Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 66, april 2008

Upcycling fashion, Upfashioning craftsmanship

For a long time I have been very fascinated by how recycling works within the fashion world. Over the last 20 years the tactic of reusing old garments into new creations has been a common phenomenon in high fashion. It has been used by thoroughly by established brands like Maison Martin Margiela, Comme des Garcons, Undercover, and Jessica Ogden. However, to call the haute couture techniques by for example Maison Martin Margiela as simply “recycling” would be an understatement.

What happens in this process of reuse is that the raw material is augmented into an object of higher status than its original incarnation. If these garments are in some way “cycled”, they are “upcycled”. Turned from leftover everyday garments into haute couture unique pieces. The concept of “upcycling” is a process of upgrading used material, making it more desirable than it was at the start. Upcycling is a procedure akin to recycling in which waste material and worn out goods are reprocessed directly into new products of higher value. In normal forms of recycling the opposite is usually the case; recycling is usually “downcycled”. This happens when recycling product components and they turn to lower forms of raw material, such as paper losing its color and needing quite a bit of new fibers to become useful paper again.

recycle - upcycle

When applied to fashion upcycling is doing what has purposefully been done in the art world since Duchamp’s “ready-mades”, and the raw material of used clothes are the objet trouvé of fashion. Quite like the Bicycle Wheel or the Urinal, these legendary art works, the “upcycled” haute couture garments are often remade in such way that they leave the consumer object cycle altogether. Their mundane and ephemeral status enters the timeless state of unique artworks with very few signs of the zeitgeist manifested into their resewn fabric.

The works of Maison Martin Margiela are indeed classical artworks: exclusive. Even if it deconstructs the hierarchical relation that persists between the exclusivity of high fashion and everyday clothes, it is still produced by one of the big name designers. Indeed, Margiela’s upcycled garments are highly exclusive, fashionable, and pricy, they still represent the top of the fashion hierarchy, unattainable to most of us. The assumption that Margiela’s deconstructed garments somehow should bridge the gap between fashion and the everyday might be true on a material level, but hardly from a perspective of participation.


The upcycling of fashion into art or the temporal readjustment into arty “post-fashion” might be interesting, but is not my main interest in this process. Instead, as I see it, fashions of upcycling puts a focus on postproduction processes, open to people outside of the fashion system, the once “passive” consumers. With hardly any means of production to create the new, they can now recreate the old into the new, and still be in fashion. It enables new interfaces open for fellow amateurs (Latin word for lovers) and other laymen to share their skills. Interfaces for new explorations of craftsmanship, outside, but still in relation with, the dictations of fashion.

Indeed, the act of unstitching can be defined as a practice of undoing, deconstructing, and liberating the garment from fashion functionality, by literally undoing the very garment itself. By being reverse engineered, it is liberated from its now outdated meaning established by the fashion system. It is a liberation that can be done by its lovers; the fashion amateurs. It can trigger us to further explore the hidden logics of fashion that are at the same time trapped in and performed through every garment. How can we create practices of liberation and empowerment with the tools at hand – with old clothes and refreshed sewing skill? Here we can use the examples of Martin Margiela or others, but apply them with our own skills and onto out own garments, starting with upcycling our old rags into new riches.

The design processes of upcycling can make us update the world of fashion in small and beautiful steps, upfashioning it with our own craftsmanship. We can use fashion as a workshop for collective enablement where a community shares their methods and experiences. By arranging collective workshops like the Swap-O-Rama-Rama in Istanbul in September last year we can liberating one part of fashion from a phenomenon of dictations and anxiety to instead become a collective experience of empowerment through engaged craft.


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