The designer turns two used T-shirts into high fashion

This article is part of a series that examines: responsible fashionand innovative efforts to address problems in the fashion industry.

What makes the perfect pre-owned T-shirt?

For designer Erin Beatty, it’s often in the texture – not too stiff or too soft, and worn enough to mute the color but not fade it. If there is text or a logo, the more vaguely recognizable the better. She’s going to cut it anyway.

A navy blue shirt that read “Wilmington Friends Quakers” was just right for Mrs. Beatty’s needs on a recent frugal trip to Urban Jungle, a large store with a small yellow submarine sign out front in the East Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. But she needed more than just a perfect T-shirt.

Ms. Beatty, 43, is the creative director of Rentrayage, an up and coming brand she founded in 2019 that takes its name from the French word meaning ‘to recover’. Every Rentrayage piece is upcycled – handmade from pre-existing items, including vintage and deadstock materials.

While upcycling has become more and more common in fashion in recent years, it’s less common to see a brand fully committed to it. Ms. Beatty hopes to turn the practice into a sustainable, viable business — not just an “art project,” she said. “The point of this is, how do we make this really work?” she said.

This has Mrs. Beatty essentially made a professional saver too. In Connecticut, near where she lives with her husband and two children, she visits the New Milford flea market Elephant’s Trunk. (The market is largely in home furnishings; Rentrayage also sells household items, such as colorful recycled glassware.)

Her approach was received with enthusiasm in the fashion industry: a dress from the brand’s first collection, made of three different floral dresses, was selected to be part of “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Later this year, the line will be carried by retailers including Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. Ms. Beatty is also working on a partnership with Madewell to repurpose her old clothes for new designs.

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

“This looks really cool,” Mrs. Beatty said after sifting through shirts for a while and sliding metal hangers across the metal rack in short screeching bursts.

There was something romantic about the way she looked at the clothes that no one wanted, calling them “beautiful and unique and impossible to recreate.” She’d just found a shirt that might make up the second half of the “Wilmington” t-shirt. Originally white, it was rudimentary colored with touches of acid yellow, purple, teal and the occasional brown spot.

Both T-shirts cost $6. The reconstructed look costs about $125, a high premium, but a price Ms Beatty deems reasonable considering everything involved in making the clothes: buying and cleaning the shirts, determine the look (matching shirts based on color tone, size and feel), cut the garment and sew.

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

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

Still, Ms Beatty said, there will be people who see the expensive shirt and think they can make it for a lot less. She encourages them to do so. But for those who want to buy the shirt, there is also an emotional value.

“It’s symbolic — all of these thoughts and choices are incorporated into that piece,” she said. “It’s making fashion out of something that already exists. It says there is value in something that has been thrown away.”

The trick to Rentrayage’s aesthetic, which is creative but casual, “joined together but not too chic,” as Ms. Beatty put it, is that the mashups require sophisticated construction. The jackets, in particular, are highly technical — “things a consumer can’t make,” says Ms Beatty, who attended Parsons School of Design after stints as a product manager at Gap.

Those jackets, bestsellers for the brand, include a denim jacket with crochet lace tails ($795) and a men’s blazer tailored with bustier panels of an army green quilted liner ($925).

Although Ms. Beatty is best known for her remixed vintage pieces, she has gradually included more deadstock fabrics in the line and travels to Italy to buy from the warehouses that work with high-end brands to sell their excess fabric. For example, a smooth quilted floral fabric from Italy had been transformed into a short jacket. The previous owner of the fabric? Balenciaga, who had used it for a ruffled dress.

Before Rentrayage, Ms Beatty was the creative director of the Suno brand for eight years, which she co-founded in 2008 with Max Osterweis. It was known for its bold prints as well as for its small-batch production and socially conscious values ​​– at a time when these practices were generally seen more as a bonus than an expectation.

Suno was modestly successful. Sold by major retailers and worn by celebrities such as Michelle Obama and Beyoncé, it featured collaborations with Keds and Uniqlo. It was also a finalist in several emerging designer competitions, including the LVMH award and the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. But the brand closed in 2016, citing issues surrounding growth and finding outside investment.

“After Suno closed, I was just consumed with guilt about” stuff‘ said Mrs Beatty. Having just given birth to her second child, she felt overwhelmed by the sheer waste inherent in raising children (including, but not limited to, all that plastic packaging). “Eventually I only bought vintage at the time and always had to change it to make it fit properly.”

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

“People just want an answer” about how to do better, Ms Beatty said. ‘There is none. It’s about crawling forward in every possible way,” whether that’s replacing synthetic dyes with natural ones or finding more environmentally friendly shipping methods.

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

She wishes Rentrayage had even more access to high-quality deadstock fabric from other major brands, which have been criticized for their reluctance to deal with waste.

“I’m confident that I can make things that are already there 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 garbage that they don’t want to acknowledge it.”

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

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