The designer transforms two used t-shirts into high fashion

This article is part of a series of investigations 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 to dull the color but not fade. If there is text or a logo, the more vaguely recognizable, the better. She’s just gonna chop it up anyway.

A navy blue shirt that said “Wilmington Friends Quakers” fitted Ms. Beatty’s needs on a recent thrift trip to Urban Jungle, a large store in the East Williamsburg neighborhood with a small yellow submarine sign out front Brooklyn. But she needed more than just the perfect t-shirt.

Ms Beatty, 43, is the creative director of Rentrayage, an emerging brand she founded in 2019 that takes its name from the French word for repair. Every Rentrayage piece is upcycled – handcrafted from pre-existing items, including vintage and deadstock materials.

While upcycling has become a more common practice in fashion in recent years, it’s less common to see a brand totally dedicated to it. Ms Beatty hopes to turn the practice into a long-lasting, profitable business – not just an “art project,” she said. “The point here is: how do we actually make this work?” she said.

This has also essentially made Ms. Beatty a professional bargain hunter. In Connecticut, near where she lives with her husband and two children, she regularly visits Elephant’s Trunk Flea Market in New Milford. (The market deals primarily in home decor; Rentrayage also sells home goods like colorful recycled glassware.)

Her approach has been 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. Beginning later this year, the line will be offered by retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. Ms. Beatty is also working on a collaboration with Madewell to repurpose his old clothes into new designs.

One of Rentrayage’s most popular pieces is a t-shirt made from two used ones, deconstructed and then sewn together vertically in the middle. The effect is a fashionable Frankenstein: two everyday objects combined to make something new and more interesting.

“This is going to look really cool,” said Ms. Beatty, after spending some time sorting through shirts and sliding metal hangers over metal racks in short, squeaky nudges.

There was something romantic about the way she looked at the clothes that no one wanted, calling them “beautiful and unique and impossible to replicate.” She had just found a shirt that could potentially make up the second half of the “Wilmington” t-shirt. Originally white, it had been rudimentarily colored with a swirl of acid yellow, purple, teal, and occasional flecks of brown.

Both shirts cost $6. The reconstructed look costs about $125, a hefty premium, but a price Ms. Beatty thinks is fair considering what goes into making the garments: sourcing and cleaning the shirts, determining the look (shirts to match based on shade, size and feel), cutting and sewing of the garment.

“We work in New York City and we pay fair prices,” Ms. Beatty said, referring to the wages she pays seamstresses and others.

The final piece will feature Rentrayage’s logo, an eight-pointed star surrounded by squares, forming a sort of geometric sphere that looks a bit like the universal symbol for recycling.

Still, Ms Beatty said there will be people who see the high-priced shirt and think they can make it themselves for a lot less. She encourages them to do so. But for those willing to buy the shirt, there’s emotional value as well.

“It’s symbolic — all of those thoughts and choices went into this piece,” she said. “It’s about making fashion out of something that already exists. It means something that has been thrown away has value.”

The trick to Rentrayage’s aesthetic, which is creative but casual, “pulled together but not too elegant,” as Ms. Beatty put it, is that her mash-ups require sophisticated construction. The jackets, in particular, are highly technical – “stuff that 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 best-sellers, include a denim jacket with crocheted lace tails ($795) and a men’s blazer with bustier panels made from an army green quilted lining ($925).

While Ms. Beatty is best known for her remixed vintage pieces, she has gradually incorporated more deadstock fabrics into the line and has traveled to Italy to shop at the warehouses that work with high-end brands to create their to sell surplus fabrics. A smooth, quilted floral fabric from Italy, for example, has been transformed into a cropped jacket. The previous owner of the fabric? Balenciaga, who had used it on a ruffled dress.

Prior to Rentrayage, Ms. Beatty spent eight years as creative director for a brand called Suno, which she co-founded with Max Osterweis in 2008. It was known for its bold prints as well as its small-batch production and socially conscious values—at a time when these practices were generally viewed as a bonus rather than an expectation.

Suno was modestly successful. Sold by major retailers and worn by celebrities such as Michelle Obama and Beyoncé, it was released in collaboration with Keds and Uniqlo. It 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 the search for outside investment.

“After Suno closed, I was just overwhelmed with guilt things‘ said Mrs Beatty. She had just given birth to her second child and was feeling overwhelmed by the sheer waste that comes with raising children (including but not limited to all that plastic wrap). “I ended up only buying vintage during that time and always had to alter it to fit properly.”

That gave her the idea for Rentrayage: a brand that focuses on revisited vintage and “teaching the world to look at things that have been thrown away in a new way”. But how big can a line focused on minimizing waste get? “Sometimes I think you have to start things to see the way,” she said.

“People just want an answer” on how to do better, Ms Beatty said. “There is no. It’s about moving forward in any way you can,” whether it’s replacing synthetic dyes with natural ones or finding more eco-friendly shipping methods.

Her small SoHo studio, where she can afford to hire people on a freelance basis only, is filled with big blue Ikea bags full of freshly laundered vintage clothes, ready for their second life in her next collection.

She wishes Rentrayage had even more access to high-quality fabric from stocks by other big-name brands that have been criticized for their reluctance to waste.

“I have complete faith in making things that already exist look cooler,” she said. “But it’s about finding those things and having access to those things — because what’s happening now is people are so ashamed of their own waste that they don’t want to acknowledge it.”

“It’s not like we use every ounce of fabric. There are fabrics that we need to sell back. But with every decision we make, we just try.”

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