As opposed to recycling, upcycling is a practice that involves repurposing existing materials or products to create something of higher value or quality, thereby extending their lifecycle and minimising waste.
This revolution is led by visionary designers and brands with an eye for weaving magic, believing that discarded fabrics have a story to tell. Meet 7 modern-day fairies snipping and sewing clothes together, turning yesterday’s cast-offs into today’s treasure.
#1: Koyak Patchwork
Koyak Patchwork, which translates to “torn patchwork,” encapsulates the essence of Emmy Nurlyana Mohd Shaifolazham’s creations. Emmy, a 27-year-old home-based clothing designer and crafter, extends her fashion label darlin.kl through this brand. darlin.kl is dedicated to the principles of slow and sustainable fashion and art.
In contrast, “Koyak” represents a fusion of patchwork and Japanese sashiko stitching, skillfully repairing imperfections and infusing a unique and individual character into the clothing.
Patchwork is perfectly suited to my style and my desire for sustainability. I chose patchwork not only because it can fix or ‘hide’ defects in clothing, but because it can also transform clothing and give (old) clothes a new look. – Emmy Nurlyana Mohd Shaifolazham, founder of Koyak Patchwork
Not just that, Koyak’s clothes are custom-made, so no two items are the same as Emmy wields her scissors expertly to create one-of-a-kind pouches, shoes, and even wall hangings.
All the fabrics I use are either scrap fabrics, pre-loved clothes from my wardrobe or clothing donated by friends and local thrift stores.
In designing, my goal is always to make the most of fabric and to see that clothes have a longer shelf life. – Emmy Nurlyana Mohd Shaifolazham, founder of Koyak Patchwork
Emmy hopes that her upcycled items infused with the 1960s nostalgic charm would be an aid to raise awareness and inspire consumers to adopt a more sustainable approach to dressing.
Entering an uncertain job market amid the pandemic as an undergraduate was challenging, especially for a recent graduate – however, opportunities abound if you find them. The founders of Hashadi, Abdul Muhaimin Abdul Hadi and his friend, Muhammad Harrith Hasmadi, found inspiration in an unlikely place – a pile of unused clothes.
It all started when I was cleaning my room. There was a pile of clothes that I no longer fit or wanted to wear. I read somewhere that clothes are filling up landfills, and they are causing multiple environmental problems. This is when I thought of repurposing the clothes. – Muhammad Harrith Hasmadi, co-founder of Hashadi 
Spinning hay into gold, the duo repurposed old garments into stylish and eco-friendly tote bags.
The initial response was quite overwhelming. So, we took it as a good sign. – Muhammad Harrith Hasmadi, co-founder of Hashadi
Since then, Hashadi’s product line has expanded, and now there’s something for everyone, ranging from elegant clutches to heart-shaped shoulder bags. Their material selection is also a nod to the local textile market, with donated songket and batik rescued from a tragic end at the landfill.
Their innovative approach to fashion doesn’t stop at their designs; it extends to their environmentally friendly packaging.
We never use plastic to wrap our bags. – Abdul Muhaimin Abdul Hadi, co-founder of Hashadi
Collaborations with educational institutions for recycling initiatives in 2022 have also yielded success, raising over RM1,000, with a portion of the funds benefiting NGOs and charities.
#3: Upcycle4Better (U4B)
Another beacon of hope that was born during the COVID-19 pandemic, Upcycle4Better (U4B) is on a mission to bridge the gap between fashion and sustainability, keeping discarded textiles out of landfills and providing consistent work to a network of skilled tailors.
The seamstresses are given projects based on their skills but we also provide an opportunity for them to work on more complicated sewing projects. – Andrew Jackson, U4B business development and marketing head
Today, there are 300 workers on the factory floor working in various facets of the supply chain sorting bales of clothing with 55% returned to the racks of stores within Malaysia or other countries . The remaining 45% that did not pass the quality checks are repurposed into new items by 55 home tailors who earn as much as RM 500 a week.
U4B currently collaborates with Life Line Clothing Malaysia (LLCM) and Australian Textiles Manufacturing Malaysia (ATMM) to ensure the effective collection, sorting, and repurposing of unwanted textiles
Their product line boasts over 30 unique creations made from materials such as batik, denim, baju kurung, curtains, and tea towels, with a commitment to environmentally friendly packaging.
We don’t just handle what we collect from the bins. We also work with local councils, corporations and universities to do education programmes on why we should recycle textiles, what happens if we don’t, and possibilities in the sector. – Yuki Liew, sustainability manager of Upcycle4Better (U4B)
In 2022, U4B participated in the Sustainability in Fashion Exhibition, which was held in conjunction with Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week 2022 aimed to educate aspiring designers on the significance of implementing more sustainable fashion practices.
We want to create awareness of fashion and sustainability among people who will shape the fashion industry in the future.– Andrew Jackson, U4B business development and marketing head 
#4: SURI Lifestyle
Denim, a notoriously unsustainable fabric, is the primary material of choice for SURI Lifestyle, and they are successfully repurposing it to prevent it from contributing to overflowing landfills.
