LONDON — Until recently, designing with deadstock fabric was a novelty reserved for students or niche labels that weren’t that interested in profit or scale.

When bigger names experimented with upcycling fabric, it was mostly reserved for one-off capsules, for marketing — or greenwashing — purposes.

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Since the COVID-19 outbreak last year, designers found themselves in isolation, with much of their teams on furlough, factories closed and fabric fairs canceled. All of a sudden, designing with the leftover fabrics in their studios became part of a new normal, and established designers joined the independents and sustainability warriors who had long been advocates of deadstock.

Virginie Viard at Chanel found herself having to pull together the house’s resort 2021 collection in three weeks, reusing buttons and knit yarns that were already in stock or repurposing denim from previous seasons; Thea Bregazzi and Justin Thornton at Preen dyed old fabrics with beetroot to give them a new lease on life, and Kym Ellery opted out of producing anything new for spring 2021 and instead shipped some archival pieces to Duran Lantink’s Amsterdam studio. The two upcycled them via Zoom.

Last month, green campaigner Stella McCartney admitted she was running short of fabric to upcycle or recycle.

“We’ve upcycled all of our organic denim and faux fur and zero waste pieces, and I worked so hard on not buying new materials for the latest collections that we’re now running out of things. What an achievement,” she said. She told her team: “’Now, let’s find, and use, other people’s waste.’ It’s really an exciting way to work.”

Buyers, too, are becoming more accustomed to purchasing limited-run deadstock capsules, championing young labels including Conner Ives, Germanier, Collina Strada and Ahluwalia.

To date, these designers have been going on scavenger hunts at charity shops to source their secondhand fabrics or accepting offers via Instagram DM. Ives made his first capsule for Browns using old T-shirts found at The Salvation Army, while Kevin Germanier often sources beads and sequins that are about to be discarded, due to small defects, in the outskirts of Hong Kong.

“I want to make the most glamorous pieces out of trash — it’s almost like a joke to the industry,” said Germanier.

With lockdowns continuing around the world and the industry finally confronting its waste issue, upcycling is bound to continue penetrating mainstream collections, while new platforms are cropping up to make sourcing more streamlined — and scalable, too.

Deborah Lyons, an up-and-coming British designer, is readying the launch of an online destination called Fabric Society, where fellow designers and students can source deadstock fabric for their work.

Big players such as Dunhill and Burberry have already begun donating unused fabrics to students and designers who don’t necessarily have the budgets of a big luxury brand.

For Lyons, this is one of the most immediate solutions to addressing the industry’s problems with overproduction: Brands have an alternative to buying new fabric, and an easy means of sourcing locally and of reducing their carbon footprint.

“If I want a jersey fabric I would usually look to Japan, or to a mill in Italy [to source], but there’s so much in the U.K. just sitting there. Ideally, my first point should be finding out what’s already available in London,” said Lyons, adding this way of sourcing and designing could also help alleviate much of the financial pressure young designers have had to face when doing business the traditional way.

“For designers like me, the odds are stacked against you: If I wanted to order an amazing fabric, chances are I would have to order a minimum of 200 meters, which puts a lot of financial pressure on me and means I would be left with surplus.”

She said there’s a lot more flexibility working with deadstock. “If I wanted to do a micro collection that just goes on my site, I can do it without thinking, I can handpick fabrics because I love them, make 10 pieces, and have a fresh offering.”

Fabric Society is also looking to help students without the financial means to buy fabrics for their final collections. The site plans to give students a separate log-in that will allow them to pick up fabrics for free, or at a big discount.

The site will start by offering fashion and interior textiles, but the aim is to expand to other categories.

“We want to expand to accessories, like trims or buttons, and offer a full service. There are so many different cases we come across, like factories full of boxes of unused shoulder pads,” added Lyons.

Established brands have also been joining the upcycling movement, incorporating deadstock into their own collections and donating leftover fabrics.

Last month, ReBurberry Fabric was launched in partnership with the British Fashion Council, a pilot project through which Burberry will donate fabric to students from underprivileged backgrounds.

Alexander McQueen has taken a similar approach, donating fabrics to more than 14 universities last year. Harry Styles recently wore a look featuring McQueen deadstock fabrics and made by University of Westminster student Steven Stokey-Daley. The brand is also working with stylists who are becoming more open to the idea of asking clients to don old season pieces.

According to Lyons, the ultimate aim should be to stay focused on the bigger vision, where deadstock eventually runs out, and a less wasteful fashion industry emerges.

“Eventually we do want the deadstock to run out. The industry has a lot of catching up to do, and while we’re using up the deadstock, we also need to research new materials and get to a stage where fully recycled or sustainable fabrics are available to the wider public,” added Lyons.

“The next step for us, as the industry improves and science takes over, would be becoming a source for eco fabrics. We want to bridge the zero waste and regenerative worlds.”

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