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Circular Fashion and Upcycling: How Brands Can Look to Waste With Renewed Creativity

After a year of canceled orders and production backlogs, the issues of excess stock and inventory are more apparent than ever. Coupled with growing attention on the impact of the fashion industry’s waste products, it’s clear that upcycling and circularity are not just one-off ideas but processes that designers and brands must implement in a comprehensive, systemic way.

That was the overall message from designers Maria Cornejo, Christopher Raeburn and Nicole McLaughlin, who joined a panel at the FMG Sustainability Summit to discuss new ideas in upcycling. The three creatives are leading the effort in formulating new, reinvigorated approaches to circularity that can be applied to brands and corporations large and small.

For Cornejo, upcycling efforts through her Zero + Maria Cornejo line have gone hand-in-hand with remaining local as much as possible.

“Working for bigger companies and seeing the amount of waste created, I’ve always believed it was better to get creative with less and keep things as local as possible in order to avoid that,” said the New York-based Cornejo, who debuted her fall ‘21 collection in February with an expansion on upcycled materials, most of which came from suppliers nearby. “When you have trims coming from all over the world, and then you are producing somewhere else and everything is getting shipped around, it doesn’t make sense. I think part of being sustainable is keeping processes to a minimum.”

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Designer Maria Cornejo, one of three creatives who participated in a panel discussion on upcycling, part of FMG’s Sustainability Summit.
CREDIT: Amy Sussman/WWD

As a designer in the luxury market, Cornejo’s approach to upcycling has implications on the very definition of luxury and what is rare, as more of its brands begin to delve into practices such as deadstock sourcing or the breakdown of vintage pieces into new items. She pointed to a coat made of upcycled wool from her own archives as one of the most valuable pieces from the fall ‘21 collection, due to its finite supply and limited edition.

Raeburn has long been in the practice of creating limited-edition, upcycled pieces for his eponymous label and collaborative fashion studio in London, with the focus of reworking fabrics and garments to create new, contemporary pieces, and it’s a philosophy that he’s brought to Timberland since being named as its global creative director in 2018. “We’ve woken up to the reality that we are already surrounded by too much,” said Raeburn during the panel. “I started my own company with an idea around viewing waste as a resource. The word ‘waste’ shouldn’t really exist in our world, it’s just stuff in the wrong place.”

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Designer Christopher Raeburn. The Timberland creative director has been applying his own methods of upcycling to the brand’s fast-growing list of sustainability initiatives.
CREDIT: Nathan Pask/WWD

With the goal of creating a net-positive impact on the environment by 2030, he and Timberland are focused on both circular design and regenerative agriculture (the practice of giving land a rest so that it can absorb carbon, retain water and restore biodiversity). In the former, the brand has explored ways to reuse and recycle various components of footwear and other items to reimagine new products, following Raeburn’s own “Raemade” design concepts.

In the latter, Timberland’s regenerative agriculture initiatives, while relatively new to the fashion industry, are likely to change the way companies approach circularity strategies going forward. Its partnerships include the Savory Institute, a nonprofit that has taken on large-scale regeneration of the world’s grasslands and Other Half Processing, in which leather hides are sourced from regenerative ranches. “It’s really going back to what nature intended,” said Raeburn. “What’s really encouraging is that it’s not just applicable to cattle farming, it’s applicable to rubber and cotton.” Just this week, Timberland (winner of the 2020 FNAA Sustainability Leadership Award) announced a partnership with Terra Genesis International to build the world’s first regenerative rubber supply system for footwear, with plans for production in 2023.

In a more fundamental, zero-process approach, no designer has brought a more unique, creative eye to the practice of upcycling than Nicole McLaughlin. The independent, New York-based designer has partnered with brands such as Reebok and Crocs to reimagine sporting goods as fashion items with an emphasis on functionality.

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Designer Nicole McLaughlin in studio while designing for Reebok upcycled collaboration.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Reebok

“To me, waste is opportunity and the through-line of my work is finding different ways to use up excess material, both within the fashion industry but also in the world, and in the things you have in your house. During the past year, I have found myself being even more resourceful, and I think we can all relate to that, being able to use up all the things we have. Everything is fair game,” said McLaughlin, who is currently developing a non-profit organization that helps provide resources to young designers, connecting large companies to schools and universities to provide deadstock and overstock materials. She is also building a series of workshops that will show other designers how to explore new ways of working with unexpected materials in their own creations, which she hopes to eventually turn into a full-time summer program.

“Many times there are certain materials that deter us from wanting to try something that is more circular, because it’s not as straightforward, it’s not as easy as using recycled cotton or yarn,” she said. “I love to explore the possibilities and things we could be doing, in a fun way.”

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