The Frustration of Faux-Upcycling
stop pretending to be something you aren't, mass produced top!
As I worked on this piece, I realized (remembered?) that I have a lot to say about fashion! This isn’t surprising, as I’ve been deeply invested in the industry both personally and professionally since I was eleven years old, but I share that here in order to introduce this as the first in a series.
Last week, I went to the good ol’ bullseye shop to grab some essentials and, while there, I perused the women’s apparel sections. I do this regularly, not because I am personally shopping, but because I like seeing which trends are being showcased at a mass retailer, and to what degree (i.e. is that trend that I can’t escape on my social media feeds a product of algorithm-induced skewed perception, or has it reached the masses?).
As many have noted on Tiktok, women’s apparel - particularly the juniors-focused section - has transformed into a Y2K fever dream. Halters, sparkles, flared stretch pants, mini skirts, low rise pants, and spaghetti strap dresses pepper the racks in bright, pastel, and neon colors. For elder millennials like myself, this is quite jarring, because it is the first time the trends of our youth have returned in full swing. Some attribute the Y2K takeover to the popularity of Euphoria, but actually, it’s just time for the trends of the early 2000’s to return based on the evolution of Laver’s Law and current (roughly) 20-year cyclical nature of fashion.
But what caught my eye more than the Y2K overload was this sweatshirt:
The splice design is notable because it is intended to look like two vintage sweatshirts (one from Niagara Falls and one from New York) were upcycled to create a new, one-of-a-kind sweatshirt. Of course, that is not the case, because this sweatshirt has been mass produced. The store I visited had fifteen on the rack arm, ranging from size XS - XXL, each one identical to the last, down to the faux-distressing on the screen printing. As I researched online, I found that this is one of three splice designs; the other two were sold out at the store I visited, and one is sold out entirely online. If we assume that all 3 designs were stocked at all store locations, we can estimate that between 35,000 and 85,000 of these sweatshirts were produced.
This style is not unique to one mass retailer. Upcycling in fashion is a bona fide trend, and this style is currently found at most brands marketing to younger shoppers: Target, Urban Outfitters (though some under the Urban Renewal label are actually upcycled), ASOS, Rue21, Tilly’s, Nordstrom, Shein, Adika, Edikted, and more. With such ubiquity and the speed of micro trends, it is reasonable to assume that this style will feel tired and dated before long, and splice tops will be left inside dresser drawers, closets, and donation boxes.
The splice top is frustrating because it is pretending to be something that it’s not; it’s an imitation. And while it’s not new for mass market apparel to reference, imitate, or directly copy something else (be it a vintage tee or someone else’s design), this style takes it to a new level, because it’s specifically imitating a garment that is upcycled. If this were actually what it’s pretending to be, then it would be a repurposing of existing materials, presumably in lieu of creating something new. That’s a remarkable alternative, considering the amount of textile waste produced in the United States. It’s understandable that there has been a growing interest in thrifting, swapping, mending, repurposing, or upcycling clothes when textile waste has increased 27% since 2010 and 80% since 2000.
In fact, according to ThredUp’s 2021 Resale Report, the secondhand market (resale & traditional thrift and donation) has grown 200% since 2013 and is projected to double in the next 5 years. Meanwhile, total US apparel market grew 12.5% and is projecting growth of only 13% in the next 5 years. ThredUp’s report also projects that secondhand fashion is expected to be two times bigger than fast fashion by 2030.
Resale is driving the growth of the overall secondhand market, projected to grow 213% in the next 5 years. In addition to resalers like ThredUp, The RealReal, and Depop, brands and retailers are adding resale to their own business models to remain competitive amid the changing landscape and grow or maintain customer loyalty, as store credit is commonly offered for clothing returned to be recycled or resold. Entire companies are being founded and growing as they provide logistics so brands may execute this service. Trove, one of these companies, has partnerships with Patagonia, Lululemon, Eileen Fisher, REI, and more, managing their recommerce business details from the online storefronts to customer analytics to order fulfillment. I expect more and more brands and retailers will attempt some version of a resale business model in the coming years in order to remain relevant with their core customers.
With these trends and market shifts in mind, the mass produced splice top looks a lot like greenwashing and a desperate, shameless cash grab. Unfortunately, that’s nothing new. It’s the same fast fashion cycle: spot a high street trend, recreate it as fast and cheaply as possible, sell out or move it to clearance, repeat. But I had to dig into this specific top because I think it succinctly illustrates so much of what’s wrong in the industry: microtrend excess, greenwashing, and unoriginality.
I wanted to have a clear call to action to conclude this, I guess, rant? But I don’t, for two reasons.
First, I’m frankly tired of the responsibility being placed on consumers to make better, more sustainable and ethical purchasing decisions instead of demanding that brands and retailers make better, more sustainable and ethical decisions. Should we try to “buy better” when we can? Yes, we should! Should we be blamed or shamed if we don’t do it every time? No, we shouldn’t! It’s an individualistic focus that may at first seem empowering (“vote with your dollar!”), but is ultimately lip service so organizations may avoid accountability. It’s also a classist solution, because not everyone has the access or the budget to find the “best” option when they shop.
Secondly, there is so much more to explore, which I intend to do. As I stated in this post’s preamble, this is the first in a series, and next week I will be examining the discourse around repurposing quilts to make clothing (as a crafter and a frequent wearer of my Al’s Tailoring quilt coat, I find it fascinating). As the series continues, I will also write about fashion & the supply chain crisis, micro trends & social media, the latest crop of Gen Z-centric brands, size inclusivity (and lack thereof), and greenwashing.
Those topics may feel like a bit of a bummer, but I am deeply critical and hopeful because I have and always will love fashion. I love the art of expression, and fashion is a terrific medium. When you love something, you want it to be the best it can be, and that can’t happen if it’s not held accountable when wrong.