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Making something new from something existing is 'in': This is upcycling

By Esmee Blaazer


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Rvdk Ronald Van Der Kemp Haute Couture Fall Winter 2023 (crop) Credits: Launchmetrics Spotlight

Which fashion designers are upcycling? How big is the upcycling movement? And how popular is it actually with the general public, i.e. the consumer? You can find more about upcycling in this background article. As always, we start at the beginning.

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  1. The meaning of upcycling (and how it differs from recycling)
  2. Upcycling is 'in' (but it's not new)
  3. Why the focus is on upcycling?
  4. Fashion designers and companies dedicated to upcycling
  5. Size of the upcycling market in the fashion industry

1. What exactly is upcycling? And how does it differ from recycling?

The definition of upcycling

In upcycling, designers (or individuals)

Think DIY (do it yourself) fashion.

reuse existing garments or materials in creative ways to create new pieces.

Old, discarded materials and products are transformed into new products of higher value, without first being processed into basic materials, or degraded, as is the case with recycling. So, don't confuse upcycling with recycling.

Upcycling is different from recycling, which often involves reusing material that has to be taken apart first. The process typically involves collecting, sorting and processing waste materials so that they can be cleaned, processed and transformed into new raw materials. These recycled raw materials can then be used in the production of new goods.

Simply put, upcycling is creative reuse.

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Ahluwalia, Ready to Wear, Fall Winter 2023. Credits: Launchmetrics Spotlight

2. Old as new is 'in'

Upcycling is a growing trend and philosophy within the fashion industry. It fits into the current spirit where there is an increasing focus on sustainability.

Although the concept of reusing and creatively using materials has been around for a long time (more on that in a moment), the fashion industry has seen a marked increase in the use of upcycling as a more sustainable and innovative approach in recent years.

“Discarded items have never been as popular as a material for designers as they are today,” FashionUnited wrote more than five years ago (in 2018).

More and more fashion labels are launching collections made from discarded and leftover fabrics. Other brands go one step further and only use old textiles for their entire collection that would otherwise have ended up as waste.

Even in luxury fashion, upcycling is no longer an alien concept. French designer Marine Serre, who is often called an eco-futurist, has championed a sustainable and avant-garde approach since her fashion week debut in 2018 and has successfully applied upcycling in the high-end sector.

"Some designers, such as British label Ahluwalia or Marine Serre who specialise in upcycling, have come to the forefront in recent years," Euromonitor told FashionUnited (July 2023).

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Video caption: In this video, French fashion designer Marine Serre shows how she makes upcycled jeans. Credit: Marine Serre (Regenerated SS20 - Denim)

The 'upcycling movement' is gaining momentum.

The 'upcycling movement' is actually the term used for the overall trend and references the growing social and environmental movement that focuses on reusing materials and creatively transforming discarded items into valuable products.

In the fashion industry, this means that more designers and companies have started to focus on upcycling.

But beware, repurposing is as old ‘as the road to Rome’. It was done by our (grand)parents who tried to save money, without wanting to be hip or trendy.

“Orsola de Castro, aka ‘The Queen of Upcycling’,

Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, the global organisation advocating for more transparency and fair working conditions in the fashion industry, has been called 'The Queen of Upcycling'. According to State of Fashion: “Her multi-award winning fashion brand From Somewhere (1997 - 2014) pioneered upcycling and was sold in some of the best boutiques in the world - collaborations include collections for Tesco Clothing, Robe Di Kappa, Topshop and Speedo."

actually finds the concept of upcycling contradictory,” wrote Belgian fashion journalist Sarah Vandoorne in her book 'Kleerkastvasten'. According to DeCastro, it is “absurd that we are increasingly talking about repair, refurbish, remanufacture and repurpose as something elitist. We suddenly see upcycling as a trendy solution for a system that has gotten completely out of hand. As a trendy niche solution, while mass purchasing of cheap clothing has become democratic.”

Source: Book ‘Kleerkastvasten,’ Chapter Upcycling, page 256.

3. But why is upcycling getting so much attention? Why is upcycling news?

Traditionally, the fashion industry has had a linear production model: the “take, make, waste” model that was – and still is – the standard, which involves using new raw materials to produce new clothes that are then bought by consumers and thrown away after use. In doing so, fashion companies were - or are - generally not concerned with end-of-life, or what happens to garments when consumers discard them.

