Once upon a time, in a not so distant past, giving away clothes that no longer fit to another family member or friend was universal custom. Trending was non-existent, and unlike our world today, fashion was not seasonal. Mending damaged clothes was the everyday norm, performed by mothers, sisters, in-laws, neighbors, friends and aunties, no matter their origin. They recycled outgrown clothing amongst the nearest kin as old clothing was never discarded, and Hand-Me-Downs were the fashion. Considered a luxury, only the wealthy could afford to have brand new clothes made.
Fast forward to today where we now consume approximately 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year, which is 400% more than what was just two decades ago. Yet globally, 80% of discarded textiles are doomed for incineration or the landfill, where it takes 20-200 years for the materials to decompose. The world of fashion went from Hand-Me-Down cultural normalcy that transcended all ethnicities, to the age of global industrialization where clothes became cheaper as everything was being produced faster. Ironically, science indicates that if human beings continue consuming clothing at the current rate as climate temperatures continue to rise, humanity may cease to exist in the next century.
Second to the oil & gas industry, fashion is a huge polluter. UNEP reports the global fashion industry as “producing 20 percent of global wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping”. However, while oil & gas has been extensively researched, garnered investment and sensitized around the issue of climate change and carbon emissions, fashion gets to almost slide by appreciated for aesthetics and not much else. This is what is termed as Fast Fashion – “design, manufacturing and marketing method focused on rapidly producing high volumes of clothing” which is the result of our universal clothing consumption and waste. We are ‘united in fashion’ and in retrospect, returning to Hand-Me-Downs could possibly prevent this societal downfall.
My journey in fashion started over 20 years ago in the corridors of academia, fueled by my passion for the craftsmanship of transforming something that another considered trash into a masterpiece. Each garment getting re-birthed for a new life and journey. While the concept of Hand-Me-Downs is the transfer of clothing that is of no further use to the original owner and passed onto someone in need, upcycling takes the item a step further by reinventing it into a whole new garment. With the onset of luxury fashion houses from famed designers like Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and others, a parallel counterculture emerged with designer Hand-Me-Downs as resaleable collectibles, appreciated in value due to their rarity. Coined as the vintage fashion industry, “the luxury resale market is expected to reach $77 billion by 2025” according to ThredUp. While Hand-Me-Downs carry a poverty stigma and don’t usually come with a price tag, vintage is collector-worthy and can be very expensive. At the epicenter of these two polarities is upcycling, a process that utilizes several fashion design techniques to reinvent a garment that is damaged or does not fit into a one-of-a-kind fashion item. Upcycling can bring vintage into a new era, making it contemporary and even more valuable.
We cannot unpack Hand-Me-Downs without discussing the preconception around them. As industrialization grew, brand new clothing became synonymous with higher socio-economic status and for a while, the Hand-Me-Down culture was considered a practice for those below the poverty line. I had grown up knowing the stigma of wearing Hand-Me-Downs, but once I discovered that you could take clothes and refashion them into one-of-a-kind creations, I had an epiphany. I felt empowered in transforming a garment essentially destined to be a Hand-Me-Down or worse still, wind up in a landfill somewhere into a different fashion look and keep it in my closet. This is the niche fashion genre that I have chosen to specialize in my career; upcycling fashion, the come up for Hand-Me-Downs.
I will heartily admit that I have a personal aversion to throwing clothes away and my advocacy has become my portfolio life. According to earth.org “garments given up early and thrown out instead of recycled combine to produce massive wastage, estimated at around $500 billion every year. A large portion of that is caused by consumers, but brands and retailers are just as guilty, often spotted tossing or burning unsold stock.” In 2018, Burberry, Britain’s largest luxury label by sales, revealed in its annual report in July that it had burned $37 million worth of clothing and cosmetics. The brand encountered so much public backlash against the practice designed to prevent stealing and dropping the prices of unsold goods that they had to stop, and yet it still remains prevalent throughout the rest of the fashion industry.
Throughout my career working at the highest echelons of the fashion industry, teaching at the most revered institutions of fashion & design and ‘feelin’ some type of way’ about “the waste” has led me to dedicate my life’s ambition to solving the problem of fashion waste. I founded House of BAV; a retail collective of designers of color that upcycle or create ethically, located in Brooklyn and New Jersey. I also founded Sustainable Fashion Week USA™, an annual Fashion Week that showcases designers in this niche fashion and have partnered with Swap Across America ™; a city-wide clothing swap event that this year was hosted by the city of Philadelphia. I authored my book “Born Again Vintage; 25 Ways to Deconstruct, Reinvent, and Recycle Your Wardrobe” to share the upcycling techniques I have developed over the years.
I truly believe that no garment belongs in the trash, and at the very least, can be a Hand-Me-Down. Upcycling need not be an enigma and I am all for deconstructing, mending and learning to consume fashion responsibly. So, please join me in this movement to save our planet while looking fashionably fabulous.
Bridgett Artise is a beacon of Sustainable Fashion. She is the founder of House of BAV, Sustainable Fashion Week USA™ has partnered with Swap Across America ™; a city-wide clothing swap event. She is the author of “Born Again Vintage; 25 Ways to Deconstruct, Reinvent, and Recycle Your Wardrobe” that shares the upcycling techniques she has developed over the years.