As part of #REFASHinNewYork features, we spoke to Anne Whiting, creative director of sustainable womenswear label, Anne James New York, a sustainability enthusiast who creates designs using new technologies and upcycled fabrics. She also runs a blog with Kelly Madera called "An Inconvenient Wardrobe" that is a podium for ethical fashion.
Anne's perspective about the movement of upcycling in New York was very intriguing, having interacted with numerous people involved in the sustainability eco-system in the recent past. One of the people she spoke about was Allison Vicenzi, founder of sustainable fashion brand, VICENZI, and co-founder of Sustainable Fashion Circle of New York. The community that Allison co-founded aims to bring the voices and talents within the growing movement of sustainability together under one collaborative, friendly umbrella in New York.
Anne and Allison share their unique perspectives about the growing movement of upcycling in New York city and how collaboration is the key to creating a global impact in the field of sustainability.
Read their conversation below:
Anne Whiting: Allison, it’s so cool to know you, and so good to talk with you about this because you’re doing some fantastic upcycling work this summer! New York is, of course, a place known for its' vibrant and active (and activist!) artistic community, especially in fashion. So it's no wonder that a huge community of movers and shakers has developed around the concept of upcycling in fashion—that is, reworking existing fashion garments into beautiful and unique new ones. Often this is also in the name of sustainability. There are so many groups and goings-on surrounding upcycling in NYC, and many NYC-based brands that focus entirely on upcycling, as well! As you're the co-founder of the Sustainable Fashion Circle of New York, I'd love to get your insights on this movement!
Me, I have always been a thrift-store shopper, a collector of fabulous used and vintage pieces. I grew up thrift hunting with my fashionable Grandma. And some of the things I find and love need altering, to be made more modern and wearable in everyday life, or are made of a fabric that could be reworked in a stylish new way. So I am so grateful for New York upcyclers like Kaara Henriquez who does many of my alterations and who helps me turn old garments and scraps of fabrics into amazing new pieces. And I love watching the work of brands who make super fun and fashionable pieces out of garments from thrift stores like The Same But Different or from used denim scraps like Noorism and Zero Waste Daniel. And now Patrick Duffy at Global Fashion Exchange has started a lovely new line of upcycled fabrics in Vietnam. It's so innovative and special, and so necessary.
What are some of your favorite upcyclers and upcycling initiatives? How have you seen your SFC community engage with the upcycling movement?
Allison Vicenzi: Thank you, Anne, (and REFASH!) for creating interest and intrigue around this timely topic. Really, upcycling and refashioning is no new trend - seamstresses, fashion students, and hobbyist designer-makers have been experimenting and creating for years using only pre-made or previously worn garments. In 2019, I'm excited to see this movement and know-how reach new levels of accessibility, both for people looking to (re)make their own things and for brands interested in creating new collections without furthering the waste problem.
Instagram in particular allows people to discover and shop upcycling brands without ever stepping foot in a store, or even visiting a traditional website. The cycle of Design/Make —> Take Photo —> Post/List —> Purchase dramatically quickened and I think we both hope agree this is a "fast" fashion trend worth paying attention to, if original style and sustainability are values you consider. This speed to market means that prices can stay affordable and truly compete with mass-produced units. For example, I found Multitudes Studio (refashion brand based in LA) through a friend and longtime SFC member Gaby Fernandez Da-Silva's DM on Instagram and when I saw a turmeric-dyed swingy top nearly identical to what I had on my list to refashion myself, I opted to buy theirs instead. Feels nice to rescue a garment together with these motivated upstarts, while removing an item from my "to-make" list at the same time. I notice the styles and fits of these garments improving as designers are joining the movement to refashion as part of a "new" brand. Upcycling was a space previously owned by brands who cared a lot about sustainability but might have been lacking on the design caliber to reach and entice a larger audience.
AW: Agree, now it’s being executed beautifully, and a lot of pieces and the companies behind them are very cool and fashion. Who’s doing it best?
(Allison Vicenzi's favorite brands)
AV: My favourite soon-to-open coffee shop, IXV Coffee in Boerum Hill (Brooklyn) collects men's trousers and army pants and applies block printing to restyle them, covering small stains or imperfections using stunning antique blocks from India. Jenny (the designer and founder behind this waste-averse coffee shop) makes community workshops her imperative as well, inviting anyone to upcycle a pair of their own trousers (or borrowed from grandpa) to experience this make-your-own movement firsthand. The collaborative commitment from New Yorkers across the boroughs keeps me here in this city despite its challenges.
AW: Ok wow, you are so immersed. I mean obviously, as the co-leader of SFC. I am definitely really wanting to stop by IXV Coffee ASAP when it opens; I met Jenny at the BF/DA holiday party and showcase and she’d brought her own reusable cup for wine! Agreed that the resources are all there, it’s just a matter of marketing it so people know they can mend instead of end (a phrase I stole from my upcycling sample maker out in California, The Santa Barbara Seamstress) their old pieces.
