A PATCH of denim, a scrap of silk, and strips of floral patterns are sewn together to form a vibrant, psychedelic scarf. Originating from clothing factories, each scrap of cloth was once worthless debris ready to be burned or tossed away at waste dumps. Now, the waste can be arranged and synthesized to fashion new clothing through what is known as upcycling. A combination of the words “upgrade” and “recycling,” this concept is an enhanced version of recycling where waste is transformed into a better product. Unlike recycled materials, whose quality often degenerates as the cycle progresses, upcycled materials only require a single round of recycling, as the resulting output has greater value than the original product. Upcycling is therefore a much more environmentally friendly alternative. This culture is increasingly becoming popular in Korea, as evidenced by the growing number of fashion brands that offer wallets that were once umbrellas and belts that were bedsheets.
The genesis of green garment
The term “upcycling” was first coined in Germany in the book Upcycling by Gunter Pauli, also known as “the Steve Jobs of sustainability.” The term was adapted and made known to the public by Michael Braungart and William McDonough’s book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. The authors claim that it is critical to reduce waste that hold potential uses. Braungart and McDonough believe that a plastic water bottle does not lose its value the moment we empty it. They believe that the bottle holds “potential uses,” as it may easily become a gardening pot, a pencil case, or a piggy bank.
According to Hipcycle, an online store for upcycled goods, upcycling is “the process of converting old or discarded materials into something useful and often beautiful*.” Examples vary in great range, from daily household goods to even art and music. Random objects such as tires may be turned into buckets, and coke cans into flower pots. Tote bags can be made by knitting together plastic bags, lightbulbs may serve as candle holders, broken guitars as bookshelves, wine bottles as lamps, and the list goes on. Upcycling is a fun procedure that engages your creativity and is not limited to anything, as the examples suggest. Broken glass, yarn, wires, and plastic can be used to build sculptures, in the spirit of what is known as found object art, or objet trouvé. Upcycling is not limited to arts and crafts, and Paraguay’s Recycled Orchestra of Cateura is one noted example. The orchestra creates music through instruments built from recycled scrap from landfills; here, the scraps are upgraded into a tool of greater value, and therefore one could also call them the “upcycled” Orchestra of Cateura.
Examples of upcycling in arts, crafts, and music mentioned above are small-scale processes available and accessible to individual participants at home. Lately, brands and industries have taken this to the next level, creating a growing culture of upcycling. One of the principal branches of large-scale upcycling is upcycled fashion, and several brands and industries around the world practice sustainable procedures to produce garments. Beyond Retro, for example, is the Goodwill for environmentalists. The secondhand shop is known to have a separate section for upcycled wardrobe, including pieces made by individual designers using recycled textiles. As each garment is made with different fragments from different cloths, each is unique and you may as well call it “custom-made.”
Patagonia is another brand under this category. The brand often partners up with other companies to design upcycled products, and has even adopted a Post-consumer Recycling Strategy and Upcycling Policy. They also hold different campaigns such as Common Threads and Wornwear. Both programs accept damaged pieces to “reduce, repair, reuse, recycle, [and] reimagine**.” Under their “recycle” plan, Patagonia accepts any old, worn-out gear of their brand and upcycles them to brand new fabric.
We can’t discuss upcycling fashion without mentioning Zero Waste Daniel. A project initiated in 2015 by Daniel Silverstein, the brand collects fabric scraps from factories and industries and creates new apparel with the textiles. Thousands of pounds of “abandoned” textiles are recycled and used to create something of higher value; eliminating waste by fabricating new clothing is Silverstein’s vision. In 2018, Zero Waste Daniel became a viral hit on Facebook as news outlet NowThis covered the clothing line and its focus on environmental sustainability. The video currently holds approximately 14.9 million views as of April 2019.
The Seoul Upcycling Plaza
With the rising global popularity of upcycling, the concept took hold with the establishment of the Korea Upcycle Design Association (KUD) in 2012. Their first project, UPCYCLE 1st PIECE, introduced the wonders of trash transformation through the exhibition of upcycled apparel including bags, belts, wallets, shoes, dresses, and outerwear. The project was named 1st PIECE as it was the first to introduce awareness of upcycled fashion in the country. The KUD celebrated its successful launch with this first exhibit, located at the Ewha Womans University Museum.
But the real groundbreaker here was the establishment of the Seoul Upcycling Plaza (SUP). In 2017, the world’s most extensive plaza centered on upcycling was built under the Seoul Design Foundation. With partners such as Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), Seoul Facilities Corporation (SFMC), and the above-mentioned KUD, the Seoul Metropolitan Government was able to construct “the world’s largest cultural complex dedicated to upcycling***.”
