Joining Marina was Toton Januar (Co-Founder and Creative Director of the fashion brand Toton), Ratna Dewi Paramita (Head of Fashion at Binus Northumbria University) and Daciadhia ‘Phoebe’ Phoebehana (Fashion Student at Binus University, first place winner of Upcycling Design Challenge Indonesia in 2021). Together they covered the opportunities and challenges of upcycling, discussing material availability, production scalability, pricing, business cases and changing perspectives in fashion academia and the industry.
“Up to 46% of material is lost in the process of making a product, from raw material to final garment ” started Marina Chahboune. “The majority of these materials not being reused, ending up in landfills, are incinerated, or traded in local markets. ”
This statistic set the scene for the talk show, demonstrating exactly why upcycling is important to the fashion industry. It is a way to address the current textile waste problem with a direct solution to reuse the waste materials. Having already created a commercially successful collection through upcycling, Toton Januar shared how he first started.
Topics of Discussion:
• Designing with limited resources
• Scalability of production with upcycling
• Pricing upcycled fashion
• Upcycling fashion in academia
• Redefining “normal fashion“
• Watch the full talk show
Designing with Limited Resources
His journey started when he was invited to design a collection for Jakarta Fashion Week 2017. Toton explored the given theme ‘Modernism’ by drawing an awareness to our surroundings and environment for a better future.
Sourcing from factories, Toton secured mounds of pre-consumer scrap denim where he faced the first challenge: with waste materials, resources were limited. This forced him to think outside of the box. Back then, he used a rip-and-stitch technique, cutting small patches strips, which were then stitched onto plain cotton fabric, essentially creating an all-new fabric composition to work with. He also utilised a lot of top-stitching for patchwork, resulting in a more clean, polished look. Toton highlighted how creating upcycled fashion requires designers to be brave and throw the rules of ‘what works’ out of the window; design norms have to be challenged and creativity can flourish.
Phoebe faced similar challenges when tasked to create a two-outfit collection from pre-consumer textile waste material for a collaborative project between Binus University, the Indonesian fashion house Hollit International and Closed Loop Fashion in 2021. Students were given 100kg of textile waste ranging from swatches, cut-offs, colour cards, deadstock and samples from lab and QC tests.
“The students were shocked when they saw the condition of the materials, the sizes of each available patch, and how limited supplies were,” commented Ratna, who oversaw the project.
“We’re used to making the design first, seeing the trends, developing moodboards. For this collection, it’s really about what materials you have and what designs you can make from it,” shared Phoebe. So many fashion designers create their designs with the idea that fabric is limitless, ordered by metre based on their needs. Upcycling turns this process upside down. Many of the students in the challenge had to revisit their initial design concepts, rethink their colour schemes and styles.
Marina added: “You have to find solutions with what you have in hand. With upcycling you might not be able to choose the fabric composition.” This can complicate normally simple processes, as different materials will also have different dyeing outcomes, for example. “This is a limitation at first, but it’s actually a chance for creativity to work within boundaries.”
Scalability of Production with Upcycling
With limited supply and inconsistency of available materials, this inadvertently leads to issues of scalability. Toton was asked how he approaches the quantity of production for his collections.
He shared that it really comes down to planning one’s production and that grasping how much material is available should be a priority. Toton says he goes himself to local markets like Pasar Senin in Jakarta to source second-hand garments. As he often uses denim, more consistent fabric is available to him.
On planning production, Ratna shared another insight. Once materials are sourced, categorising them into colours or other classification can help designers understand what elements are available to them and adjust their concepts accordingly.
“Ready to wear clothing needs different sizing for each piece,” she reminds, and so in the industry this has to be factored into stocks and production quantity. “With upcycling however, each piece is one-of-a-kind.”
“When we go the route of sustainable fashion, we don’t want to be giants, we want to remain smaller,” added Toton. “Orsola de Castro (Co-Founder of Fashion Revolution) taught me not to be ashamed of where we are in the sustainability process. Small is sustainable… Going mass means that products are reduced to a trend, or just a style, and they lose the value of their story.”
Interestingly, Toton does add that sometimes he will ‘tone down’ the complexity of a piece to make it easier to produce, this way he can produce more pieces and thus reach a wider audience.
Pricing Upcycled Fashion
Phoebe shared that the ‘bespoke’ aspect of upcycled fashion is certainly a pull for her generation, but unfortunately affordability can veer them away from making a purchase. This prompted the important discussion on pricing.
Upcycled clothing tends to cost more than mainstream fashion. “For upcycling we need to set our margins more freely, it’s up to the brand,” says Ratna. “Brands really need to value the production time,” she adds, noting the extra workmanship that often goes into upcycled fashion.
Toton highlights that this is why pieces should always aim to be beautiful, aesthetically pleasing. Customers must want to wear the clothes because of their looks, not simply because it is sustainable. This secures the financial sustainability of a brand, and thus its mission can also continue. For the Toton brand, customers are looking for luxurious, beautiful and comfortable pieces, so designs must meet these requirements. The goal is not to diminish the final product by going sustainable; this also helps to justify a higher price point.
Brands really need to develop their business case first. “Research your target group first, address your business case to the target group and then adjust your pricing,” says Toton. “ When I was studying at Parsons School of Design, New York, we were taught to go to the fashion district to research and identify the kind of customers we wanted to target.”
Future Designers: Upcycling in Academia
Marina noted that during the Upcycling Design Challenge with Binus University in 2021, students found it difficult to develop their project’s business case: defining a target group, pricing, and sales channels. This showed how valuable the challenge was in breeding new perspectives for the next generation of fashion designers.
Ratna mentioned that the university’s fashion department has had a sustainable fashion module since 2013. “Fashion design students are visual people, they care about colours, image, trends. This course forced them to grasp a deeper understanding of the fashion ‘world’ and the issues involved. It created a link with the actual industry,” said Ratna, whose career spans many facets of fashion from retail, merchandising, wardrobe stylist, after having studied Fashion Design in the UK.
“By working with industry, students can actually have a better understanding and perception of fashion and identify the links, which is important for their future careers.”
Most importantly, the student’s upcycling experience challenges the ‘norm’ of today’s fashion industry. To be more conscious of material sourcing, more deliberate in developing business cases, to work within means and to escape the ‘limitless resource’ mindset that the industry has fostered.
Closing Statements: “Normal Fashion”
Marina shared a very passionate statement to close the talk show, giving the audience a stark reminder of the reality of fashion today.
“It’s a misconception to say that our current fashion industry is the “normal fashion”. The system we have created over the last two-three decades is a system that is sick to its bones; it’s completely exploitative to resources and humans, and the price we are paying for “normal fashion” is not mirroring the true costs. The price we are paying is substituted by nature – provided raw materials for free – and by workers being underpaid throughout the supply chain. So we cannot define this as a measurement of normal fashion or normal pricing, as it does not reflect the true costs that should be factored into fashion. I think including processes like upcycling actually gives you the opportunity to create a healthy price that really reflects the efforts that are going into it. These are the kinds of standards we should be putting into our industry. The long hours of work needed for creating upcycling products must be compensated fairly, because we don’t want to lose this creative industry to mainstream fashion where all collections look the same, without the possibility for you to express yourself through fashion. It’s on us to inspire others and even small steps are good steps.”