I used to be the only person I knew who focused on reusing clothes, repainting jeans, cutting up my Dad’s old jeans, hemming my Grandma’s old skirts, etc.
Though I studied literature and French poetry and all-subjects-liberal-arts-college, and worked for The New York Times and other communications and journalism agencies before doing so. I didn’t expect my at-home textile salvaging to align with our generation’s fashion revolution. But as I cut my teeth at internships at ethical fashion houses and production/supply chain jobs, I realized sustainability and waste management were paramount to tackling what’s become an industry currently characterized by two words: too much. So, backing up, can you tell me more about how you fell into this line of work in the first place? What led you from Notre Dame to tech startups to now the sustainable fashion niche of NYC?
(Repainted jeans by Anne Whiting)
AV: Collaboration is absolutely the path forward! If people have, on average (I'm guessing), 5 main brands or stores in their wardrobe... imagine this future where every item could come from a separate designer, a unique source, a direct connection with a different story. That's the future, but we won't get there if we don't collaborate because the Big Brands have the reach, the budgets, the speed to market. We have to find ways to work together, creatively and business-wise too. A problem shared is a problem halved. We can share costs and risks, share resources and a network of vetted creators, co-create content and projects, we can share space in a retail shop, we can pass on side gigs for supporting the bootstrapping journey...the options are plenty of why collaboration helps us, while giving consumers better options as well, and ideally better price points to compete with the cheap fashion everyone's grown accustomed to.
AW: Adding to this, though, as a supporter of the well being of garment workers and fashion companies globally—I’m now imagining a scenario where big companies are, in fact, remaking the pieces they already made instead of throwing them away or burning them. Wouldn’t that be crazy? Speaking of global upcyling was just checking out the company I Was A Sari. Sari fabrics are amazing and should totally get repurposed. How fun! But back to our local journey here.
AV: Similar to your experience, I've also brought my projects to local tailors—if you have an idea or vision for a product, with a reference picture or sketch or clear explanation, and you can provide the special materials (if any) to work with—a tailor, even just inside your local dry cleaners, can create absolute magic for you! You can be your own designer! This may have been possible for a long time but it's not until recently that this "trick" revealed itself to me...and the possibilities feel endless. For example, if you source trims or appliqués from FabScrap of Queen of Raw or MOOD / the Garment District shops, you can revamp any old thing and give it a fresh new lease on life. I added fringe to my early blazer sample, maribou feathers to an otherwise plain swingy tank top, all for less than $30 per "restyle." Again, having a clear idea of what you’re looking for will make it easy for a talented stitcher to make your dream piece real. These pieces from my closet and other restyles are actually on display at Good Stuff in the Seaport until the end of June! Having a space and community like Good Stuff dedicated to showing the range of sustainability options, with a special focus on reuse, upcycling and repair, is a true gift to this movement in making it more accessible and readily known. Inspiration is clutch—seeing what others have done, how "new" things are made from other things, opens the mind to what you can do with your stuff or thrift finds too.
AW: Quickly adding just that it’s true that tailors work magic, and it’s fun to support people with so much technical pattern-making and sewing expertise and know-how. Also, love Queen of Raw. She’s where I source fabrics for my custom pieces! Also Good Stuff is such a big deal! Coming down there to see you and Saloni from AGAATI soon. (I know a lot of her trims are sourced from her extra fabric!)
AV: On that note [of marketing and retail]...what's perplexing to me, and where I think awareness and questioning are on the rise...is when items on the rack look like they have been upcycled or remade, only to find out they are partial pieces of newly manufactured garments, made from virgin materials. I won't name names but this happens at mainstream stores, from fast fashion to specialty boutiques and collaborations. None are one-of-a-kind, none are diverting garment waste from the landfill. My mind is boggled by this trend. Have you noticed that too? What do you think we can do to help people who admire those kinds of style realise they can be part of making their own, truly custom, truly sustainable version?
AW: If it was upcycled from over-produced newly manufactured pieces, I think it’s better than nothing. Like, could companies avoid burning billions of dollars worth of clothes if they remade pieces instead of making new ones? They’d still employ their factories that way. Otherwise, I think this trend is similar to the ripped jeans trend...which I definitely have purchased many of, I must say, sort of shamefully, even though I think they're the most offensive pants! I wrote a blurb about it a couple years ago explaining why—like, we make these pants (all that goes into them from fiber to sewing) only to rip them apart. What a waste of resources, you know? I definitely think it's ironic to buy a new piece that only looks old. I'm starting to sound like my parents when I say that haha.
But I really admire companies like Atelier & Repairs for making upcycled clothes out of new garments from companies that didn't even use them either because they were damaged or made too many. Again, a great way to prevent the burning of clothes that we saw atrocious amounts of this year (and every year). And still a unique and fun product—and because it’s brand new, and the mass market hasn’t quite adopted the idea of spending money on used fabrics, they can charge a profit-making price for their pieces.
