It may have taken a global pandemic to finally wean us off our addiction to fast fashion but now a fresh generation of sustainability-focused Irish designers is harnessing this new conscious consumerism to bring about a recycling revolution
After decades of unsustainable practices, it only took a global pandemic to dismantle the fashion industry’s dysfunctional calendar and unethical supply chains. Despite being one of the most damaging industries in the world, responsible for immense amounts of landfill, water pollution and exploitative human labour, fast fashion thrived in our pre-Covid world.
One of the silver linings of lockdown has been a shift towards conscious consumerism — the yearning for a new dress every Saturday night has all but gone out the window; we are buying less and, for the most part, there has been a sustained effort to buy from independent and local businesses.
Reworked and upcycled clothing has found its place in the zeitgeist thanks to a new DIY movement that has been thriving online, particularly via social media and resale platforms. Lyst, the world’s largest fashion search platform, reported a 42pc search increase for upcycled clothing in its 2020 Conscious Fashion Report. A quick browse on Depop, the reselling platform beloved by Gen Z shoppers, returns hundreds of upcycled items — but the most exciting upcycled clothing is being pioneered by a young generation of fashion graduates whose commitment to sustainability means they think, and source, outside the box when it comes to making clothes.
An odd button, scrap of lace or, yes, even your granny’s old curtains mightn’t scream “fashion”, but these creatives see things differently. The process of collecting, deconstructing and creating totally unique garments offers a glimpse of the way things could be if the fashion industry takes heed of the lessons learnt from the past 12 months.
“When you have a garment you are taking apart, you are working backwards — you are deconstructing. I don’t think it’s any less valid than people who, for example, are able to pattern draft,” says Northern Irish designer Lucinda Graham.
In 2019, Graham graduated from the Belfast School of Art with a degree in Fashion, Textiles and Art, in which she presented a final-year collection using entirely upcycled materials. Lucinda had also garnered recognition in Ireland and the UK for her work as a stylist, mostly with music videos, but within 10 months of graduation all that changed. The pandemic meant she lost her day job as a waitress and, not qualifying for furlough, had moved back to the family home near the Mourne Mountains and decided to launch her own label.
“In a lot of ways, I didn’t have a choice to not start. Despite having a few accolades behind me and experience, when you’re jobless it’s really now or never,” the 24-year-old explains. “My parents were in the middle of renovating bedrooms, so I spent seven months sleeping on a pull-out sofa bed, working and living in my parents’ dining room. There were encroaching fabrics and yarn in all directions — I’d roll out of bed and straight on to the sewing machine. It was incredibly chaotic.”
It’s an apt description given the renegade spirit that defines her work. Using mostly upholstery remnants sourced from interior designers, her garments are reminiscent of early Vivienne Westwood, when the British designer worked with her partner Malcolm McLaren in their anarchic shop in Chelsea, selling customised garments including her infamous T-shirts that spelled out words like ROCK and PERV using chicken bones.
“I took a lot of inspiration from punk; that was a huge influence for me. That naturally falls in line with what I do,” she says of her work, which uses patchworking techniques and deconstructed tailoring to make boxy jackets, berets adorned with antique brooches and pins, zany tie-dye leggings and Western-style frocks in brocades and jacquards, as well as tartan and velvet.
Sustainability was hugely important to the young designer when it came to deciding to use upcycled materials, but it also proved a practical way of sourcing fabrics.
“Belfast, for example, where I was living, has lost so many of its independent fabric stores. So for a young designer like me to access rolls of fabric that are ethically made and that haven’t been shipped is incredibly expensive,” she says.
“A lot of young designers don’t necessarily have the means or money or even the storage space to accommodate big rolls. Working with offcuts or samples can make the process more difficult, but that accessibility is in part why upcycling is growing so much in popularity.”
In Tipperary, 25-year-old designer Laoise Carey also carved out a space for herself back in the family home when the pandemic hit. The NCAD graduate won accolades for her graduate collection in 2017, made primarily from old curtains, and took home the coveted Designer to Watch Bursary from Brown Thomas. After spending two years in London working for another designer, she returned to Dublin intending to do a master’s and, well, we all know how that went. Like so many creatives, her plans changed drastically and within months she had launched her own collection of delicate pieces crafted from antique fabrics, vintage lace and unique buttons. There is a dreamy, Victoriana quality to her work, something Laoise found to be missing from both the vintage and DIY market.
“A lot of people have the idea that vintage clothing is just ’80s ski jackets and ’70s shirts with big collars, while my designs have Victorian influences,” she explains. “I think that is missing from the vintage industry because garments from that period have fallen apart and are not wearable. I want to bring back that style while showing people upcycling can still look modern.”
From the outset, Irish-German designer Hannah Ennis was determined to do things on her own terms when it came to working in fashion. The 23-year-old menswear designer, who grew up between Dublin and Düsseldorf, graduated from the London College of Fashion in 2018.
