"It's only waste, if we waste its potential." This is the mantra of The Upcycle Movement, a platform founded by interior designer-cum-circular fashion champion Lynn Haughton, and it's just one of an army of under-the-radar fashion and accessories brands around the country fighting the sustainability cause by reimagining discarded materials into covetable and useful products.
While you may think there’d be fierce competition between these independent labels for a share of what has been a relatively niche market to date, they are, in fact, all part of a supportive, community-focused movement determined to tilt the lens on what imbues a fashion item with meaning and value.
A year living in Australia and another spent living at a lake activity centre here in Ireland were integral to Haughton's own sustainability journey. It was during this time that she became fixated by the volume of old wetsuits sent to landfill each year. Having always had an interest in recycling and with a "resourceful mind", she taught herself to sew, invested in an industrial sewing machine and embraced a process of trial-and-error before launching her Neo Collection in 2018, a range of bags and accessories made entirely from used wetsuits.
In the past 18 months, Haughton says the support she’s received has been phenomenal. “When the pandemic hit, everybody wanted to buy local, and I could barely keep up with orders last Christmas,” she says. Before the end of 2021, the Dublin native plans to rebuild her website to create a multi-vendor platform where emerging sustainable brands can test out new products and share information and resources. “I named my brand The Upcycle Movement because for me it was always about promoting the sustainability agenda, not just selling products.”
Meath-based Eoin McGuiness, founder of circular watch and sunglasses brand Crann, is an advocate of knowledge sharing within this community and is launching a sustainability podcast later with this in mind. He believes there’s a growing public appetite for sustainable fashion. “We’ve seen the interest in our products grow hugely, especially over the past year or so,” he says. The tech consultant and entrepreneur often visits Crann’s stockists and says he finds customers to be really engaged with the circular movement. “I recently spent a day at the Cliffs of Moher gift shop, and everybody I met was fascinated with how we take general waste material and turn it into cool accessories. Customers are savvy about doing due diligence before they buy though. They want to invest in sustainable pieces that will last.”
The 31-year-old, who offers a lifetime warranty on every pair of sunglasses and every watch, is launching a new range of wrist watches made from Galway bog oak in time for Christmas. “We got hold of some unwanted sculptures and broke them down to create something really unique,” he explains.
The individuality of the products produced by sustainable brands is often lost in conversations about circular fashion. We speak so much about the worthiness and resourcefulness of it, we forget to mention how beautifully unique these pieces are. It's something that Ann Chapman of Stonechat jewellers in Dublin's Westbury Mall has built a significant proportion of her business around – consumers' desire for originality. About 40 per cent of Chapman's business comes from customers who want an heirloom or unwanted item reworked into a contemporary piece.
Since she accepted her first bespoke commission by chance seven years ago, the service has snowballed. “People want to avoid creating more waste by discarding pieces they don’t feel suit them,” Chapman explains. “But jewellery is hugely sentimental, so it’s also about being able to wear heirlooms in another guise rather than simply storing them away as keepsakes.” She loves the sequence of refashioning existing heirlooms into future family treasures and says her customers fully appreciate the circular process too. “Several have returned three or four times to have different items reworked into bespoke pieces,” she says.
This level of customer satisfaction seems to be another unifying theme among these brands. Armagh native Síofra Caherty, founder of Belfast-based bag design studio Jump The Hedges, says she's always surprised, and thrilled, when a customer messages her to say how much they love their new bag.
"I come from a family that has always recycled and composted, so sustainable design was where my passion lay from an early age," she explains. The NCAD and Belfast School Of Art graduate works primarily with truck tarpaulin to create colourful utilitarian bum bags as well as glamorous shoppers, but she's as preoccupied with the quality of craftsmanship as she is with repurposing waste.
"Irrespective of the story behind a brand, the craftsmanship has to be there if people are going to part with their hard-earned cash." Both comedian Aisling Bea and broadcaster and author Annie MacManus have bought items from Caherty's collections, imbuing both the brand and its ethos with considerable currency.
With a sixth-generation leather maker and master seamstress at the helm, quality craftsmanship is at the heart of accessories brand Mamukko. From their Kinsale workshop, husband and wife team Attila and Nora Magyar repurpose sails and rubber life rafts into holdalls, messenger bags, crossbody bags and purses.
They also use upcycled Italian vegan leather to create their utilitarian-chic accessories collection. Although ten years in business this year, Atilla says the couple has no plans to scale up the business. “Creating large volumes can generate more waste. We want to remain a family business making unique products in small batches,” he explains.
A native of Hungry, Atilla has lived in Cork for 14 years – describing Kinsale as “the nicest corner of the world” – and says he’s noticed a big change in attitudes towards recycled and upcycled goods in this time. “We all still buy too many things,” he says, “But people’s mindset is changing.”
Festival industry veteran Megan Best, one half of Attention Attire, a fashion brand that upcycles festival campsite waste into contemporary clothes and accessories, can attest to this change in mindset. "When we launched in 2017, we were advised by marketers not to headline with our circular fashion agenda. But this year, we've been told that we absolutely should lead with the story." What a difference a pandemic makes.
"The past year has caused people to pause and to reflect on their priorities," believes the 42-year-old. Her business partner is NCAD graduate Deborah Tormey and both women are passionate about persuading others to view waste as a resource that can be used to create something very special. "In the past, the frustrating thing about sustainable fashion was that everything looked beige," she explains. "We were determined to do something different." The result is a cool, contemporary collection of casual wear that plays with colour, pattern and silhouette. While Best explains that they were targeting the typical festival-going age range of 18-35, the brand has attracted a firm following in the 40-plus age bracket too.
This is no great surprise given that style has no age limit. What may come as a surprise, though, is how many creatives are embracing the zero waste movement and thriving within it. Quality craftsmanship and cool design can be achieved without ethical and environmental compromises.