Triangles in silk: piecing together a practice of upcycling
Sustainable fashion design is typically approached through the deployment of a combination of design strategies. One such strategy that enjoys popular use in the sustainable fashion lexicon is ‘‘upcycling”. Upcycling, an evolution of the term recycling, means to increase the value of something through creative intervention and enable it to re-enter the product life cycle. This term is placed in opposition to down-cycling, which implies a transformation to something of lesser value. Locating upcycling as a value term is contentious as there is no universal measure by which greater worth than the original can be assessed. Upcycling within fashion design is accomplished by various methods depending on context. Bespoke creation of one-off pieces is one method that is appropriate to collections of quality fabrics of non-uniform size and quantity. Such materials must be individually crafted into one-off garments by the designer/maker in the manner of a bespoke craftsperson. In doing this, designers draw on a unique combination of qualities including aesthetic taste, exploratory problem solving and hand making techniques. They also derive pleasure from immersion in the laborious toil of executing painstaking work.
This paper seeks to tease out practices of upcycling within the bespoke designer/ maker context through reflection on a creative research practice titled “The Red Carpet Project”. This practice is focused on the design of special occasion dresses informed by principles of design for sustainability. Projects involve engaging stakeholders in the processes of designing, making and wearing special occasion dresses for significant events referred to as “red carpet” situations. These projects each use a strategy of upcycling of fabric remnants sourced from local Melbourne bridal couture businesses. The approach to upcycling, with which this practice is aligned, treats the textile source as laden with information that guides the form of the new garment; the bridal couturier uses large pattern pieces to form garment components. This results in substantial remnants that are generally triangular in shape. On observation, patterns emerge; piecing together the shapes in such a way that utilizes the drape of the fabric, and creating an end product that is aesthetically distinct from the dresses the fabric was initially intended for, are two factors that lead the design process. In sustainability terms, the justification is made that, because the textile remnants have been diverted from landfill, their use to create new garments constitutes upcycling. This paper will discuss the strategic deployment of upcycling within the context of this fashion practice, and will emphasize the value of the bespoke design system as a crucial enabler in sustainable fashion practice.