From Indian brides to Bollywood celebs, fashion lovers embrace upcycling

Upcycling refers to the process of recycling a product to create a new one of a higher value.

Wearing your mother’s restored brocade dupatta to a wedding? Getting a lehenga stitched using your grandmother’s vintage sari? Knowingly or unknowingly, you’re a part of the upcycling process, which means recycling a used product to create a new one of higher quality and value. This trend, part of the sustainable fashion movement, has been endorsed by celebrities from Hollywood and Bollywood, such as actors Emma Watson and Kalki Koechlin. Internationally, designers like Stella McCartney and labels like Reformation are known to follow this model of creating ultra-fashionable looks.

While responsible fashion is a big buzzword the world over, India has caught up, too, with several runway shows and labels dedicated to sustainable design processes. While sustainability includes a lot of features — use of organic fabrics, maximisation of employment, and minimising wastage, among others — upcycling is what is making news. At the recently held Green Carpet Awards in Milan, Hollywood stars and fashion biggies were seen wearing garments with interesting, upcycled elements — from couture clutches made of restored paper to a leather alternative made from pineapple leaves.

And the trend is just getting bigger. “The garment industry is the second biggest pollutant today. So upcycling is important,” says designer Amit Aggarwal. “It’s about how to use existing resources in the best of ways. This includes using leftovers obtained by the process of manufacturing clothes and using them to create a new product. We use patola — its vintage, torn and withered version — and make something contemporary out of it: an example of upcycling.” Kalki Koechlin and fellow Bollywood actor Shilpa Shetty Kundra (both of them wore gowns made out of vintage Benarasi saris) have gone the upcycled way on red carpets.

Upcycling is also back in fashion when it comes to wedding wear. “I went for upcycling by using my mom’s old sari, which my daadi (grandmother) gave her at the time of her wedding. I turned it into a lehenga for my mehendi. Apart from the sustainability factor, since my daadi is no more, I wanted to do this as a tribute to her. I knew that upcycling an old garment meant I was getting the most out of it, because I’ll be wearing it again, apart from saving money, of course,” says Aakshi Julka Baijal, 26, a businesswoman.

Dayaneet Kaur in a Benarasi brocade that was owned by her late grandma; and Aakshi Baijal’s mehendi outfit, made by upcycling her mother’s vintage sari. (Mahima Bhatia; The Story Weavers)

“As an industry, we need to propose a culture where we buy less, and reshape how we shop,” says designer Payal Khandwala, who creates upcycled accessories using leftover fabric. “When I got married, I got a vintage brocade lehenga from someone who collects old textiles in Pune. I wore my old silver jewellery with it. I never wanted to buy something that I wouldn’t wear ever again.”