SURI Lifestyle is a social enterprise empowering single mothers and pursuing sustainable fashion through the art of upcycling denim. Founded by Saleha Ahmad, known as Sally, this social enterprise goes beyond the conventional approach of merely giving out charitable offerings, instead opting to support single mothers by providing them with a reliable source of income, skills, self-confidence, and valuable life experience.
Beginning with a mission to empower the single mother community in Sungai Udang, Klang, this initiative has since evolved into a creative brand with an expanding following as more people become acquainted with its mission.
Things were tough at first, as most Malaysians prefer to buy things new as there was a lack of awareness of the negative impacts the fashion industry has on the environment. – Sally Ahmad, founder of SURI Lifestyle 
In addition to serving as a source of income, SURI Lifestyle offers grooming sessions aimed at boosting the confidence and self-esteem of the women involved. The tailors are also provided with training to become skilled tailors, with the ultimate objective of achieving the Sijil Kemahiran Malaysia (SKM) Level 3 certification.
If we don’t make any profits, the business won’t survive, and if we can’t survive, we won’t be able to help the single mothers who work with us. – Sally Ahmad, founder of SURI Lifestyle 
As a social enterprise that emphasises impact, Sally and her 10 seamstresses are poised to make a difference, not only for single mothers but for the environment as well.
With each new collection, not all items find eager buyers, presenting a challenging reality for Veen Deen Tan, the co-founder of Hanya. Rather than relying on trend-based marketing strategies, Hanya has made a commitment to upcycle unsold items from collections with a sell-through rate (STR) below 40-55%, instead of discarding these products through their Hanya Upcycle collection.
The Hanya team revitalises these unsold pieces by embellishing and enhancing details or even crafting entirely new designs. This initiative, aimed at reducing waste, was initiated in 2020.
Some of these items have remained on our shelves for almost a year, and the industry practice is to dispose of and burn but it hit me that this is an opportunity and rather than disposing of it and harming our environment further, my design team and I have breathed new life into these pieces and created a category that will make sure we stay closer to our core. – Tan Veen Dee , co-founder of Hanya 
Since then, two upcycled collections were released with positive responses from consumers, the brand has also pledged to prioritise purposeful fashion and has since eliminated single use packaging and recycled its own production waste.
#6: Biji-Biji Ethical Fashion
A subsidiary of a well-established social enterprise, Biji Biji Initiative, Biji Biji Ethical Fashion came about in 2016. Their material sources, however, came about from less obvious places.
Our founders were just driving around town picking up throwaway wood and later turning them into bookshelves and other things. At some point, we received orders to create banner bags and that’s when Biji Biji started. – Ambika Sangaran, chief executive officer 
One of their distinctive items was crafted from rejected seatbelt webbing, which, although deemed unfit for use in life-saving equipment, found new life as stylish and durable bags. Additionally, they have repurposed unused floor coverings from exhibition centres and surplus fabric from local factories. Moreover, they creatively transform discarded tarpaulin buntings, previously used for events, into folders and stationery cases .
Collaborations with designers like Tengku Syahmi result in unique, limited-quantity pieces that depend on material availability. Notably, Tengku Syahmi was the mastermind behind the collection that featured cream-of-the-crop vintage kimono fabric from the Japanese textile manufacturer Nakakoma Orimono, with this fabric being old stock dating back some 60 years.
It’s good to do sustainable fashion and when I saw the beautiful Nakakoma Orimono kimono fabric, how could I say no? I understand the limitations of only using what we have here but I also see beauty because what we make is a one-off.– Tengku Syahmi, founder of TSyahmi fashion label 
Noelle Kan, the founder of KANOE, describes herself as a “wonderlover” and has a profound connection to her fashion brand and the places she has resided in, which have influenced her fashion preferences and design decisions.
Her journey from Malaysia to Australia, Italy, and the Philippines has inspired her to create Kanoe, a fashion brand that reflects the sentiments and causes close to her heart.
This sustainable fashion brand is dedicated to making the fashion industry more ethical. They primarily source their fabrics from charitable organisations that support underprivileged women in the textile industry.
For the first collection, I worked with single mothers, training them to sew my garments. I also partnered with a charitable organisation in India, Women’s Weave, that supports women with jobs and sustainable income through their hand-woven craft that makes up my luxurious basics range.
It’s beautiful being able to support those in poverty, to inculcate their skills and talents to ensure they are paid fairly and to support their family. Knowing I can create job avenues for them or partner with an organisation that is already doing an honourable cause. – Noelle Kan, founder of KANOE 
Additionally, they specialise in upcycling old items to create new, innovative fashion pieces.
Upon closer examination of the whimsical kimono designs, Noelle skillfully created them using unconventional materials, like vintage tea towels in her 2019 collection. She has also meticulously crafted their batik “Lil Millie Cropped Tops” from a diverse array of textiles that Kanoe has gathered over the years.
In line with their commitment to zero waste, Kanoe also creates smaller accessories crafted from fabrics used in their clothing lines, with batik remnants available for purchase at their store for customers to create their own upcycled items.
Explore our sources:
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