WUpcycle combines fashion, sustainability and DIY sensibilities

| Senior Scene Editor

It’s Friday, Feb. 2, and Eva Blumenfeld is full of energy. The senior and Sharing With A Purpose co-owner’s new project, WUpcycle, is having its first sale of the semester in the Danforth University Center, and business is booming.

As we search for somewhere to sit down—the eternal struggle of lunchtime DUC rush hour—Blumenfeld shares an anecdote that exemplifies the hyper-local nature of her new venture. As she and a friend rolled a rack of repurposed clothes through Etta’s Cafe earlier that morning, en route from WUpcycle’s home base in Bixby Hall to the sale in the DUC, an Etta’s employee, Melvin, stopped them. He simply had to snag an item off the rack: a denim jacket-sweatshirt hybrid that showed off his Washington University pride.

Melvin, an employee at Etta’s Cafe , wears a customized jean jacket-hoodie that he purchased from WUpcycle last week.Courtesy of Catherine Herlihy

Melvin, an employee at Etta’s Cafe , wears a customized jean jacket-hoodie that he purchased from WUpcycle last week.

WUpcycle is an initiative to repurpose clothes that might otherwise be deemed unwearable into unique fashion pieces, handmade by Washington University students. Its name is a combination of the “WU” acronym common to virtually any campus organization with the descriptor “upcycle” (and the first syllable rhymes with “wup,” not “woo”).

What exactly is upcycling? According to Blumenfeld, it’s a trendier term for reusing or repurposing. As opposed to the other classic “three Rs” and recycling, which implies degradation, upcycling elevates the items to which it applies. “It definitely implies a bit of creativity,” Blumenfeld said.

The inspiration to create WUpcycle stemmed from Blumenfeld’s role as co-owner of Sharing With A Purpose (SWAP). Manning the group’s South 40 storefront, the Trading Post, she saw tons of donations that she thought could be improved and reused, with just a little bit of sprucing up.

“I’ve seen a lot of stuff go in and out of that place, and a lot of it is damaged. So, it occurred to me—how can we fix this? Then, it occurred to me that Wash. U. literally has a seamstress shop, really experienced tailors and seamstresses, on their campus—the fashion [design] majors!” Blumenfeld explained.

Though she’d taught herself how to sew the previous summer, Blumenfeld knew she wanted to involve more members of the fashion design department. Fortunately, she connected with Associate Professor Mary Ruppert-Stroescu, who was more than happy to help.

“I was sitting in my office one day last fall, and a young woman named Eva came in and asked if anyone was interested in talking about recycling clothes. I said, ‘Yes! That would be great!’ and we started talking, and she just seemed to be so passionate and together with everything she was doing that we just kind of hit it off right away,” Ruppert-Stroescu confirmed.

Ruppert-Strouscu’s own research focuses in part on sustainable fashion design—making her the perfect partner for WUpcycle. She now serves as a faculty advisor of sorts, providing education about sustainability in fashion and being available to assist during WUpcycle’s weekly open studios, where anyone can come to craft their own upcycled creations.

Though making clothing is not a day-to-day activity for the average Wash. U. student, WUpcycle is incredibly accessible—other than the potentially daunting trek to the Sam Fox school on the east end of campus, but then again, the campus circulator can fill that need.

Blumenfeld explains that WUpcycle’s weekly open studios are “open in the total respects of the world—anyone can come, no experience required, all materials provided.” These inclusive workshops take place in Bixby Hall, Room 16, every Friday from noon to 4 p.m.

Although the open studios used to be housed in Blumenfeld’s apartment, the move to Bixby has many advantages—namely, access to “piles of textiles and dozens of sewing machines” and the presence of “people there who know how to sew already,” according to Blumenfeld.

She continued: “Let’s say you have zero sewing experience. You come, you learn how to make a pocket, you sew it onto a sweatshirt to cover a stain, and you can keep it…You can come and make whatever you want.”

Although WUpcycle has attracted students from all corners of campus, much of the enthusiasm for the project has come from a specific cohort: freshmen in the fashion design program. Because the major curriculum doesn’t get into actual fashion design until students’ sophomore year, many first-year students have jumped at the chance to get involved with hands-on design through WUpcycle, according to Blumenfeld.

As her May graduation looms, Blumenfeld has embraced the enthusiastic young crew as the future of WUpcycle.

“I’m really trying to loosen the reins and let everyone else step up,” she said. “They’re really into it on their own; I don’t have to push it at all, so I would love for this project to continue in some respect, regardless of how that might be. And I’m confident that it would be able to do so.”

Although WUpcycle is undoubtedly fashionable and fun, its main mission is not only aesthetic; it’s reuse with a purpose. Both the inputs and the outputs of the textile industry—production, as well as waste—have massively devastating environmental impacts. Creating one cotton T-shirt uses up about 400 gallons of water; conversely, the average U.S. resident produces 82 pounds of textile waste per year, 70 pounds of which goes to a landfill.

With these sobering statistics in mind—and the global demand for textiles, especially “fast fashion,” only growing—upcycling is a fantastic way to cut down on personal consumption and reduce waste within our campus community. It’s personalizable, customizable, fun and totally free—just stop by the bottom floor of Bixby Hall on a Friday afternoon. WUpcycle, Blumenfeld and the sewing machines will be waiting for you.