jester Vintage for Man, Zip Gum Boogie Urban and Vintage Shop, HeartCore Vintage and, about a month ago, Sons of the Silent Age arrived, which includes a customization option as well as a selection of vintage items from designers. "We think that people who come to our stores do it for sustainability reasons and because they know they will find quality pieces that are in excellent condition and that at the same time have a timeless factor associated with them, regardless of the period they belong to, because trends are cyclical and we are always aware of that fact.”

They aren't the only ones. It is known that small brands linked to slow fashion already reduce their carbon footprint by not massifying their wardrobe, but Marisa Matos, from Portuguese company Sienna, decided to go further: after collections with a limited number of items (she does everything in seamstresses), the entrepreneur and designer decided to breathe new life into the unused fabrics she acquired and reuse them for even more limited editions. The piece is not a used one and old parts are not upcycled, but the use of materials that would otherwise be laying in a corner and that would ultimatley end up in a landfill prolongs this idea of ​​a “new beginning”: “I really enjoy creating, thinking, testing and so on. It necessarily makes me accumulate several meters of fabric, which often end up not making it to the final collection. I began to realize that it didn't make sense, from an environmental and financial point of view, to have them just there — not least because they were often my favorites, but for some reason I couldn't have them with the amount I originally needed. I started to use them in the cuts of existing pieces that required fewer meters with the aim of putting them to good use”, she explains, adding that, in fact, the welcoming of this capsule is very much related to its basic concept. “Although the whole issue of sustainability is increasingly in 'fashion' and is a recurring theme, I never thought that Zero Waste would be welcomed in such a loving way. In fact, people place great value on the fact that they are using fabrics that would otherwise end up in the trash or to no avail.(…) I would be lying if I said that Zero Waste does not drive sales — the amount of people who subscribe to our newsletter has more than doubled since I do it. In fact, even though it all started with the need to get rid of unused fabrics, I feel it created a whirlwind hype around the brand.”

Sienna's side-business is the core of other brands like Béhen. Joana Duarte, the designer, did not think about the acceptance of the clientele, but the passion for reusing fabrics served as the fuse for a brand that meets all the environmental requirements of the modern world and gives voice to this idea of ​​“new beginnings” fittingly: “Béhen started literally, and without me realizing it, amidst quilts, sheets, and napperons from my grandmother's trousseau. During my Masters at Kingston University London I developed a great interest in political art that eventually evolved into a focus on ethical production, so I went to India for a few months to intern at a fair trade company that works directly with artisans in rural areas. It was in India that I realized the importance of reusing and passing sarees from generation to generation, just like my grandmother does with her trousseau.” The purpose became greater - to reduce waste and bet on this idea of ​​circular economy: “Most of the materials we work with belong to the trousseau of countless women and the truth is that most are kept in safes and drawers throughout years… often new and never used”, reveals Duarte. "Béhen, in about a year and a half, has already rescued hundreds of quilts, countless napperons, and dozens of hand-embroidered towels, in addition to partnerships and collaborations with artisans, seamstresses, factories, creatives, other brands, etc."

It is important to explain why recycling and upcycling are different: upcycling transforms a used piece or existing fabric that would otherwise be garbage. Recycling has a downsizing component that involves throwing a piece away to destroy and rebuilding it to make new raw material. Recycling requires a lot more resources than upcycling — and it's important to recycle, but it's better to reuse first. Which is what Dino Alves set out to do long before this environmental hype around upcycling. In 2001, the portuguese designer created the Hospital da Roupa, an initiative that is not related to the “small fixes as in a traditional seamstress. The idea is different: recovering old pieces, transforming them into new pieces”. Dino recalls that, “in 2001, I actually turned the idea into a business model, because I was already doing that even before I started making fashion. All I wore were pieces bought in second-hand stores or a flea market and then I imagined them my way. In my first collections, around 70% were pieces made from upcycling. From a certain point onwards, it started to make sense to communicate it and allow the public to take advantage of this idea, hence Hospital da Roupa was born. Always with the environmental issues in mind, although at the time there was not that much talk about it — this was even underestimated. People liked the idea of ​​the show, but they didn't consider it 'clothing'. Now there's more overture for it", even though the road ahead is still long, he adds: "People think it's funny and the idea is brilliant, you notice that there is an impulse at certain times when you talk a little more, but then what? The effective search for it is a very different story. Then there's another thing: I explain that this is not a seamstress service, but rather a creative service by a fashion designer, whose end result is that of an author's piece, with lower costs than a completely new piece, but still a design piece. And the expectation is that the prices are for sewing fixes. And it's not. Even because the process is laborious: it is necessary to deconstruct the piece to go back to work on it. Interestingly, there are many people who get on board because they want to be a part of it, in addition to environmental issues. And it so happens that they want to recycle family pieces or that they really like and they don't want to be discarded, but it's not suitable for use or no longer fits. But they don't want to get rid of it."

