The shirt you’re wearing right now has a past life, and, if all goes well, it will have an afterlife when you’re done with it. It was likely born out of a huge swath of fabric, 20% of which was turned into scrap and thrown away. And chances are, when it’s time for the shirt to move on, it will eventually end up in a landfill. One hundred thousand million tons of clothing are thrown away each year in the U.K. alone, 50% of which piles up in landfills. A growing faction of cutting-edge eco designers have started a backlash against this kind of textile pollution, all too accepted in the garment industry.
ReFashioned, a new book by fashion activist, designer, and FIT lecturer Sass Brown, published today by U.K.-based Laurence King, pays homage to 46 forward-thinking international designers who work with recycled and upcycled materials. Trash turns to treasure in miraculous ways in these pages: There’s a parka made from old parachutes; a chain mail-esque purse from soda can ring pulls; a linen jacket from vintage German flour sacks; and delicate jewelry from bike tires. One delicate and romantic piece is made entirely from discarded cow nipples. Human hair, military tents, and ship sails are just a few more of the unlikely materials made unrecognizable after being transformed into high-end, highly innovative styles.
"It took about three years for me to produce the book," Brown tells Co.Design. "In a world of simply too much stuff, it is vital that eco-fashion is not just good, but is in fact extraordinary. There is more than enough stuff in the world already—the idea of adding anything more that is not outstanding seems unconscionable," she writes.
The designs in ReFashioned give credibility to the idea that limitations can actually enhance creativity; these pieces are whimsical and unexpected. When overwhelmed with infinite possibility and limitless materials, it can be hard not to revert to the safety of the same-old. The right limitations—only being allowed to use a bike tire or a ship sail, for example—yield never-before-seen results.
So, now that we know upcycled clothing is no less chic (and in many cases, more original) than what we’re used to, what's stopping the majority of the fashion industry from adopting eco-friendly design? What will it take to end wasteful practices for good, and for upcycling to become the norm? Brown says, "I see the eco fashion scene as having a lot in common with the slow and organic food movement. It took many years to move from the fringe hippy health food stores of the '80s, to the popularity of farmers markets, slow food restaurants, and whole foods supermarkets. The fashion industry is in the middle of that process. It requires a cultural shift by consumers and businesses alike to take it to the tipping point; from the exception to an expectation, but it will happen."
Progress has already been made in the mainstream industry. H&M, for example, is the single largest user of organic cotton in the world. In 2012, Marks & Spencer released the "Shwopping" coat, a classic pea coat made from customers’ donated woolen clothing. Luxury designers like Armani, Lanvin, and Paul Smith have worked with Livia Firth on eco-friendly gowns that are red-carpet ready, destroying anything left of the myth that sustainable style is only for the hemp necklace set. "The whole point of the book is to showcase what amazing work is already being done to recontextualize waste as a resource," says Brown. More of her work is available at www.ecofashiontalk.com.