It seems counterintuitive, but one of the fashion industry’s newest trends is not about making new clothing. Instead, it’s about repurposing and restyling existing garments so they are useful and fashionable again while upholding fashion sustainability objectives.

Students in fashion design and fashion merchandising classes at Cazenovia College are currently spending two semesters focused on design and production of upcycled and recycled clothing. They are looking at their work through the lens of sustainability, a trend increasingly on the minds of consumers and manufacturers, says Elise Thayer, M.B.A., program director for the College’s fashion design program. Fall classes looked at product development principles. In the spring, students will apply the concepts they have learned to develop a line of repurposed fashions under the fashion program’s “Look Again” label.

The Look Again project was developed as part of a sustainability class originally taught at Cazenovia College from 2004 to 2007 by alumna and former adjunct professor Laura Pirkl ’94. Pirkl is now a freelance designer and design director of JES Apparel in DeWitt, New York. She has 28 years of experience in the fashion industry and spent 13 years as design director for American Fashion Network, working with many national retail stores and private label brands. Pirkl served as a consultant to this year’s Product Development class and students will present their final projects to her when the class concludes.

Recycling the Class

While that first sustainability course was a bit ahead of the curve, growing social concerns about climate, the economy and consumerism have changed how many people view the manufacturing and purchase of clothing now, according to Thayer. “Today, this is even more relevant with people at home due to COVID, co-crafting, and reworking their own garments. With the world being as it is now, the question is, how do we recycle and renew pieces to take them beyond the initial shelf life. That concept is now important in fashion,” she says.

The fashion students are partnering with Cazenovia consignment shop, The Key, to re-create garments that would overwise end up in the landfill. They have studied product development principles and conducted research on styles and silhouettes, target markets, trend and color forecasting, and customer demographics. In the spring, students will apply their research to design, and will then market fashions for The Key.


Seeing the Impact

Being able to transform unused or unwanted clothing materials and turning them into brand new pieces is a concept that resonates with the students.

“There’s too much clothing in the world, and our generation is really seeing how it negatively affects the climate. I think it’s alarming to us that no one has really done anything about it,” says Katie Short, a senior fashion merchandising major/fashion design minor.

Cara McDougal, a junior fashion merchandising major, adds, “Overconsumption is a problem, and it really has effects on the earth, so this project reduces that waste. Instead of making more fashion, we just utilize what we already have.”


Uniqueness as Trend

Serina Bower, a fashion design major and fashion merchandising minor, believes people are recognizing that they may not be getting good quality for the money they spend on garments. “This way, you get to create something that is your own. You can make it unique and something that nobody else has, and that’s what I like about this—making one-of-a-kind pieces.”

Maria Fontaine, a fashion design/fashion merchandising dual major, says sustainable fashion has wider appeal now. “The sustainability trend is not something people were expecting. It’s new and exciting and being able to do it right now and right here in Cazenovia, that’s a cool aspect. Getting hands-on experience…is important to have in my portfolio.”

Junior fashion design major Allison McGrath says recycling and restyling clothing sets another trend, too.

“With this project it’s not just about sustainability but also about being unique. Everyone is trying to show self-expression with upcycling and sustainability, and this is a great project to demonstrate that.”

Pointing to the concepts taught in class, McGrath explains that the jeans she’s wearing were going unused, displayed on a mannequin in a remote hallway of the fashion department. She took them off the mannequin and restyled them, and now they are one of her favorite garments. “And if I didn’t take them, they’d just be sitting there, and they’d be there for a few more years,” she adds.

Having a sustainability focus in their portfolios is an advantage for program graduates because knowledge in that area is something companies are looking for now when they hire talent, according to Thayer. “What is important in this project is that they are learning how fashion can play out in the circular economy. The Look Again project will connect students to the global concept of sustainability and, in turn, help them in their future fashion careers.”