Direct-to-consumer sustainable fashion isn’t merely a business model—it’s an aesthetic. Look at buzzed-about, millennial-targeting brands like Allbirds, Everlane, and Outdoor Voices, and you’ll see they share not merely a well-branded commitment to environmentally conscious production, but an eerie, soulless minimalism, too. Allbirds sneakers are a kind of anonymized combination of popular Nike models like the Flyknit and Presto; Everlane seeks to hack business casual and weekend wear with unbranded crewneck cashmere sweaters, skinny jeans, and straight-leg chinos. These brands tap into a vague American ideal of good taste, eagerly inoffensive that results in a strange corporate perfection. The clothing doesn’t look designed so much as optimized.
The trouble is that this look is at odds with the very principles of sustainable design. As a New York Times report revealed in July, Everlane’s minimalism obscured issues with its promises of transparency and fair labor. But even “sustainable” fashion still emphasizes each garment’s novelty—a gleamingly banal notion that fashion needs to move beyond to become truly sustainable. If your clothes are meant to fade into the background, you might not have occasion to think about where they come from—or how they were made—at all.
The smarter alternative taking over the industry is upcycling, or the process of using deadstock and vintage fabrics to make new clothing. The first wave of high-fashion upcyclers are also the best known: Marine Serre, the 29-year-old Paris-based designer known for her moon-print bodysuits and apocalyptic atmospherics; and Emily Adams Bode, 30, who refashions antique quilts into trousers and jackets. Serre doesn’t promote herself as a quote-unquote “sustainable” designer, which is often a telltale sign that someone’s pulling one over on you. Instead, she describes the approach as essential to her creative process—and it now makes up 50% of her business.
Back in April, Serre released a series of videos showing how she makes her upcycled pieces. They brilliantly explain how upcycling turns the process of production into the garment itself—the opposite of the commodity fetish that defines DTC sustainable fashion. A men’s red silk djellaba starts with a big selection of vintage silk scarves, in a variety of brash colors, which are dyed a deep and soulful red in her atelier, and then sculpted together into a breezy, patchwork top. A huge box of deadstock jacquard towels in white and black are “regenerated” into men’s basketball shorts and a half-zip pullover, and a women’s Chanel-style suit (an utterly genius sendup of fashion’s obsession with defining luxury through iconography instead of production or materials). The garment’s previous life, as a bedspread or towel or cheapo scarf, is part of its new one. Serre’s short films also underscore upcycling’s power as a creative challenge: only a skilled designer can transform waste or excess into something that can be produced in a variety of sizes and styles.
Following in Serre and Bode’s footsteps are several of the industry’s coolest young designers, like Botter, Pentimento, Collina Strada, and Chopova Lowena. For most of them, it’s not merely fabrics that are being upcycled, but ideas themselves: Botter doubled down on its best-selling pieces from previous collections, like its jumbo polos, and Serre, Bode, and Chopova Lowena have smartly figured out how to take signature shapes and rework them in each season, pushing themselves creatively rather than simply re-delivering what’s done well for them in the past. Upcycling is not cheap—almost all of these designers’ pieces run into the low four-figures. But it emphasizes creativity and quality—these are clothes that are made to be worn for many years—and it is the most compelling answer to how fashion can move forward to a more sustainable and creative future. It’s also not necessarily new: this unorthodox approach to materials was a backbone of Martin Margiela’s metier (he made gloves into shirts, broken plates into vests, and belts into tunics), and it was also the defining language of Xuly.Bet, the Paris-based brand started by Malian designer Lamine Kouyaté in the early ’90s. Kouyaté’s taut, red-stitched assemblages of dissembled discarded deadstock clothes were the envy of Karl Lagerfeld and Jean-Paul Gaultier. Kouyaté, who showed a fabulous collection in Paris back in March, is in the midst of staging a comeback.
Now, Virgil Abloh is entering the upcycling game, so you know it’s a trend. Earlier this summer, the Louis Vuitton designer announced he will stop showing seasonal fashion and will instead stage his shows as a kind of world tour, which he kicked off Thursday in Shanghai. Abloh touted upcycling in his collection notesl, stashing a treaties amid 63 pages of manifestos, look descriptions, and new entries in his seasonally-updated dictionary: “Upcycling creates the framework for the Louis Vuitton Spring-Summer 2021 collection. Presented through the childlike grammar of fantasy, Men’s Artistic Director Virgil Abloh seeks to de-programme our minds from the images of obsolescence that lead to overload, overproduction and waste.” Thirty looks are made from new material, 25 are from materials recycled from the atelier’s previous collections, and 25 are looks from the previous collection. (Perhaps he’s taking a page from Raf Simons, who recently announced that he will reissue several of his most significant archival pieces—only Abloh, in true Abloh form, is speeding up the process by doubling down on pieces from just a season or two ago.)
The ideas Abloh is exploring about the purpose of fashion are more interesting than the clothes he showed Thursday, portions of which, though expertly styled by industry star Ib Kamara, bore an uncanny resemblance to Walter Van Beirendonck’s Fall 2016 collection. (As Van Beirendonck told Hypebeast on Friday, “This is not just copying, this is using my world, ideas, colors, signature, cuts, shapes as his collection moodboard.”)
At a house like Vuitton, which has been a leader of the hype-fueled menswear movement since even before Abloh’s arrival, seasonless upcycling is a bold proposition. In recent years, menswear has actually emphasized novelty and constant consumerism even more pathologically than womenswear, with a drop-based model that has taught consumers that clothing can, and should, come at any time, and be gone in a flash. At Off-White and Vuitton, Abloh has been one of the foremost practitioners of hype-driven fashion. His new interest in upcycling suggests he’s looking to turn the ship in a different direction.
Menswear needs a radical reconsideration of its model of desire. (Womenswear does too, but it is embroiled in an outdated system of fantasy and influencers that menswear has been mostly blissfully immune to.) How can men shift from copping jawns to searching for things that they really want, that mean something to them? How can they stop thinking about getting dressed as an opportunity to flex? One way might be to stop trying to erase the old world, and instead rebuild from our own material excesses.