Old clothing, fresh looks: Winnipeg fashion students embrace nationwide upcycling challenge

Fashion design students at MC College are embracing sustainability as they create fresh new looks from worn-out clothing and accessories as part of a nationwide "upcycling" competition.

Students at MC College take part in competition that looks for creative ways to keep clothes out of landfill

A grinning young woman sits at a design table, a tape measure hanging around her neck, with two of her handmade designs on mannequins on either side of her.
Lee Cirujales, a fashion design student at MC College in Winnipeg, took advantage of a bag sale at a local charity shop to create a knit patchwork top as part of a national upcycling competition. It's pieced together from about a half dozen used sweaters that were stained and stretched out. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

Fashion design students at a Winnipeg college are taking on a nationwide challenge that encourages up-and-coming designers to find ways to reduce waste by transforming worn garments and scraps into unique and updated outfits.

Research suggests Canadians end up throwing 85 per cent of their textiles into landfills, says Cal Lakhan, who teaches at York University's faculty of environmental and urban change and specializes in waste diversion.

More than 1.1 billion kilograms of textile waste goes to landfills in Canada each year, Lakhan said, citing data from waste audits and research conducted by Sabine Weber, a professor at Seneca Polytechnic who also works with the sustainability non-profit Fashion Takes Action.

Much of that waste stems from fast fashion — cheap, trendy clothing that's often only worn a handful of times.

"We just dump it," said Lee Cirujales, a student at Winnipeg's MC College, with a tone of frustration in her voice.

"There's just so much waste in the world," she added, remarking on how discarded clothes are often shipped off to other countries, with some excess items being burned in landfills. 

Cirujales and her classmates at MC College are taking part in the Upcycling Challenge, a Canada-wide contest put on by the advocacy group Fashion Revolution, which encourages students to breathe new life into tired old clothes.

WATCH | See the students' upcycled designs:

Upcycling fashion to tackle textile waste

5 months ago
Duration 2:43
Fashion design students at Winnipeg's MC College are taking on the Upcycling Challenge, a nationwide contest that encourages up-and-coming designers to transform worn clothing into unique, updated styles.

"Even a few garments, like a T-shirt or a sweatshirt that you upcycle and make into something else — a small thing can really make a huge difference," said Cirujales.

Her entry in the Upcycling Challenge is a knit patchwork tunic in earth tones, designed to suit a wide range of physiques and genders.

"I pulled up a bunch of bags of old winter sweaters that were like stretched out and kind of stained," said Cirujales, who took advantage of a thrift store sale.

"It's come together really well," she said, beaming as she displayed the dress on a mannequin.

"And the colour palette, I feel like it would go well with a lot of skin tones as well."

'You really have to use your design brain'

Her classmate Valerie Mosley turned a used blue vinyl purse into a striking two-piece outfit.

"When I was at the thrift store, I saw this bag that had a cool cut-out and the idea came," she said.

A pale blue dress on a mannequin featuring a circular metallic cutout on the chest and shoulder straps made from the bag's handles.
Student Valerie Mosley's upcycled outfit was made from a used vinyl purse she found at a second-hand store. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

Mosley found used, stretchy tops in a similar shade to complete the dress, which features a circular, metallic cut-out on the chest and shoulder straps made from the bag's handles.

Another student looked through her own wardrobe for materials, turning a traditional Ethiopian gown she'd outgrown into a sporty new look.

"Upcycling is good because, in every closet, we have old clothes we throw out or keep a long time instead of reusing," said Haymanot Gebreselasse.

Student stands next to a mannequin with a green, two-piece halter-top outfit with red, yellow and green accents.
Haymanot Gebreselasse dug into her closet for inspiration, turning a traditional Ethiopian gown she'd outgrown into a sporty new look. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

Their instructor, Michelle Maynard, has her own sustainable fashion brand called Simone's Rose, creating stylish designs using "offcuts" — the fabric left over after production that might otherwise go to waste — from clothing factories.

"Creatively, when you upcycle something, you really have to use your design brain and figure out … how to make something look good," said Maynard, who models her own fashion line on her Instagram account.

"Maybe something had holes in it, or it was trash, and you have to turn it into something that's wearable or commercially viable."

Maynard took it a step further and had her students enter the Upcycling Challenge for course credit.

"It's important for them to know wherever they go in the future, it doesn't matter where they're going to be working, sustainability is going to be a part of what they have to do."

Woman with pulled back, brown hair and a striped shirt sits on a stool with mannequins in front of her.
Instructor Michelle Maynard has her own sustainable fashion brand. She says wherever they end up working in the future, her students will need to be familiar with sustainable practices. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

Even if they end up working for companies that may not be particularly focused on sustainability, "it's important for them to be able to take those skills and apply it there, so they can teach people how to be more sustainable."

The winners of the Upcycling Challenge will be announced on April 25, during Fashion Revolution Week — an annual campaign the non-profit says is focused on "fashion activism," and which begins with Earth Day on April 22.

Win or lose, Cirujales says upcycled fashion has already paid off for her.

"Growing up, I was considered a little kooky and out-of-the-box," she said.

"Over time, I've developed a sense of style that's colourful and fun, and it just helped me be more comfortable with myself," Cirujales said with a grin.

"I hope one day I can do that for somebody else, too."

The students' clothing will also be featured this fall at MC College's annual New Designers Fashion Show.


Emily Brass is a journalist and anchor at CBC Manitoba, and host of the podcast Type Taboo: Diary of a New Diabetic. She's also worked for CBC in Montreal, Toronto, St. John's, Victoria and London, UK.