Vanessa Friedman, leading fashion journalist and critic, wrote in The New York Timesin 2020: “Yet not that long ago, during a discussion in early 2019 for Muse magazine about fashion’s role in the climate crisis, I asked Marco Bizzarri, the chief executive of Gucci, why his brand didn’t take back its own clothes once consumers were done with them so they could be upcycled and resold. Why, though fashion was increasingly grappling with the environmental impact of materials at the start of a product’s life, there wasn’t as much focus on its end of life, or second life? At the time, he said it was too complicated and systems weren’t in place.”

Source: The New York Times article 'The Newest Thing in Fashion? Old Clothes' by Vanessa Friedman, October 22, 2020

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Marine Serre SS24 c credit: Launchmetrics Spotlight

Meanwhile, it has become increasingly clear in the fashion industry, and beyond, that the sector needs to become more sustainable. Overproduction, overconsumption and waste are issues with major consequences.

You can read further on this topic in the background article 'How (not) sustainable is the fashion industry'.

In this context, you can see upcycling as good news. It is a more sustainable approach. It helps reduce the environmental impact by reducing the amount of textile waste (fewer materials and products end up in landfill) and lowering the demand for new clothing (which in turn saves raw materials and energy etc in the production of new items). And therefore extends the lifespan of some products/materials.

In addition, upcycling produces innovative and unique garments. You could see it as a counterpart to mass production, the garments that hang on every street corner at branches of the major retail chains.

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Ahluwalia, Ready to Wear, Fall Winter 2023. Credits: Launchmetrics Spotlight

4. Fashion designers and companies committed to upcycling

The fact that upcycling is 'in' is reflected in figures from the Chamber of Commerce (KVK) in the Netherlands. The number of companies specialising in upcycling has increased significantly over the past 10 years. On the first day of the first quarter of 2013, there were at least seven upcycling companies in the Netherlands, while on the first day of the third quarter of 2023, there were at least 140.

A spokesperson for the Chamber of Commerce provided these figures when requested. Note from the analyst: There is no main activity code for upcycling companies, which is why we searched for the phrase ‘upcycle’ in the company description. “Not all company descriptions are equally comprehensive, so the actual number may be higher,” said an analyst from KVK.

The number of upcycling fashion companies in the Netherlands currently stands at least 33, according to figures from the business association, and has increased annually since 2015 (see visual).

Here, KVK searched for the word ‘upcycle’ in the company description, in combination with the words ‘fashion’ or ‘clothing’. The analyst reports that the actual number may be higher here too.

Credits: visual created by FashionUnited

Fashion designers championing upcycling

There are many fashion talents placing upcycling at the forefront of their brands, including London-based designers Ahluwalia, Christopher Raeburn, Conner Ives and Helen Kirkum, Dutch designers Ronald van der Kemp and Duran Lantink.

Leading the scene in Paris is Marine Serre, an independent fashion brand that places upcycled and recycled materials at the centre of its design process. According to the brand, around 50 percent of its collections are composed of upcycled products. The other half uses innovative and sustainable fibres, such as biodegradable yarns and recycled materials. “Circularity, for us, is the ability to recycle, and to “regenerate” materials that already exist, defining our Modus Operandi in reducing waste by reintegrating the end-of-life products into a cyclical process that ensure transparency and adaptability of our resources,” stated the website.

In the UK, pioneering designer Christopher Raeburn has become synonymous for reworking de-commissioned military stock and surplus fabrics to create menswear, womenswear and accessories for his signature label. His label is underpinned by the 3 R’s: Raemade, Raeduced, and Raecycled.

While emerging designer, American-born, London-based Conner Ives, launched his label to offer responsible clothing utilising deadstock fabrics and vintage garments as raw materials. For his debut catwalk collection at London Fashion Week for autumn/winter 2022, Ives showcased his now signature T-shirt dresses, reworked from vintage pieces, and elevated using crochet trims and floral appliques.

Residual, deadstock or leftover is literally leftover fabric. It can come from brands that have ordered too much fabric, or from manufacturers. Think fabric in wrong colours or with errors, or from cancelled orders. Normally this deadstock is thrown away and it therefore goes to waste.

Overstock is sometimes used as a synonym for deadstock, but it is actually something different. Overstock is leftover stock / residual stock, read: unsold garments. Overstock can also be upcycled, by the way.

The best-known upcyclers in Dutch fashion are Ronald van der Kemp and Duran Lantink. The former, makes “demi-couture” as he calls it with his luxury brand RDVK, while Van der Kemp makes haute couture exclusively from deadstock materials of renowned fashion houses.

Duran Lantink is a relatively young fashion designer and has been on the scene for about 10 years. He has been called one of the greatest fashion talents of the early 21st century. He recently won a prestigious fashion prize and in September 2023 he was on the official calendar of Paris Fashion Week.