The six-story building, or rather, the multi-complex of stores, workshop areas, restaurant/cafes, exhibition halls, and gardening areas hosts a variety of events and programs, varying from flea markets to DIY arts and crafts projects. Children and adults may participate in workshops and visit galleries, and take part in events such as the “Dreaming Factory,” “Farmer’s Market” and the “Seoul Upcycling Festival.” Amongst the many programs, one principal project is the Material Bank. The SUP claims that Korea’s upcycling design industry has been facing some difficulties, mainly because of “unstable waste supplies.” They stress that while there is “an overflow of waste,” the supply of waste is unstable where it is in demand. The material bank was thus created to re-establish the connection between the suppliers of useful, “upcyclable” waste and manufacturers who are willing to buy these materials for use in their clothing design business.
Another principal fashion-related program at the SUP is the Upcycling Studio. Brands such as Danha Seoul, for instance, are located in the plaza selling Korean traditional dresses known as han-bok created and designed using recycled fabric. Kim Tae Yeon offers fashion accessories made out of plastic bags and EASTINDIGO offers accessories made out of jeans and fabric. Milky project, as the name suggests, sells wallets made out of milk packs and Touch 4 Good offers PET-upcycled bags and blankets.
Keeping up with the trends
Along with the foundation of the Seoul Upcycling Plaza, the rise of upcycling fashion culture in Korea is further evident in the presence of local brands such as Cueclyp, Zenny Closet and Re:Code. Cueclyp and Zenny Closet recently launched offline stores at the Seoul Upcycling Plaza.
Cueclyp: The name “Cueclyp” was created by reassembling all the letters in the word “upcycle.” With its motto “second use: revive instead of incinerate,” artists Lee Yun-ho and Woo Yeon-jung founded the brand in 2015 using umbrellas from waste*****. The fabric used in umbrellas is called tarpaulin, and it is one of the top tier quality materials among other pre-production resources. Tarpaulin is thin, light, and water-resistant. Its elasticity contributes to its versatility; from headbands to trousers, the umbrella’s transformation is open to unlimited possibilities. Inspired by the Swiss upcycling brand Frietag, Lee and Woo decided to take these advantages as a sustainable business opportunity. The brand now produces a grand variety of accessories including tote bags, fanny packs, and wallets.
Zenny Closet: This brand works more with “nature friendly materials” such as linen and cotton******. In 2013, designer Zenny Lee launched the brand as a “handmade fashion project,” designing her products with donated second-hand fabric. The artist claimed she is a designer who illustrates nature “as it is”, and hoped creating garment that aren’t immediately thrown away in fast fashion industry, but rather echo its consumers’ “true colors” and protect a green environment. This brand is known for their high-quality bags, ranging from leather clutches to denim crossbody bags.
Re;Code: Like Cueclyp and Zenny Closet, Re;Code also takes abandoned material to redesign new clothing. However, what’s unique about this particular brand is that it launched a project named RE;nano, through which they upcycle subsidiary materials such as labels, zippers, and even buttons. The brand promises to use even the smallest bits that seem meaningless in committing to prevent creating any further waste. Re;Code has been highly active as an environmentally friendly fashion label, collaborating with artists such as dancer Jo Young-min and designing outfits for celebrities attending the Seoul Green Film Festival. You can find their items both online and offline.
The culture of upcycling is still very unknown to ordinary customers. The Korea Herald Business criticized the Seoul Metropolitan government in their article “Seoul's New Usage Plaza Drops 'Money Eating Hippo’” for having invested a critical amount of money into the project yet failing to publicize the place and its activities*******. It pointed out that the plaza was overwhelmingly complex, running an excessive number of programs that people are not aware of. In order to attract more participants, the Herald suggested that the programs should be downsized or better promoted with a clear and concise advertising system.
I, too, felt this way when I first visited the plaza myself. In contrast to the immense scale of the plaza, there were too little visitors. The building that I expected to be vibrant and full of life with all the active exhibitions and participatory activities was dead silent. It was a raw moment of reality check, and it was quite disappointing to see such a low level of awareness in a top “green-growth country.”
Upcycling fashion, both small and large scale, reduces carbon footprint. So start by digging into your closet. As mentioned above, D.I.Y upcycling is an easy and fun hobby to do at home. You may turn old curtains into bags, damaged jeans into wallets, and pillow covers into accessories. Or plan a visit to the Seoul Upcycling Plaza. Shop at upcycling brands and participate in events hosted by the SUP. Join the culture and experience the magic of turning trash into treasure.
*Hipcycle Upcycled Products
**“Introducing the Common Threads Initiative – Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle, Reimagine,” Patagonia (2011)
***“Seoul Upcycling Plaza,” VisitSeoul.Net
****Seoul Upcycling Plaza
*****Interview 12. 큐클리프(CUECLYP), FromA
*******“Seoul’s New Usage Plaza Drops 'Money Eating Hippo,” The Korea Herald Business (2018)