The designer transforms two used t-shirts into haute couture
This article is part of a series examining Responsible Fashionand innovative efforts to solve problems facing the fashion industry.
What makes the perfect second-hand t-shirt?
For designer Erin Beatty, it’s often in the texture – neither too stiff nor too soft, and worn enough that the color is muted but not faded. If there is text or a logo, the more vaguely recognizable it is, the better. She’ll just cut it off anyway.
A navy shirt that read ‘Wilmington Friends Quakers’ suited Ms Beatty’s needs perfectly during a recent thrift trip to Urban Jungle, a department store with a small yellow submarine sign on the front in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. But she needed more than a perfect T-shirt.
Ms Beatty, 43, is the creative director of Rentrayage, a rising brand she founded in 2019, which takes its name from the French word for repair. Every piece of Returnrayage is recycled – handcrafted from pre-existing items, including vintage and unsold materials.
While upcycling has become a more common practice in fashion in recent years, it’s less common to see a brand devoting itself entirely to it. Ms Beatty hopes to turn the practice into a sustainable and viable business – not just an “art project”, she said. “The point of this is: how do we make this really work?” she says.
It also made Mrs. Beatty, essentially, a professional bursar. In Connecticut, near where she lives with her husband and two children, she frequents the Elephant’s Trunk flea market in New Milford. (The market is largely about home decor; Rentrayage also sells homewares, like colored recycled glassware.)
Her approach was met with enthusiasm in the fashion industry: a dress from the brand’s first collection, consisting of three distinct floral dresses, was selected to be part of “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume. Institute. From later this year, the range will be offered by retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. Ms Beatty is also working on a collaboration with Madewell to repurpose her old clothes into new designs.
One of Returnrayage’s most popular pieces is a t-shirt made up of two used pieces, deconstructed and then sewn together vertically down the middle. The effect is a fashion Frankenstein: two everyday objects combined to create something new and more interesting.
“It will look really cool,” Ms Beatty said after spending some time sifting through shirts, sliding metal hangers across a metal grid in short, shrill bursts.
There was something romantic about the way she viewed clothes no one wanted, calling them “beautiful and unique and impossible to recreate.” She had just found a shirt to potentially form the second half of the “Wilmington” t-shirt. Originally white, it had been crudely dyed with a swirl of acid yellow, purple, teal, and occasional brown flecks.
Both t-shirts are $6. The price for the rebuilt look will be around $125, a steep premium, but a price Ms. Beatty thinks is fair, given all that goes into making the clothes: the sourcing and cleaning of the shirts, the determination the look (matching shirts based on color tone, size and feel), cut and sew the garment.
“We work in New York and pay fair prices,” Ms Beatty said, referring to the wages she pays to sewers and the like.
The final piece will incorporate the Rentrayage logo, an eight-pointed star surrounded by squares that forms a sort of geometric orb that somewhat resembles the universal symbol of recycling.
Still, Ms Beatty said, there will be people who see the high-priced shirt and think they can DIY it for much less. She encourages them to do so. But for those who are ready to buy the shirt, there is also emotional value.
“It’s symbolic – all of these thoughts and choices have gone into this room,” she said. “It’s making fashion from something that has already existed. It means there is value in something that has been thrown away.
The trick to Rentrayage’s aesthetic, which is creative yet laid back, “put together but not overdressed,” as Ms. Beatty put it, is that her mash-ups require sophisticated construction. The jackets, in particular, are very technical – “things a consumer can’t make,” said Ms Beatty, who studied at Parsons School of Design after a stint as a product manager at Gap.
These jackets, the brand’s bestsellers, include a denim jacket with crochet lace tails ($795) and a men’s blazer designed with strapless panels of an army green quilted lining ($925).
While Ms. Beatty is best known for her remixed vintage pieces, she gradually incorporated more unsold fabrics into the line, traveling to Italy to buy from warehouses that work with high-end brands to sell their excess fabric. A smooth quilted floral fabric from Italy, for example, had been transformed into a cropped jacket. The previous owner of the fabric? Balenciaga, who used it for a ruffled dress.
Before Returnrayage, Ms. Beatty spent eight years as creative director of a brand called Suno, which she co-founded in 2008 with Max Osterweis. He was known as much for his bold prints as he was for his small-batch production and socially conscious values – at a time when these practices were generally seen more as a bonus than an expectation.
Suno had modest success. It has been sold by major retailers and worn by celebrities such as Michelle Obama and Beyoncé, and has released collaborations with Keds and Uniqlo. He was also a finalist in several competitions for emerging designers, including the LVMH Prize and the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. But the brand closed in 2016, citing growth issues and finding outside investment.
“After Suno closed, I was just wracked with guilt thingsaid Ms. Beatty. She had just given birth to her second child and felt overwhelmed by the waste of child-rearing (including, but not limited to, all that plastic wrap). “I ended up only buying vintage during this time and always had to change it to fit properly.”
This gave him the idea for Returnrayage: a brand focused on reworked vintage and “training the world to revisit things that have been thrown away”. But how big can a line focused on reducing waste be? “Sometimes I think you kind of have to start things to see the way,” she said.
“People just want an answer” on how they can do better, Ms Beatty said. ” There are not any. It’s about moving forward in every possible way,” whether that means replacing synthetic dyes with natural dyes or finding more environmentally friendly shipping methods.
Her small studio in SoHo, where she can only afford to employ freelancers, is filled with large blue Ikea bags filled with freshly laundered vintage clothes ready for a second life in her next collection.
She wants Rentrayage to have even more access to high-quality deadstock fabrics from other major brands, which have been criticized for their reluctance to deal with waste.
“I have complete confidence in my ability to make the coolest things that already exist,” she said. “But it’s about finding those things and having access to those things – because what’s happening now is people are so embarrassed by their own trash that they don’t want to acknowledge it.”
“It’s not like we use every ounce of fabric. There are fabrics that we have to resell. But in every choice we make, we’re just trying.