Upcycling is the answer to polluting fast fashion, says Dubai designer

The fashion industry produces more carbon dioxide than France, Germany and the UK combined

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For many, used clothes are mere waste, something unfashionable to be thrown away and left to rot in a landfill site.

But Noorin Khamisani, who teaches at the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, sees them as a starting point, an inspiration for an entirely new piece of clothing.

This process of upcycling previously worn clothes is a response to today’s hunger for fast fashion, in which items are used briefly before being thrown away.

“I think that upcycling should be about transformation," Ms Khamisani says. "So you wouldn’t necessarily guess that it used to be a jacket. Now it could be trousers, it could be a skirt, it could be a dress, it could be anything."

I think that upcycling should be about transformation, so you wouldn’t necessarily guess that it used to be a jacket
Noorin Khamisani, Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation

“It’s this idea of breaking it down, analysing the shapes and thinking: 'What do those shapes tell me and what can they inspire in me as a designer?'”

Since she joined the institute two years ago, Ms Khamisani has been highlighting the importance of sustainability to her students. A self-described eco-warrior, she says the growing recognition that the world has entered a climate emergency means that fashion, like other sectors of the economy, has to rethink the way it operates.

“We live on a finite planet so we cannot continue behaving in this way,” she says.

“We’ve created this very throwaway culture. We’re not valuing our resources.

“It’s a massive issue across the board. It’s linked to overconsumption. If we have to churn out more and more stuff, the stuff is losing value.”

Fashion pollutes

The fashion industry has a significant impact on the environment, with the UN describing it as the world’s second most polluting sector.

The consultants McKinsey and the Global Fashion Agenda, a sustainability organisation, found that the clothing and footwear industries produced 2.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2018 – more than France, Germany and the UK combined.

Reports in recent years of high-end brands such as Burberry burning unsold clothes highlight an approach that campaigners say needs to change.

Opening a forum on sustainable fashion in Dubai last year, Habiba Al Marashi, chairwoman of the Emirates Environmental Group, said it was “high time” a more sustainable approach to fashion was taken in the UAE.

The enthusiasm for fashion is as high in the Emirates as anywhere else, with clothing sales in the country worth $12.3bn (Dh45.17bn) in 2018 and growing at almost five per cent annually.

Ms Khamisani, who is from London, has long been interested in sustainable fashion, having seen how the industry operates while working for independent designers and high-street fashion brands early in her career.

She came to the view that a more eco-friendly approach was needed and, in 2009, founded her own fashion brand, Outsider, which operates in line with these principles.

“When I started my brand I was exploring this whole idea about design for longevity and thinking about materials in different way,” she says.

Although her brand focuses on sustainability, this is not the case for many other fashion companies. Ms Khamisani wants them to be made responsible for their products even after they reach the customer.

“For small, independent design companies it would be very challenging,” she says.

“But the really big companies, let’s face it, they’re producing at scale. They’re really creating the massive problems that we’re facing.

“They need to be leaders in terms of taking responsibility for the full life-cycle of that product, whether that’s ... offering mending, or taking things back and then upcycling them, recreating and maybe reselling them.

“It’s in its infancy, it’s in the beginning. Unless there’s government legislation, how many brands are going to do that?”

How upcycling can inspire

Ms Khamisani presented her ideas at a conference organised last year by British and Swedish universities. Her paper from the event, Exploring upcycling as a design process through fashion education, was published last month.

The opportunity to promote these ideas to students was a factor that attracted her to the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, which was founded in 2018.

She teaches design degree students, exploring with them issues related to the durability of materials and what happens to the items once they have been used.

They learn through project work in which they create designs for new items out of used clothes.

The students are aware of the importance of sustainability, Ms Khamisani says, but need the technical skills to upcycle.

There are different ways in which this can be done, whether it is adding a print to material, over dyeing, gathering the material in some way, or cutting it up and knitting it into a new item.

Far from being a constraint, having to use old garments to make new ones freed the students “from the existing fashion system”, Ms Khamisani said.

“They had to create with what they were given, rather than with what they should do. So, actually, the silhouettes they created, the prototypes they created, felt very fresh and new, and didn’t feel like they were being dictated to by existing trends, which again I think is really important.

“We see this next generation as being able to create alternative fashion systems, and alternative ways of making and doing and dressing.

“The great thing and exciting thing about fashion design practice is that we have so many tools and approaches that we can apply, that we can experiment with. It can be a very fun and experimental process.”

Updated: July 05, 2021, 10:33 AM