The COVID-19 crisis has altered every facet of human life, including the way we dress and how we shop. 'The pandemic made it difficult to produce work in general, so I started focusing on more conceptual work,' says London-based menswear designer Marie Lueder. As mills and factories closed around the world in 2020 as a result of various lockdowns, many designers turned to deadstock (old leftover fabric or clothing that has not been sold) to create new garments.
For her June 2020 collection, instead of buying material to create new pieces, Lueder reworked her models' clothes they no longer wanted with a budget of just £100. 'I didn't really have any money because all of the retailers were closed or struggling. I was like, "How can I produce something?"' she says. This practice is called upcycling, where one takes old, worn out or damaged materials and remodels them into new pieces, and in 2020, it became more popular than ever before.
London-based designer Priya Ahluwalia founded her brand in 2018 with the intent of giving vintage and deadstock fabrics new life, while 50% of Marine Serre's S/S 20 collection was made from upcycled materials; the French designer used driftwood, old scarves, towels and even drinking cans to make new, high-end pieces.
Older brands are also hopping on the upcycling bandwagon. In October 2020, Miu Miu launched Upcycled by Miu Miu, a collection of 80 one-off pieces made from vintage material from the 1930s-1980s, while John Galliano launched a Recicla ready-to-wear line at Margiela (made from reworked charity shop garments) after being inspired by Martin Margiela's 1994 Replica concept.
Lueder's upcycling method, however, sets her apart from the rest of the fashion crowd; she utilises it primarily for its holistic potential, not just its environmental benefits, meaning that it is equal parts people-led and planet-led. 'I'm mainly inspired by the people around me who tell me of their needs and wishes,' she says. After graduating from the Royal College of Art, Lueder founded her eponymous LUEDER brand in 2019, where she incorporates fine craftsmanship with tailored finishings in three core materials: leather, denim and nylon. Signature pieces include spiralling, multilayered baggy trousers, ruched, tight-fitting tops and irregular, reworked T-shirts, resulting in casual everyday tailoring for men. Lueder's clothes have appeared in Vogue Czechoslovakia, Office, Tank and Metal, and she has also made custom pieces for experimental American musician Yves Tumor.
Lueder's current upcycling practice is influenced by her background in bespoke tailoring (she did a three-year apprenticeship at the Hamburg State Opera), which she says informed her need for an emotional connection with the LUEDER customer. For her A/W 21 collection (her third outing on the London Fashion Week schedule), Lueder asked fellow designers for leftover waste material from their studios, and then reworked waste yarn and knitted trims into the seams of garments belonging to her models. Lueder spoke to each model individually over Zoom about their unwanted clothes in order to 'make them fall in love with the pieces again,' resulting in a personalised, bespoke approach to clothing a world away from the cold, impersonal experience of online shopping.
As part of the British Fashion Council's digital DiscoveryLAB scheme, Lueder showcased her A/W 21 collection in an expansive short film called THE 4TH DIMENSION, directed by Constantine // Spence, which felt more like a live theatre performance than a fashion show; in the space of just eight minutes, there were three live performances (some spoken word, some musical), abstract text flashing on screen (written by Théo Casciani), models catwalking and moving Tom Schneider's modular set around, courtesy of movement director Chloée Maugile, while multiple cameramen and crew appeared in the background wearing hazmat suits, part of the spectacle. This was fashion as a collaborative endeavour, and people of all ages, backgrounds and creative disciplines were invited to the party.
A cast of younger men in their twenties selected by Emma Matell wore original LUEDER upcycled pieces, while four particularly striking elder men appeared as 'extras and father figures' in their own suits. 'I look for tall men who are masculine but also very vulnerable and soft,' says Lueder. This criteria of men with a 'suppressed vulnerability' birthed a wide range of characters, each with a very different masculine expression: Jake Heitland read a poem about coming to terms with one's past, Emo Rotten mumbled a brief SoundCloud rap love ballad, while M. Henry G-C (aka Cold) stared down the camera, flanked by his fellow models as he performed a fizzy track called 'Dopamine' made especially for the show.
THE 4TH DIMENSION closes with two twin brothers from the elder section of the cast holding up an oval mirror, looking at their reflections (Lueder met one of them in an Uber ride and later cast him in the show - he was her driver). The two brothers face up to each other and embrace warmly - a rare, empathetic moment you'd be hard pressed to find in other fashion presentations.
Lueder is all about expressing intimacy and emotion through clothes. After a history of dating vulnerable, depressed and even suicidal partners, Lueder aims to empower men through what she has previously called 'mental armour for masculinities,' although for A/W 21, she insists that what she is doing has a 'softer, more vulnerable shell. I always made these garments for men to make them feel able to participate in this world. It's not their time, but still, I want them to be optimistic,' she says. Her Instagram bio pits LUEDER as a mental health service (tongue in cheek perhaps, but fitting nonetheless), while the spiral motif is central to her work in both a literal and figurative way. 'I always create spiral lines around the body. I'm thinking, "How does it feel to be touched on this part of the body by a seam or by a pocket?"' She compares the tailored effect to weighted blankets which hug and comfort the body.
While I felt that THE 4TH DIMENSION adeptly evoked the chaos and claustrophobia of lockdown, Lueder wanted it to evoke the risk in life, but also an exit into an unknown, positive future. Around the middle of the film, a line of Jake Heitland's poem reads: 'Just anxious survival lost inside an anxious spiral,' but by the end of the film, all the men had summoned the confidence to step up and out into blue light, signalling the promise of a better tomorrow.