It might sound like ‘unsophisticated’ taste, but, for me, the Ukay-Ukay stores that are tucked in the markets of Dubai hold great interest. To the uninitiated, these are tiny outlets that overflow with secondhand stuff —mostly garments brought from various parts of the world, and sold at throwaway prices.
The word ‘secondhand’ might evoke both suspicion and loathing in high-end customers, but stores like Ukay-Ukay are the genesis of what is now an evolving trend: upcycled fashion. Having been fed with lessons of recycle, reuse, reduce for eons now, and loaded with sustainability sermons that at times sound like platitudes, I have found the concept of reselling used clothes only to be an extension of the flea market where everything that can be used again is sold.
Upcycling is where new fashion is recreated by repurposing textiles and clothing, not by breaking them down into components and making a new product from scratch but by redesigning existing material into newer styles. It gives the concept of putting old things back into purpose a whole new meaning, if one ignores the concerns of taking hand-me-downs and worn material that once belonged to someone else.
In the long parleys we have had on ‘environmental sustainability’ as the sole course of action we could take to make future life on earth possible, we have tended to gloss over little things that matter. We have stared at the big picture for far too long, often without a clear goal plan.
To laymen, the technical terms that define sustainability mean little; what will inspire them to take legitimate action are initiatives that are recognisable in their everyday scheme of things. Speak of carbon management, green energy, energy efficiency, circular economy, conservation, and watch them raise a brow, nod and walk away in partial or no understanding of how grave the crisis we are currently going through is. They need to be spoken to in a language that they can translate into positive action, which is how we can stall the degeneration of our planet. It is in this context that I find the concept of upcycled fashion intriguing and positively implementable.
Fashion brands across the world have now adopted upcycling in a major way and are creating luxury couture from existing materials. And believe it or not, Gen Z is becoming increasingly conscious and responsible in their fashion choices and is giving sustainability a leg up by opting for outfits that have been made from so-called trash.
Refurbished fashion might sound like trivial theory but scratch the surface and one will know that the amount of textile that goes into landfills are as humongous as plastic, and most fabrics contain non-biodegradable elements like polyester, acrylic, elastane and PVC which will choke the earth for hundreds of years. As common citizens, dumping fabric might be the biggest disservice (after indiscriminate plastic use) we might be doing to our planet and to our future generations.
That our clothes can denude the earth is a thought that makes me want to take the upcycling initiatives around the world seriously. Perhaps it is time for us to chuck fast fashion where we discard clothes we consider out of vogue and adopt more accountable ways of lending our wardrobe for future use in some part of the world. It is estimated that upcycling could reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry by up to 30 per cent.
It is an initiative that not just big brands and fashion houses alone can assume; it is a pledge that we must take in our individual capacities to make sure that the clothes we no longer wear go to a place where they will be revived in a new form.
It is not going to be easy to establish a system and machinery that will smoothly transfer all unwanted clothing into the upcycle chain. It is a process that will require earnest investment and planning by those who see the scope in it. It warrants a commitment from us to not buy more than what we need, and to not dump that which we do not require in recycling bins where they will get mutilated and be rendered beyond use.
The first step we could take with our limited capacities would be to accept that secondhand clothing is not lowbrow; and to create an ecosystem where pre-owned items could be exchanged, handed down or bought without shame. Local designers and tailoring houses could start soliciting old but quality clothes and fashioning new ensembles out of them.
For starters, I am considering pulling out a huge stack of new, unused dupattas, shawls and stoles and looking for ways to upcycle them. Given our entrenched biases, it won’t be easy to find takers, but I am going to have a crack at some rehashed regalia next.
(Asha Iyer Kumar is a Dubai-based author and a children’s writing coach.)
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