This brand is transforming the value of clothing through upcycling

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How Filipino brand Ucycle is giving clothes a second life. Photos courtesy of UCYCLE

The way the garment system is built now is hardly restorative: One in five Filipinos have over 100 pieces of clothing, while one in eight throw away unwanted clothes in the trash — which join the 75% of clothes worldwide that end up in landfills. Circularity and upcycling — transforming old, worn-out, or damaged clothing into something new — continue to be abstract ideas in the Philippines. A survey revealed that one in three Filipinos throw out clothing after wearing it once while one in five throw out clothes because they are “more than a few seasons old.”

But a mother-daughter duo is trying to do their part with a project called UCycle.

Short for upcycling, yes, but also short for working on the self.

Therapeutic benefit

Self-proclaimed fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen underscores the relationship between attire and attitude through exploring not only how clothes make her clients look, but also how clothes make them feel. Karen calls this “styling from the inside out,” carefully gauging how her clients use their clothes — whether as an emotional crutch or a means of empowerment.

Hanging in our closets are clothes that we, as individuals, identify in terms of our feelings and emotions. Lori Gottlieb, author and psychotherapist, explained that emotions form the core of who we are and understanding them significantly improves the quality of our lives.

From the dress we put on to make us feel confident to the outfit that never leaves the racks because it never feels or looks quite right, understanding a person’s closet — a contemporary and personal display of sentiments — allows Carmela and Tati Fortuna of Ucycle to find a way to give old clothes a new life.

They rework any type of clothing, but they do this based on a report that they ask the customer to submit about the clothing they want to surrender — explaining their own style and personal history with each piece. Much like therapy. Or as Gottlieb describes: a “really good second opinion from someone who’s not already in your life.”

The Ucycle duo, then, evaluates how they can redesign these clothes into a unique garment. “This is how, in a way, we honor each and every person’s ingenuity and distinct approach to clothing by preserving the things they keep and love,” said Carmela.

Carmela and Tati Fortuna are the mother-daughter duo behind Ucycle. Photos courtesy of UCYCLE

With over 10 years designing corporate wear to reinforce the identity of resorts, restaurants, hotels, casinos, and airlines (she even advises on hair, makeup, shoes and bags to complete the look), mom Tati was able to build the UCycle business on a solid base: making new company uniforms out of old ones.

“Being in that industry, I know that these companies have hundreds if not thousands of employees so they mass order uniforms on a regular basis,” Tati shared. “And I got to thinking, ‘Okay, this is a lot but where does it go after?’”

Only 9% of corporate work wear is being recovered for reuse. Most companies send old uniforms to landfills or sadly burn them instead. Grappling with the environmental impact of that method, Ucycle offers the R3 program: return, recycle, and repurpose corporate wear. This service collects, cuts the old uniforms into strips, and re-weaves them into something that the same companies can use again.

Since its conception, Ucycle has worked closely with a community of deaf and mute weavers in Kalinga to carry out this cycle. “For example for hotels, we get the fabrics and reweave them and make them into bags, slippers, pouches, or other items that they can use for their hotel rooms,” said Tati. She shared that the nature of upcycled items being one-off is the primary concern of her clients, who normally need these products in bulk. “But it’s about educating them that that’s the idea — every item is unique, limited, and special and not mass produced.”

One of UCYCLE's initiatives includes turning old linen bed sheets from hotels into pajamas. Photos courtesy of UCYCLE

Beyond working with existing uniforms, Ucycle also provides the service of designing new uniforms that are sustainable from the start, using fabrics made of recycled PET plastic bottles or natural fibers. Making a play for company cultures, Tati says, “The concept behind Ucycle is to offer solutions to companies so they can shift and embrace circularity with corporate uniforms.”

Her daughter Carmela adds: “At the same time, through the meetings and conversations, we’re also educating them as people which eventually hopefully turns into more conscious decisions.”

Having worked as a store manager in a fast fashion brand, Carmela has carved out her own small venture out of the UCycle project, called R3NU: R3Denim, which extends the life cycle of the resource-guzzling textile.

To produce a single pair of jeans, it takes 2,000 gallons of water, which is enough for one person to drink eight cups of water daily for the next 10 years. (Meanwhile, it takes around 700 gallons of water to produce a single cotton shirt, which is enough water to let one person keep drinking eight cups a day for 3.5 years).

In contrast, R3NU: R3Denim collects deadstock denims and other fabrics from customers, then redesigns them into a garment with lasting style and utility, similar to the process of made-to-order.

The difference is having to work with a limited supply of excess fabric, which tests creativity and skill in adhering to a clothing pattern.

Their debut R3NU: R3Denim collection is an anthology of classic designs with modern touches: a three-pocket work jacket, a full-body apron, and a carry-all bag that will be personalized to its owner. Carmela says: “We want to show people that sustainable fashion can be more inclusive by offering made-to-order pieces [that] feel unique to them by using clothes that they already have.”

This custom Ucycle R3NU: R3Denim jacket is composed of Japanese corduroy culottes, a thrifted top, a childhood pillowcase, and buttons collected by the customer.

An item created this year, for example, features fragments of Japanese corduroy culottes, a thrifted top the customer used to wear all throughout the summer, a childhood pillowcase, and buttons collected over time.

“Putting these together reminded me how much I enjoy color and how it can be personally rooted in my experiences,” says the jacket’s owner, freelance photographer Aya Cabauatan. “I love paying attention to texture and details.”