“I was quite passionate about working for the right reasons in the fashion industry — I think a lot of practitioners, ethically, I didn’t want to work for, particularly not for free. I focused on how I could contribute to the industry on my own,” she says.
“I decided on shirts because there are so many out there in charity shops so it’s very easy to source, and I loved shirting. There’s so much you can do with the fabric. For men it’s the most essential aspect of their wardrobe, which is always why there are so many — as soon as the cuffs get worn, they need a new one.”
Roughly four old shirts are used to create each bespoke piece, with Hannah splicing the old fabric and painstakingly matching up the pieces using her custom pattern blocks. The result are whimsical patchworked shirts, beautifully tailored and in an array of candy-floss shades, a world away from the dreary corporate uniform oftentimes associated with the original garment.
“I would like to get to a point where the majority of the shirts I make are actually from the customer’s own wardrobe, to promote circularity and educate the consumer,” she says. “Often with second-hand materials, there is a stigma with hygiene, so those concerns can be abated using your own clothing.”
While DIY design is having a moment, it will take something of a seismic shift for both mainstream consumers and the wider industry to embrace a different way of designing and dressing. For these young creatives, growing a business that is rooted in sourcing random allotments of materials could be a challenge, but there are plenty of established brands that have managed to grow while incorporating upcycling into their process.
Grainne Morton has been designing jewellery for 25 years and has carved out a niche with her intricate, whimsical designs that use salvaged and found materials. Originally from Coleraine, Morton has lived and worked in Edinburgh for the past three decades, where she currently works with just four makers who handcraft each piece. She is stocked internationally in both small boutiques and the luxury department store Liberty of London, and her jewellery pops up regularly on the pages of glossies like British Vogue. She credits her success and longevity in a notoriously fickle industry as being down to her steady approach.
“I have to be honest, we’ve made a really conscious decision as we grow to do so very steadily,” she says. “I’ve been in business for 25 years but it’s only been in the last three years we’ve had such success — it’s funny, I think sometimes people think I’ve just come out of college.”
The designer studied at the Edinburgh College of Art, and after completing a postgraduate was invited by the Crafts Council of Ireland to do a year-long business course in Kilkenny. Her fascination with collecting unique items and ephemera goes back to her childhood. Her parents entered the antiques industry when she was in her early teens and she would regularly join them while trawling the markets. Her collection of antique buttons began to grow into the vast library she has today. It’s no surprise that this method of collecting eventually found its way into her work.
“My parents are very creative with a good eye, and they were never wasteful. Because of the antiques, I was always interested in old processes,” she says. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to be sustainable: it was just what I did. Ethically, my brain just works like that. My parents were war babies so it was always ‘make do and mend’; reusing and recycling was in my mentality.”
After completing the course in Kilkenny, she returned to Edinburgh and set up her business making contemporary jewellery that she sold primarily through galleries. After about 15 years working as a sole trader and raising her family, she decided to change tack.
“I’ve always been interested in fashion and I realised I was making jewellery that I didn’t really want to wear so I was losing interest,” she explains. “By that stage my kids were a little older so I could get stuck back into the business and make things I wanted to wear.”
The decision paid off and she has gained a large online following and loyal customer base, much of which is in the US. Crucially, she has managed to maintain her roots in upcycling, using a combination of unique, antique items and new semi-precious stones, all plated in Fairtrade gold. Despite not wanting to label her work as “fine jewellery”, her pieces can command upwards of £1,000. The luxury market is not often associated with second-hand materials but Morton has managed to intersect two opposing ends of the industry spectrum.
Perhaps ironically, the handcrafting techniques that many upcycling designers employ are similar to the couture artisans who work in the ateliers of the world’s most lauded labels. Could the pendulum swing so that the most sought-after clothing is also the most sustainable?
“I hope upcycling will become the new luxury, because every single piece cannot be replicated,” says Lucinda Graham. “If I get a sample of fabric, I may never find it again. What I make with it will be entirely its own piece.”
“The fashion industry will go nowhere unless it changes,” says Laoise Carey. “It has to change and the old ways of producing loads and loads of stuff in fabric that no one cares about because they’ll be throwing it away and buying more next week — I think that is definitely changing. Most universities need to up their game and push students to do completely sustainable collections. It’s a priority that needs to happen sooner rather than later.”
Hannah Ennis predicts that “the whole shopping experience will change”.
“People have bought everything online; why would you bother going into a store to buy something generic like T-shirts? So what will people want to go to the shops for? I think brands will become more experiential, so I hope there is a gap there for more bespoke craft makers and designers to fill. I hope there will be space in the retail landscape for that to appear on the high street, instead of racks of the same clothes.”
Only time will tell what a post-pandemic fashion industry will look like, but if there ever was a moment for fashion to change its ways, that time is now.