How one manufacturer makes old clothes new again

upcycled fashion in Haiti
© Tasha Lewis

Anne Pringle got the inspiration to start her company while looking for interview clothing. "I couldn't find professional, ethical clothes," she said. Living in Toronto, she could find lots of cool upcycled clothing, but none of it was appropriate for business attire.

Pringle is the co-founder of LB Designs (formerly known as Local Buttons), which remakes old clothing into fashionable new garments in Haiti. Their signature designs are blazers and work-ready skirts, made primarily from men's shirts, jackets and pants. The company was financed in part using money Pringle and her partner earned as bartenders, and also got some help from a Haitian investor who owns the factory where LB does its production.

upcycled blazerAnne Pringle models one of LB Design's upcycled jackets. Photo by Margaret Badore./CC BY 2.0

The company is committed to ethical production, paying its employees fair wages and continuing to look for ways to makes their products more sustainable. They're getting some help from Tasha Lewis, a professor of fiber science and apparel design at Cornell University.

Lewis became interested in LB Designs as a case study in how to deal with fabric waste. Only about 15 percent of textiles are recycled in the U.S., amounting to 2 million tons of clothing and carpeting. Lewis' students helped streamline LB's process of deconstruction and design.

The journey of most second hand clothing is a complex one. In the U.S., clothing is typically donated to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. These organizations sort the garments and select the items that are in good enough condition to resell in their charity shops. What doesn't make the cut is sorted again into grades by quality, and sold via brokers to markets in other countries.

Pepe market, Haiti© Tasha Lewis

Only a small percentage of this brokered clothing lands in Port au Price's "Pepe" market, with the majority going to Africa. Buyers from LB Designs go to the market, where they sort through massive piles of clothes to find ones that are of a high enough quality to upcycle. "For a long time, everything we made was navy," said Pringle. They've now cultivated better relationships with importers, who know to contact them when a shipment of blazers arrives.

The buyers look for extra large garments, which not only provide more material to work with but are also less likely to be purchased by Haitians, who tend to be smaller in stature than Americans. Although there are many tailors at the Pepe market ready to make alterations, Pringle said the concept of upcycling garments is relatively uncommon in Haiti. Clothing that doesn't get sold in the market eventually ends up in the landfill, sometimes after sitting in piles for years.

upcycled fashion© Tasha Lewis. Professor Lewis holds an upcycled skirt.

Tailoring know-how is a major resource in Haiti; Pringle said her company makes use of the existing manufacturing sector. "It would be great if everything could be produced and consumed locally, but we're not going to see that any time soon," she said. Instead, she's interested in other ways of making clothing more ethical and sustainable. "I also love giving people the opportunity to use their skills."

Lewis echoed this sentiment. Although she's excited about efforts to keep manufacturing in places like New York's garment district, there are issues with finding the staff. "Who's going to sew?" She asked. Although many of her students are interested in pattern making and technical design, but few have the experience and desire to produce the garments themselves.

Afterall, Haiti is closer to the North American market than Bangladesh. "This is not that far away. It's a two hour flight from Miami," said Lewis.

The next big goal for Pringle and Lewis is to find a better use for all of the fabric scraps that are created in the process of upcycling the garments. They still face a number of challenges. One issue is that fabrics made from blends of organic and synthetic fibers are difficult to separate. Often the garments have had their tags removed, further complicating the process of identifying the fibers. Another issue is that synthetic materials can become toxic as the break down, an issue that's particularly pronounced in heat and humidity. Lewis said fiber science researchers are exploring ways to turn these fabrics into building materials or packing, or perhaps even upcycling them into different kinds of fashion accessories.

How one manufacturer makes old clothes new again
Cornell students and Toronto company figure out how to upcycle old clothes on an industrial scale.

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