Emerging Sustainable Designers + Student Upcycling Challenge Winners

Emerging Sustainable Designers + Student Upcycling Challenge Winners

Photography courtesy of Fashion Revolution Canada

Meet the three winners of Fashion Revolution Canada’s Student Upcycling Challenge.

For any designer hoping to make a mark in the fashion industry in 2024, sustainability needs to be top of mind. The reason? Our planet literally depends on it.

There has been more than enough written about how fast fashion practices are destroying the environment. (See: the polluting of water sources, the impact of synthetic fabrics which take as long as a plastic bag to break down in landfill and a global emissions footprint that’s annually bigger than all that of all flights and maritime shipping combined, for starters)

And some major designers and brands are finally taking note. Stella McCartney, Reformation and Mara Hoffman have all taken steps towards sustainable and ethical production. But let’s not forget that going down the ethical and sustainable road (unfortunately) requires funding. So what are emerging sustainable designers to do? Well, Fashion Revolution Canada — a North American organization aimed at educating consumers around ethical and sustainable fashion practices — has a few ideas.

Introducing the Student Upcycling Challenge, a Canada-wide contest tasking young designers in high-school, post-secondary and continuing education to design brand new, high-fashion looks using upcycled materials, like thrifted textiles or their own garments. “The competition aims to encourage the use of existing and recycled materials as the starting point for fashion design, and the reclamation of the skills needed to make clothing,” Sarah Jay, communications lead at Fashion Revolution Canada, tells FASHION. “We also hope to honour the growing number of designers and makers who are choosing to upcycle.”

In its second year, participants were judged by a variety of experts in the fashion industry, including Toronto Metropolitan University’s The Fashion Zone Manager Brian A. Richards, vice president of communications and marketing at Savers/Value Village, Sara Gaugl, senior creative & fashion director of FASHION, George Antonopoulos, and Fashion Revolution’s Jay. The submissions were evaluated based on creativity and design, level of transformation from the original garment, technical skills, and the designer’s use of recycled materials, taking home cash prizes ranging from $500 to $1000.

These three emerging Canadian designers are just getting started with their careers, and for Fashion Revolution Canada — and anyone who cares about sustainability in the industry — that’s a great thing to hear. “[Fashion Revolution Canada] envisions a future for our industry rooted in respect and regeneration, as opposed to extraction and exploitation,” Jay says. “Circularity, reuse and the reimagination of existing materials as opposed to relying on virgin fibres will be vital in ensuring a livable future on our planet.” We’d say they’re on the right track.

Meet the three winners — and go gaga over their unique designs — below.

First Place: Hyunwoo Jung

First place designer Hyunwoo Jung is no stranger to the Student Upcycling Challenge. In fact, the Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) student, came second in the first year of the challenge; taking home the silver for a bespoke jacket and blouse (made out of pants from his closet and Value Village!).

For this year’s sustainability challenge, Jung dialled up his creativity even further by emulating the fashion industry’s environmental footprint with the design and draping of his submitted gown. “The main focus was the landfills with towers of old garments, hence the drapery and layers,” Jung said in his submission. “I wanted to show that clothes can be recycled, repurposed, and restyled, taking them away from landfills and back into people’s wardrobes.”

Using thrifted and damaged pre-owned blazers, a thrifted skirt, pre-owned bedsheet and boning from a Soft Moc shopping bag (!), Jung created a bustier gown featuring a bustle made from shoulder pads and a high-low hemline that could seriously be seen on the steps of the Met Gala.

Favouring raw edges, Jung wanted to emphasize and embrace the “DIY look”, something other designers might stay away from. “…I think that a garment that looks like it has been upcycled is really cool as it not only shows the effort the designer put into creating a garment out of old clothes and actively trying to reduce waste, but it also adds character and personal style.”

Second Place: Owen Cutler

For 2024 runner-up Owen Cutler, thrifting has become a way for the TMU student to sustainably and creatively reinterpret looks he sees from high-end brands with items from his own closet. For his submission, Cutler designed an entire outfit, creating a striped skirt, shirt, bag and boots using a bevy of thrifted tees, a wool jacket and jeans.

“The majority of the look is using a technique that creates new stripped panels, evenly cutting and sewing the graphics of found t-shirts to create a new fractured piece of fabric,” Cutler noted in his submission. “The improved graphics are ambiguous and unrecognizable, largely referencing glitchy video game graphics and technological happy-accidents, also usually contradicting each other in nature and substance to add to the effect.” The result: A street style look that feels decidedly fresh.

Third Place: Eric Dalby

The final winner in the 2024 Student Upcycling Challenge looked to the future when conceptualizing their design and submission — and a bit to their present as well. “The concept behind the designs was to create something that felt both futuristic but also grungy,” TMU student Eric Dalby said of his designs. “I was partially inspired by worn down retro futuristic buildings, such as the Toronto City Hall. Specifically, their concrete curves and pleats.”

You can see this architectural influence clearly translated into their look, which features a tie-up top, vest and wide-legged pants, all in shades of brown, cream and a pop of orange. The ‘fit was reimagined using four pairs of pants thrifted from Dalby’s fiancé’s closet and a cropped sweater used for lining. The tie-up detail on the shirt’s sleeves and sides aren’t just for aesthetics, but hold a functional and inclusive purpose.

“I wanted to create something that would be more versatile in sizing,” Dalby said. “Because of the tie-up function, it would be able to be worn by a greater range of sizes than a typical top, and provide a tight fit, which is difficult to achieve with non-stretch fabric.”

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