I do think there is difficulty for upcycling to enter the mass market, or even the mass psyche, and really change the game. One challenge is getting enough pieces made and ready for the appetites of today's shoppers. As for people doing it themselves and going to the tailor, most people don't know how to sew or don't have time. In fact, most people have a hard enough time shopping for new clothes in stores full of options. (But to this I say, maybe a slower, more custom approach is actually NEEDED.) I think what the upcycling movement needs is for people to value its authenticity: else what's the fun in buying a piece that only looks like it was remade? We need people to want upcycled pieces because of the story! It’s attachment to story, to root, and to subsequent respect of origin, that would make clothing our true shared shelter. Our home.
So, consumers have to know to value what upcycling really means, such as the person behind it, and the idea of reusing and giving more life to something that's still got a lot more miles in it. And not see it as just aesthetic, because otherwise yeah, they'll just buy a piece cheaper off the rack!
AV: They have to connect the dots that access to upcycling means they can own something that no one else has, whether they co-designed it from their old things, or purchased from a small business owner. Then, when it’s complimented, they can share the story behind it and the trend catches on, one compliment at a time.
AW: I’m all about the return to uniqueness. On the note of NEW, however, I have an important question. You're a business owner, the founder and creative director of Vicenzi; how do you plan to reconcile the promotion of used (but made new) fashions while also trying to maybe grow your business? Because analyzing just myself and my own habits, as a conscious consumer, I think we will always need and want new things. Be it fresh white sneakers (a weakness of mine, for which reason I'm so grateful for Adidas' recycling initiatives) or a new white shirt that isn't sweat-stained by a New York Summer. For me and my own designs, I seek to incorporate both newness but customized upcycling by a. using dead stock materials saved from waste b. making custom, made-to-order pieces that are truly made for the wearer, making it that much more special. But it's still a new and unique piece.
AW: That’s all amazing. Yay to buying something so perfect you want to give it to your grandchildren! As inheritor of my grandmother’s gorgeous closet (all of which, you must know, was thrifted! She was a poor farm girl raised during the Depression, so her whole life she bought her suits and dresses for next to nothing at secondhand shops), I approve. To conclude, it’s all quite collaboration versus competition...do you think this is the ultimate utopian future of this business?
AV: I would jump at the chance to see your grandmother’s storied collection! I do hope she has some photos of her wearing the pieces too, what a cool side-by-side comparison you could frame.
AW: Yes side-by-side documenting is something we definitely need to do! I don’t know why I haven’t. Her collection is why I can’t clean out my closet, because there’s too much heirloom! I like to say my love of fashion is genetic. She’ll be so proud of this conversation. Her favorite activity was going to the thrift store, and she was also a pretty good seamstress so there are a lot of pieces which she herself altered to be better. She also never threw anything away. She had this mindset that fabrics—no matter how cheaply purchased or secondhand—were valuable. She also doesn’t throw away food. The culture of waste that you and I live in is foreign to her. Or rather, she’s one of the original upcyclers, because she was collecting waste long before it was cool. And I inherited this mindset, or was taught it. I have a hard time throwing anything away, especially clothing. I mean, they represent so much work and resource! At least, they should… Recently I found a necklace I’d made by making huge beads out of scraps of t-shirts I’d cut short to make more cropped. I was always looking for ways to reuse instead of toss. It’s a cute necklace! Just knots of fabric the size of plums, tied to one long string of fabric. This would be a fun get-together event/collaboration as well…
AV: Collaboration is the future because it's more fun. People are more flexible with their work environments and projects. People want to create and it’s scary to do it alone. Collaboration helps solo entrepreneurs and designers be part of a team again, even for a short sprint of time. We don’t all have to recreate the wheel. It feels better to focus on what you’re best at and partner for the rest. I also know collaboration is the way to get our experience and talent aligned with big brands that need a sustainability solution. We can help show them what is possible, how to insert upcycling as a viable part of their supply chains. They can learn from our unique intuition and knowledge of these solutions, while we can learn a lot from them in scaling operations and reach. I hope that corporate collaboration can provide a layer of job security for our ecosystem of makers (in SFC and beyond) while still allowing them freedom to work on their own businesses/projects on the side. (Side note: if you are an upcycler looking to collaborate on bigger projects, get in touch!)
The challenge is aligning on timing and vision, but if we remain open to opportunities I think we can tell when something is a good fit for collaboration or if it's time to hunker down, focus, control the process.
The beauty of upcycling is the thought of creating a repeatable system where every garment remains unique. It’s sustainable by design. Individual and yet part of a bigger story. I can’t think of a cooler future for fashion, can you?
You can find Anne Whiting on Instagram here.
You can find Allison Vicenzi on Instagram here.
Photo Credits- Anne Whiting & Allison Vicenzi.
Cover Photo Credits- Queen of Raw.