For Thommy Douglass the assignment was a test of grit. He had just five hours to whip up a men’s coat made from a heap of castoffs: jeans, an old wedding dress and threadbare tweed jackets.
The task, set by the producers of “Upcycle Nation,” a new television fashion competition, rattled him. Douglass, 35, a contestant on the show, which will begin streaming on Wednesday on Fuse TV, has been making and selling elaborate corsets, silk tops and denim skirts from scraps for the past two years. He sells them on Depop and ReMuse, his e-commerce site on Etsy. But he had never designed clothes for men or worked in a television studio.
“You are catapulted into an environment you’re not used to,” he said. “You’re working with machinery that isn’t yours. So the level of nerves really kicks in.”
He tackled the project, as one of two dozen contestants culled from a pool of aspiring designers and artists known for reworking and reinventing secondhand finds into wearable clothes on YouTube, TikTok and Instagram.
The series, a variation on “Project Runway,” is framed, in part, as a rebuke to unthinking consumerism.
“During the last couple of years all of our lives have kind of shifted,” said John Scarlett, the head of in-house production at Fuse. The protracted pause of the pandemic “allowed us to reconsider how much we’re buying from a fashion and retail standpoint — and how much we waste.”
In packaging sustainability as entertainment, the producers are tapping a rising interest in upcycling.
“This is not just another fashion competition,” said Karrueche Tran, an actress and model who is the show’s host and executive producer. “We hope the show will be informative and inspire people to reuse household items in a creative way.”
Contestants on the show range in age, background and experience. There is 18-year-old Jonas King, entering his first year at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City; and Andrew Burgess, 21, whose quilt hoodie drew a large following on TikTok and Instagram, and who, through his upcycled streetwear label, Wandy the Maker, has collaborated with brands including Panasonic and Guess. Georgia Culp, 49, a single mother, experiments with punk horror and rockabilly themes in “Scrap the Runway,” her design company.
Contestants share a commitment to sustainability. In King’s upcycling practice, fashion and social responsibility converge. He aims, he said, “to find ways of keeping things in the world instead of dumping them in the desert in Chile.” (The Atacama Desert in Chile is a notorious graveyard for scrapped clothing.)
The producers are looking for a radical, even subversive, display of creativity and improvisational skills using a needle, staples, glue gun or shears. The challenge goes well beyond slashing or knotting an old T-shirt or fusing two high-end logos in the same garment. In each episode, three contestants are asked to assemble a montage from scraps or household staples, items as unlikely as an air mattress, deflated exercise ball or old rug.
“In designing, my goal is always for you to see the life that my materials have lived,” King said. “If there is a little hole or a little discoloration, you know the piece has come from something else. It has personality, individuality and a story.”
On the show, his assignment was to make a full outfit out of three satchels of randomly selected materials, mostly leather and canvas. “I immediately leaned toward the natural fabric,” he said. “You can see the fibers.”
Peder Cho, a judge on the show, who founded the upcycle label Utopia, looks for polish. “If I’m making something myself, I don’t like a lot of rawness showing,” said Cho, an accountant turned designer who has collaborated with Target, True Religion and other brands.
“I want the work to look like it came from the store,” he said. He is a stickler for detail. “I’m looking at all the elements the contestants use from the original piece,” he said, “the belt loops, the buttons, the zipper.”
Jerome LaMaar, another judge, places a premium on originality. “I want to see something that stimulates,” said LaMaar, a designer, brand consultant and trend forecaster. “That’s what pushes me to become a kind of Cruella de Vil.”
LaMaar was unimpressed with a contestant who was asked to fashion an eye-catching garment from a mound of disused clothing. “He had plenty of fabric to work with,” LaMaar said. “But when I saw that he did nothing but work with the lining — that triggered me.” The ruling: Thumbs down.
For the producers, ingenuity is paramount. But in a wider world, an item may be coveted simply for its individuality.
“Upcycling is becoming quite elevated as a form of artistry,” said Lucie Greene, the founder of Light Years, a futures and brand strategy firm. “It’s not just about sustainability, it’s a fresher way to talk about craft. Collaging mixed brands and references like Japanese manga or punk rock is in itself a form of creativity.”
As Cho said, “You are creating a one-off. It tells the consumer, ‘You won’t find this just anywhere.’”
Upcyclers’ motives are not entirely altruistic. “The trend is not all about virtue, it’s also about cachet and exclusivity,” he said. “That’s what fashion is at the end of the day.” — NYT