Source CentraalMuseum website, collection, vagina pants Duran Lantink:
“Duran Lantink is one of the greatest fashion talents of the early 21st century and achieved world fame as the designer of the iconic Vagina Pants.”

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Duran Lantink presented designs of upcycled shirts from the Dutch store chain Hema during Paris Fashion Week, March 2023. Credits: Hema (press release HEMA shirt becomes fashion item by fashion designer Duran Lantink in Paris, March 2023)

Brands/companies for the wider public are also experimenting with or doing upcycling, on a small scale. Dutch brand Scotch & Soda, for example, had an upcycling project in 2020 that turned clothes from old collections into new designs. And major online shop Zalando recruited Ronald van der Kemp for 10 upcycled looks in the same year. The well-known retail chain H&M joined forces with Hacked By in 2019, a partnership through which a new women's collection was made from old H&M garments.

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Archive Image: Hackedby x H&M (2019) Credits: H&M

5. How popular is upcycling among the wider public, i.e. the consumer?

Size of the upcycling market in the fashion industry

“Although 40 percent of consumers worldwide say (source: Euromonitor Voice of the Consumer, Lifestyle survey 2023) that they are willing to restore or repair clothing rather than replace them, the share of clothing that is upcycled, repaired and mended remains very small compared to the total amount of clothing produced and sold worldwide,” said Marguerite Le Rolland, head of footwear and apparel at Euromonitor International, when asked about the extent of upcycling in the fashion industry.

Yet it is already part of the established order in the sector itself, on a small scale, and it is here to stay, experts believe.

“Brands will increasingly look to upcycle items, while encouraging consumers to return unwanted items for reuse, upcycling or recycling,” added Le Rolland. “For several reasons, including:

  • The amount of waste produced by fashion is under increasing scrutiny in the current context of the global climate crisis.
  • The possible ban on the export of waste outside the EU in the near future
  • EU regulations for a more circular approach in the textile industry.”

Video caption: Duran Lantink's autumn/winter 2023 collection, shown on March 4, 2023 in Paris. Ownership: Duran Lantink.


Upcycling involves transforming and upgrading old or discarded materials and garments into new and valuable products, rather than simply being thrown away or recycled.

Marine Serre Ready to Wear Spring Summer 2022 Credits: Launchmetrics Spotlight
Also read these articles from the FashionUnited archive:
Ahluwalia, Ready to Wear, Fall Winter 2023. Credits: Launchmetrics Spotlight


  • Articles from the FashionUnited archive by journalists Pia Schulz, Jackie Mallon and Simone Preuss (often linked in the article text).
  • The New York Times article 'The Newest Thing in Fashion? Old Clothes' by Vanessa Friedman, October 22, 2020
  • State of Fashion website, creative advisory board about Orsola De Castro, accessed July 27, 2023.
  • Euromonitor Voice of the Consumer, Lifestyle survey 2023 among almost 41,000 people.
  • Upcycling fashion industry statistics were provided exclusively by Euromonitor International at the request of FashionUnited on July 14, 2023.
  • Number of upcycle (fashion) companies in the Netherlands, exclusively supplied by the Chamber of Commerce (KVK) to FashionUnited on July 24, 2023.
  • NOS News video 'Upcyling is on the rise: 'Beautiful brands are important to me', September 3, 2022.
  • The book 'Wardrobe fasting 'The textile chain unravelled' by the Belgian journalist and more sustainable fashion expert Sarah Vandoorne, April 19, 2023.
  • State of Fashion website creative advisory board overview Orsola de Castro
  • Goodonyou Article ‘What Is Deadstock Fabric and Is It Sustainable?’, by Isobella Wolfe, March 11, 2022.
  • Website Centraalmuseum.nl, collection, vagina pants Duran Lantink
  • Marine Serre website, core values, accessed in January 2024
  • Raeburn website, about section, accessed in January 2024
  • Conner Ives website about, accessed in January 2024
  • Parts of this article text were generated using an artificial intelligence (AI) tool and then edited.

This article was created by Esmée Blaazer. Some sentences/paragraphs come from previous FashionUnited publications by Jackie Mallon, Pia Schultz and Simone Preuss (often linked in the article). For the UK/COM translation an edit was made by Danielle-Wightman Stone

Rvdk Ronald Van Der Kemp Haute Couture Fall Winter 2023 Credits: Launchmetrics Spotlight
Rvdk Ronald Van Der Kemp Haute Couture Fall Winter 2023Credits: Launchmetrics Spotlight
Credits: Designer Ronald van der Kemp takes a bow after the presentation of his FW23 couture collection. Image via PR agency Lucien Pages.
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