Upcycled fashion is no longer just for hard-core environmentalists. The idea of wearing items made from cast-off skateboards, inner tubes, plastic trash bags, car seat belts — even wartime bombs and bullets — is no longer considered bizarre but beautiful, as consumers pick up today's conservationist zeitgeist.
"Upcycling" means taking something disposable and creating something of higher value with it — making a purse from a tire, for instance. (Recycling, on the other hand, decomposes items into materials that can then be used to create something else, such as turning wood chips into paper.)
The rebooting of an item with a history and unique story that might otherwise end up in a landfill is what attracts many consumers to upcycled goods. And, as often happens as trends mature, upcycled fashion pieces have transformed from kitschy and sometimes embarrassing to quite ingenious, well-crafted and even high-end luxury clothes and accessories.
Here's the lowdown on a few fashion-focused companies that specialize in upcycling.
ENGLISH RETREADS: Some people get ideas in the shower, but Heather English got the inspiration for her eco-company about 10 years ago while floating down Boulder Creek on a rubber inner tube.
She'd been searching in vain for a vegan handbag and "it occurred to me that this inner tube could be made into the [one] I'd been dreaming of," she says. The first bag she made was just for herself, she says, but when she carried it, she got so many inquiries about it "that I naively went into business."
Today, her company, English Retreads, uses inner tubes to make purses, totes, wallets, belts and iPad and laptop sleeves. The items are handcrafted in Boulder, Colo., and sold throughout the U.S., reportedly selling best in urban areas such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco. The colorful linings are made from recycled plastic bottles. Prices range from $9 to $158.
"Normally, fashion is designed to last one season before the industry tells us we can't wear it anymore and to get rid of it," English says. "Many products are mass produced so they fall apart after several uses; things are made by people who are taken advantage of due to their socioeconomic position. These are all nonsustainable situations." The idea behind her company is "to keep stuff out of the landfills and use as few new resources and [little] energy as possible."
U.S.E.D. (UNLIMITED SUPPLIES FROM EVERYONE'S DISCARDS): Canadian Trevor Kehler found the inspiration for his company's upcycled seat belt bags and purses while contemplating the creation of a product he could feel good about and that would be useful but also speak to the "disposable society" he saw all around him.
"When I first started U.S.E.D., I was making sandals out of car tires and seat belts. I made two pairs," he says. "They were ridiculous.... [But] I realized the potential in the seat belts." He taught himself to sew, made the first bags from his home in British Columbia in 2002 and gradually grew the company to nine people with a 1,300-square-foot shop. Today his products sell in 62 retail outlets across North America and online. Prices range from $36 to $198.
The company upcycles more than 5,000 pounds of cast-off seat belts annually, Kehler says. All of them come from vehicles that have reached the end of their useful lives and they would otherwise be shredded and sent to a landfill.
Kehler believes his business model can work for other industries.
"I think our industrial waste is quickly becoming our greatest unnatural resource," Kehler says. There's "tons of trash, a sky full of ideas — we need to work together. Bend over and pick up the garbage.... The truth is in your trash."
AKAWELLE JEWELRY: Akawelle jewelry is Lovetta Conto's fashion offering inspired by her past. She's a 19-year-old Liberian who grew up in a refugee camp in Ghana after fleeing with her father from her country's civil war. In the camp she was selected for the Strongheart Fellowship Program, a U.S.-based nonprofit that helps rehabilitate and guide children traumatized by war and violence through entrepreneurship as an exit strategy from poverty.
She was sitting in traffic when the idea came to her to design a necklace with two pendants hanging side-by-side. One is a leaf made from a melted bullet shell with the word "life" engraved on it; the other is the round bottom of a bullet casing. Together they represent the transformation from struggle and conflict to life. Thousands of these bullets still litter Liberia.
"I think many people understand how serious a thing it is to wear a bullet that's been fired in a war that hurt people I love," Conto says. "I feel like when people wear it, I'm asking them to remember the lives that were affected by the materials I use — and to know that those same materials are now being used for good."
"It's a big beautiful world, but not an infinite place," Conto says. "Materials can have a life far beyond what we usually allow them. Transformation is possible and can be beautiful — whether from bullets to jewelry, or products that have hurt into products that can heal. You don't have to throw things away; let the past speak to you and show you how it wants to be reborn."
Prices for the necklaces range from $100 to $250. http://www.akawelle.com