Indeed, this idea of ​​giving new life to obsolete materials or pieces is not an attractiveness factor that lives on its own: when talking about upcycling and reuse, in the 21st century, we also talk about design. The consumption requirements in terms of lifestyle go through sustainability, but without underestimating a style that represents us. We like pieces with a pleasing aesthetic and we like it even more when this design is supported by environmental values, zero waste, circular economy, values ​​that can make or break a buy. The creative and original component of the piece remains essential in the idea of ​​a new beginning — because the idea of ​​upcycling is not to reuse the piece, but rather to create a completely new one, with all the traits that make it attractive — just not from scratch. That's what Dino Alves did with his 2020 collection: “It's smaller than the usual presentations and has many upcycling pieces, but also from materials that I had stagnated in the studio. In this case, of course, it also had a lot to do with the budget issue, because everything is at a standstill, there are not many conditions to invest. Of all the collections I've made over these 20-odd years, it's been the collection from which I've sold the most pieces, so maybe that's a sign.” In addition to the new life, originality matters: “I think the fact that many of the pieces are one of a kind is what makes [upcycling] so appealing”, assesses Joana Duarte, from Béhen. Furthermore, “having a unique piece is a complement to the individual style that adds an emotional value”, corroborates the duo from Ás de Espadas. “For example, a 50-year-old vintage piece, with a whole history that is inherent to it, will certainly have greater quality and durability to the point that it can be passed on from generation to generation. The same does not happen with a piece bought in fast fashion stores, in which an identical piece will be used by thousands of people all over the world and that in a short time will become disposable”. Curious enough, the history component of the past can add value and drive the desire to give it a future.

Other advantages weigh in the decision - those of upcycling, for example, are well known: in addition to rescuing materials and pieces that would end up in landfills, reducing waste and eventually preventing the production of a stock that would end up unused, it implies less resources in the process, since it eliminates the need to work with new raw materials — perhaps you know that it takes 2,700 liters of water to produce a simple white t-shirt. Or maybe you didn't know. In socio-economic terms, it is also a way of celebrating artisanal work and traditional modes of production, as well as reducing manufacturing costs, since materials that already exist in the atelier are often used. Meaning starting over is not just a upcycling of the piece, material or product; it is a fresh start at different levels, namely social and economic, since, in addition to closing production circles, or at least slowing them down, it also creates economic opportunities and stimulates entrepreneurship, by supporting a culture of greater consumer involvement in the production process and advocating reuse over recycling. And it's not just small brands that are adhering to these options in favor of a circular economy, big established fashion names have chosen to do so, not only to meet the increasingly conscious demands of their customers, but also as a way to convert waste into profit: last year, Gucci launched a capsule collection entitled Off the Grid, in which it creates sporty-inspired pieces for everyday life using sustainable materials such as econyl — it's Alessandro Michele's first step towards "circularity"; Marques’Almeida, in addition to the environmental awareness in the fabrics and dyes they use in their lines, have created a section on their website where you can buy second-hand pieces of the brand (the category is appropriately titled Marques’Almeida pre-owned); even fast fashion names like H&M, Mango and Zara have included in their goals the increase of pieces created with sustainability in mind, through initiatives such as H&M's close the loop (the brand accepts used pieces for recycling in exchange for store credit), and ranges such as Conscious (H&M), Committed (Mango) and Join Life (Zara), which use eco-conscious materials and less impactful production. This means that, at the origin, these pieces also use materials that got a second opportunity: fishing nets, plastics taken from the ocean, recycled cotton… raw materials that get a new beginning for the clothing that the new century demands. And the consumer too: the second life of a dress, sweater, shorts, skirt, is only validated if the consumer gives it a new life.

Therefore, the new beginning is also up to the consumer's decision. Marisa Matos agrees that “today's consumers are increasingly aware and informed of the impact that the textile industry has on the world and feel that they too can make a difference by buying from local brands and with these types of initiatives. They somehow feel that, when they are buying something new, when they buy pieces like those from this Zero Waste, their footprint is smaller. In recent years, I have felt that purchases are increasingly thought out and that interest in the origin and composition of the pieces is also increasing. In the end, fortunately, we are moving towards a more conscious type of consumption.” Joana Duarte, from Béhen, believes that the intention is there, but that the path still has to be taken: “Any project that is created today has to take into account the ecological footprint of the industry, it is true that the consumer has a very important role, but brands even more so. I don't believe that the desire to have more X or Y pants disappears, so it's up to those who produce to be responsible and thoughtful in what they create and show the world.” And she adds: “There is an increasing concern to approach the traditional, the handmade, almost like a search for a sense of belonging in cultural terms. Personally, I think the future is upcycling, but I believe it won't be an option for most brands. I admit that it takes a lot of work and is a big investment when working directly with embroiderers and artisans. There are times when I believe industry can make a positive contribution to others and the planet, but there are times when it seems that no matter how much you do, nothing really changes. Anyway, I believe that Fashion has the power to change the world, if it wants to”, she concludes. Tiago Andrade and Bruno Lopes are optimistic about this path: “Being an increasingly common habit among new generations, they will become the adults of tomorrow, for whom buying vintage and second-hand will be a common act, without distinction or prejudices."

This isn't just another article about upcycling. Not just another text about vintage. Not just a few more considerations about buying second-hand clothing. Well, maybe it was. But it may have been the one that, unlike others, will serve as a fuse for us to effectively start consuming in a different, more conscious way. The one that will get us started anew with regards to how we build the wardrobe. Because opting for upcycled, vintage, second-hand, is not opting for something that has already been used, but for something that has been loved once. And that can be loved once again.

Originally translated from the New Beginnings issue, published September 2021.Full credits and stories on the print issue.

Sara Andrade By Sara Andrade


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