By Genevieve Kyle

How British designer Matthew Needham is expanding upcycling’s boundaries

British/Czech designer Matthew Needham is on a mission to reconstruct the material waste accumulated by the fashion industry. Utilizing materials that many in fashion would neglect, Needham is finding ways to challenge the relationship we have with our clothing, and show the positive alternatives that can be implemented in the industry.  

Needham took the time to speak to Mission about his passion for upcycling, and the simple ways the practice can be incorporated into the fashion industry.

Genevieve Kyle: How did your upcycling journey begin? 

Matthew Needham: I was upcycling before I knew there was a word for it. I have always been attracted to old things with a history or an origin story as I believe it gives them greater value than their physical material. My Dad is a carpenter, and I would see him making in his workshop when I was younger, which really influenced the way I now work; being both resourceful and practical. I first began using upcycling as a form of communication and creative dialogue to challenge the fashion industry’s obsession with the new and blatant disregard for the mountain of waste we are sitting on.  

GK: How would you describe your process? 

MN: My process is very practical and material-driven. The materials and found objects form the core of the story for that specific project or brief, and the rest unfolds from that. The combination of found things ultimately creates the conversation surrounding and visual identity [of Matthew Needham], stemming from real issues such as overconsumption, waste, and questioning our broken system. 

GK: What do you hope people take away from your designs?  

MN: It’s important to me that the materials have their moment. Always giving a piece a name such as “The Tape Jacket” or “The Suitcase Bag” gives it importance and brings attention to a found object that would otherwise have been described as” just another item of clothing.” It is important for us to question where our clothing comes from and where it’s going. We all make, consume, and discard clothing, and it’s vital for us to question our role within the clothing waste streams.  

GK: What’s your primary aesthetic? How do the materials that you work with influence your aesthetic?  

MN: I’ve found materials that I’m more drawn to upcycle, such as sash window cord (usually old cord taken out of my Dad’s clients’ houses) or practical outerwear—a link to my obsession with being outdoors.  

GK: How do you see yourself growing your brand? How do you envision a sustainable business model? 

MN: I think we should start a more widely-spoken conversation around the labeling of a ‘brand.’ As creatives, we should not have to perform to the expectations others have of us. Becoming an independent designer or the director of your own fashion company often comes with that expectation. It’s something most of us learn to believe from university level, which is inevitably unhealthy.

I established the studio earlier this year as a limited company (mostly due to the lack of government financial support for self-employed freelancers in this country). I see this new chapter as an opportunity to establish MATTHEW NEEDHAM not as a brand but as a creative studio that presents innovative solutions  for clothing and systems to utilise waste. The aim is to set a blueprint for how we can rethink our own methods of living sustainably by creating products and experiences that make us acknowledge our own environmental footprints.  

GK: How would you describe upcycling’s importance in the fashion industry?  

MN: Upcycling is 100% the future! Acknowledging and designing with circularity in mind is the next step for all of us, regardless of whether you’re making clothes from post-consumer or virgin materials. 

GK: What steps can designers take to embrace sustainability and not promote greenwashing initiatives?  

MN: It’s important to continuously educate ourselves and acknowledge that we are all constantly learning about sustainability and circularity. I believe that inevitably there is a part of the fashion industry that views sustainability as a ‘trend,’ and without a doubt, there is a sustainable aesthetic right now. However, in 5-10 years, upcycling and sustainable practices will be inherent within all our working practices. 

Designing while acknowledging that our clothes will ultimately end up somewhere is the first step. The second is understanding the responsibility we hold in directing where they will end up. We have to change the system, not just simply switch those 30,000 units to organic.

 GK: What’s next for you? 

MN: From October 16th-25th, I am be showcasing ‘Inside-Outsider’ at Dutch Design Week, an installation of ten garments made from post-consumer waste. This work is being exhibited at the New Order of Fashion Lab, Torenallee 22-06, Strijp-S, 5617BD, Eindhoven, the Netherlands. We have just showcased a commission entitled ‘The Home Explorer,’ made for the Textile Museum Long Live Fashion! exhibition in Tilburg, the Netherlands, which will be on display until March 2022 alongside archival work. This month, we were just awarded an artist’s residency at The Sarabande Foundation, which is super exciting!

Images courtesy of Matthew Needham