As the world becomes increasingly interconnected and online purchases are rising at an unprecedented speed, the fashion industry, among all the others, is facing a radical transformation. Fast fashion, characterized by its rapid production cycles and disposable designs, has become the heartbeat of the contemporary fashion landscape.

We cannot hide the increasing popularity that this phenomenon is gaining. But who is paying the cost of all these cheap and diversified options?  VinoKilo, PWC Milano, Ecoolska, Appcycled and Simon Cracker held a panel discussion assessing this and many other related questions.

What are the opportunities and challenges of a sustainable business model?

Simon Cracker: Well, it’s hard to break a system that has calcified 30 years ago, especially in these uncertain times, where there is great fear towards change. We all fear de-growth of the industry, but in the end it’s the only path to survival. It’s an extreme statement to make, but this is an extreme period we are living in right now. 
The main strength of upcycling, I’d say, is the stimulus given to creativity. It’s when you have nothing that you can take the effort to create something new. The educational value of this skill is also a great strength; it has long been practiced, but hasn’t been called upcycling up until recently: we just need to transmit knowledge and communicate with our consumers. They need to know the value intrinsic in this way of practicing fashion, the uniqueness behind this way of dressing.

PWCBeing a designer is upcycling. Back when I was learning the trade, I would take a dress and make a sweater, transform things and create collections from them. That has stuck with me: it’s always been about dressing sustainably and designing sustainably. 
Now I sell the clothes of designers. I’d say the greatest challenge has been the changing mission of my shop. Vintage used to be bought and sold at fair prices, but nowadays I mostly deal with emerging brands. Those are hard to manage! There is work behind them, costs to sustain in transforming clothes. Those costs are reflected in the prices, and that means that I need to let my clients know about the value behind every piece of clothing that I buy and sell in my shop.
Upcycling, like all clothing trends, comes from the evolving necessities of our society. Fashion is born out of the streets and out of necessity, always. 

AppcycledLegislation is one hard challenge to face! Managing upcycling and restoring waste requires traceability, obtaining info about the textiles, about the original brands of the clothing.
Just to make an example, you can’t upcycle using Levi’s jeans because it’s their brand, so you must get rid of them, even if perfectly functional! Even recent European legislation hasn’t really helped about this, honestly.

Ecoolska: One of the best parts is seeing the evolution of thought in society, and being able to change the way of thinking of others, even just my friends.
So the challenge becomes creating something interesting, something that captures the other’s interest and changes their idea about what upcycling can be. 
A struggle? Marketing. We are a small brand; we don’t have the budget to compare with the bigger international global brands. It’s hard to make ourselves heard. 

VinoKilo: We sell vintage clothes, so the challenge obviously is to be more known, reach more people, not only Gen-Z. Selling vintage makes it easier to build one’s personality because each piece is unique. As for legislation, as Diletta (Appcycled) has cited, we also have problems: we work with the municipalities, which for example ban temporary shops that last longer than 4-5 days. The bureaucracy takes its toll.

Upstream on the supply chain, the social impact on the countries where clothing are produced is staggering. Can we measure the social and environmental impact of your activities? What about traceability of your products?

VinoKilo: Regarding quantitative impact, we gather information about what kind of clothing is bought at our events, i.e. the amount of clothing that they have saved. 

Appcycled: When producing new clothing, we refer to dressmakers’ shops located on the territory. That has a social impact on the local territory. We are also trying to understand how to better trace the waste origin, but that is a complex process.

PWC: I deal with designer clothing, which comes already finished. Estimating how much my activity is helpful is hard. I will say that it is very hard to restore textiles and other waste because many firms aren’t collaborative about it. Many hold extreme amounts of clothing waste in their warehouses, that is honestly offensive to our current environmental situation, but this is what their commercial policy calls for. They won’t give them over, no matter who or how they ask. The only one who ever helped us was Pigna, the paper producer. But many others didn’t – they prefer to macerate stuff than risk depreciation of their products by putting their things on the second-hand market. 

