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In today’s fast-paced world, trends are being discarded to make room for “niche” styles that consumers can call their own. Enter upcycling, the micro trend that fulfills the consumer’s desire to exhibit individuality and avoid the dreaded label basic while also proving to be a profitable business endeavor. Upcycling focuses on rethinking silhouettes in order to create a new and altered version of a wasted article of clothing or material, successfully decreasing textile waste in the fashion industry. For businesses in the fashion industry, upcycling can help minimize the overall cost of production because it allows retailers to reuse materials for their products instead of having new materials made, leading to increased profit margins and reduced consumer costs. And, of course, it appeals to consumers; per Forbes, 93% of consumers across the globe expect businesses to be involved in environmental issues.

A number of independent brands have created upcycled collections in an effort to meet demands for uniqueness while simultaneously challenging waste culture. The entire fashion industry follows a similar path—everything that was once old, or vintage, eventually comes back into style, whether you purchase it from Goodwill or Urban Outfitters. Rua Carlota, Paolina Russo, and Ancuta Sarca are just three of the young, visionary brands focused on sustainability and upcycling in fashion.

Founded in London by Charlotte Kirkham, Rua Carlota is a knitwear brand founded on the basis of ethical fashion design, creating shoppable pieces from deadstock materials and giving life to forgotten fabric. The brand rests on the concept that there is potential in everything. Utilizing brightly colored leftover fabrics rendered useless by society, Rua Carlota creates beautiful patchwork knit, avant-garde pieces in a kaleidoscope of colors. Designer Kirkham has spoken on being inspired by the lettuce hem, and she features it in surprising patterns and neon colors in her garments. With the textile industry being one of the largest contributors to global waste, Rua Carlota’s use of overstock fabrics effectively limits the amount of waste generated by the fashion industry.

When scrolling through Depop or Poshmark for pre-owned clothes, I constantly see the same vintage styles: lace-trimmed Y2K tanks, retro mini skirts, and colorful sweater vests. In a world where old is new, the trends that were once considered unique have managed to become ordinary all over again. Rua Carlota challenges this issue by creating sustainable clothes that are far from predictable. The brand was named “New Knitwear Brand to Obsess Over” by Vogue UK last spring and continues to release energetic collections every drop. In fact, Kirkham noted in an interview with Vogue that her sales have risen dramatically thanks to the pandemic and the influx of online shoppers stuck at home—her drops now sell out in mere minutes.

On the other hand, brand Paolina Russo takes upcycling more literally, by giving new life to overstock athleticwear. Inspired by the sports she played throughout childhood, Russo designed her own sportswear collections and partnered with Adidas to co-create one-of-a-kind pieces. Her signature knit fabric mimics the illusory effect of holographic images to create pieces like her illusion bustier tops. In partnership with Adidas, Russo also created hybrid boot-heel shoes based off of Adidas’s Superstar sneakers. Her designs stitch together a medley of upcycled and unconventional materials in jarring color combinations. The originality of Paolina Russo appeals to Gen Z and its sought-after individuality while saving on production costs by upcycling material.

Focused on shoes rather than clothes, Romanian-born Ancuta Sarca elevates the practice of upcycling with luxury-meets-sports shoe designs that use deadstock materials inspired by athletics. This past fall, she released a collection—made using recycled Nike sneakers—that included knit and leather upper mules as well as slingback kitten heel sandals adorned with Nike’s staple swoosh. Like Rua Carlota, Sarca is challenging waste culture by creating beautiful shoes I guarantee you’ve never seen before from materials that would have otherwise sat in a landfill.

Fashion can be repetitive if one does not think out-of-the-box. Rua Carlota, Paolina Russo, and Ancuta Sarca take advantage of Gen Z’s desire to be unique, offering customers a chance to acquire one-of-a-kind pieces in a market saturated with carbon copies and fast fashion. They allow consumers to pause and marvel at their method and the beauty of upcycling’s distinctive nature in its goal to be experimental and eliminate the tons of waste that enter landfills each year from the fashion industry. By appealing to today’s consumers’ desire to be ethical in their shopping choices, upcycling is second-best to shopping secondhand and might just be the next best thing to breathe life into our closets without diminishing individuality and hurting the environment.

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