Simon Cracker: We don’t produce any waste at all. Our brand comes from Emilia Romagna, and the supply chain uses warehouse funds (clothing that would be else categorized as waste)… we also have a zero kilometre policy.The greatest problem is that of stock, as said: but, by creating networks and co-branding with brands bigger than us, we can ask for the things they have in those warehouses and use them for upcycling. The question of traceability of our clothing is hard. Traceability is relevant – nobody wants to recycle Shein, but in any case, upcycling is in itself an important action, no matter if the original brand is Shein or something much better. Let’s not forget that the dynamics of distribution and marketing of fast fashion corporations is exactly the same as luxury brands. LVMH doesn’t work much differently from Shein. Look at the streets where you shop: Fendi is there with Zara. The culprit of the current situation isn’t only fast fashion.

PWC: What Filippo is saying is very true. Even great brands with long histories often have quality that is questionable for the price. Often a designer piece will be much more durable and better made than any luxury piece!

Is upcycling and sustainable fashion a phenomenon that has been evolving and getting bigger?

Simon Cracker: There is margin for change, as there is for everything. Being here tonight together? That is a measurable, concrete level of change. The problem with sustainability is that it can simply become a theme of conversation among journalists, and only that, just like body positivity became a trend-topic years ago. It should never become thatbut to avoid it, we need a cultural change. We need openness towards this message and acceptance. 
The effort must be a shared one, and being here today is a small part of it.

EcoolskaGreenwashing is a serious problem for big brands. One day, though, I do believe that the necessity of this change will also become inescapable for them.
I also have a theory that it’s possible that digitalization and the development of social media may make clothing less important. Dressing well may become truly important for the picture only, and not real life. 

VinoKilo: We all can see that sustainability has been growing over the years, especially with the younger generation. The change has been great and optimistic: everybody now talks about sustainability, with more or less depth. Much harder is to impact the traditional business model, but hey, this is why we are here!

What about your pricing structure?

PWC: Always so so hard! Pricing fights against my mentality. I wish for everybody to have the chance to obtain a unique piece. On the other side, though, my designers often consider their value as equal to the amount of followers they have and what not. Pieces shouldn’t be gifted, but they should also be available to most people. And yet, sometimes designers request very high prices (even if relatively unknown). Nowadays I even offer payment in rates, to make it more affordable to people and let somebody get a hold of that unique piece, while also allowing the designer to grow by selling their products. You know, mediation really is key here. 

Ecoolska: I think of how we may need the fabric of three jeans to construct one of ours: net prices will be costly necessarily, because the material is more than the output. Then you have to consider the work behind it. Fair value of the product can’t be 20 Euros.

Simon Cracker: Yes. One thing that is hard is to transmit to people the worth and work behind upcycled products. That work should be paid, there are hours of labour behind it!

Appcycled: This is why we do a lot of workshops: we want to re-teach the value and the time that goes behind a piece of clothing, which has been very much devalued by the fast fashion industry

What do you think about AI and creative design conflict?

Simon Cracker: Very vast and still open question. Take the Row, which banned phones from its fashion show and gave block notes to its audience to take notes. And you realize, there is a difference. Sketching and writing instead of taking a photo? It requires a little bit of effort.  
It is a given that we all need to know how to use the new tools that have been developed, from social media to AI, especially because legislation moves a lot slower than innovation.

PWC: It’s a generational question. I think it’s something that will be mostly handled by those who are interested in it, the youths especially.

Ecoolska: I reckon it will be similar to the question of haute couture versus retail fashion. One has the story, the inspiration behind it, and the other doesn’t. The same will happen with utilization of the AI in fashion.

How do you become known in the fashion industry, in this sector?

Ecoolska: You have to network. It is an important piece to build the chain. It’s how one gets those who matter to notice you. You have to be everywhere, organize events, be digital.

PWCEmerging designers have the challenge to present themselves as sellable. Many retailers don’t want the unique upcycling pieces, they want the bandwidth of sizes and standardization. They don’t understand that this kind of clothing is actually more personable and customizable, that you could contact the designer and have something tailor-made. 
And this is unfortunately very important, because the physical shop is the fundamental step in getting from the designer to the final consumer. Nowadays many order online, that is true…but that is so wasteful. 

Simon Cracker: There is something good about social media, after all: the possibility of reaching like-minded people. This is now the 4th year of fashion week we have done! That is proof of how well we have been able to work. It’s all been possible thanks to the creation of this group of like-minded people, suppliers and businessmen, to whom we have told our story and who have offered us support in return. 

By Lucrezia Manta.

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