We are all familiar with the notion that recycling and upcycling are not only a sustainable way forward but also celebrate the previous life of materials – transforming them into new objects and giving them a new life. And just as repurposing determines the new iterations of materials and products, it also influences their colour – sparking a different way of thinking about colour and incorporating it into design.

This encourages designers to take a leap of faith away from the conventional way of doing things: choosing a colour and seeing all items produced in an identical shade of cerise or teal or marigold. Standardisation has to take a back seat.

It’s also less easy to follow trends. ‘This season it’s all about purple’ has to give way to a more relaxed acceptance of what the materials available may offer; a supply of chartreuse deadstock, say, could present a challenge. This requires a curatorial approach to assembling existing colours into an effective palette.

Another approach involves colour mash-ups. When a toddler plunges into new pots of Play-Doh, by the end of the day clear blue, bright pink and zingy green are likely to have been squidged into a whole new shade that doesn’t resemble any of the originals. Such bold mixology is unpredictable and requires the confidence to embrace a result that may turn out to be 100 shades of khaki.

S-m-a-s-h-e-r by Will Yates-Johnson

However, this unplanned approach leads to a new aesthetic freedom that celebrates imperfection rather than fighting for homogenisation. This is also reflected in the techniques frequently used in repurposing. We are seeing a return to traditional hand skills: felting, weaving, patchwork, knitting and embroidery, all of which are particularly suited to working with discarded materials and giving them a fresh lease of life. The results reflect the designer’s intentions: a rejection of mass manufacturing and the opportunity to create unique items. While the production process can be replicated, drawing on materials, techniques and colours that will always vary slightly ensures that output remains individual.

The Breadline collection by Bethany Williams, for example, draws on handcrafting, weaving and embroidery – while its carefully assembled colours and graphics clearly reference its Tesco-branded origins. Her 2019 No Address Needed To Join collection brings together materials from the publishing industry, hand-printed denim and wool, all recycled. The collection’s use of colour reflects this collaged approach. Some pieces are layered and textured with colour, which acts as an access point into the previous life of the material or as an indication of an applied craft technique; others have nuanced gradients that originate from the range of colour in the raw materials. The garments thus reflect the community and materials that have contributed to them.

Designworks by Eileen Fisher

Eileen Fisher’s Renew initiative uses overdyeing with natural, plant-based dyes such as madder and indigo to refresh pre-owned clothing that is in good condition, leading to a palette of rich hues that varies depending on the original garment’s shade. Renew also draws on reweaving and patching skills to fix minor faults and bring clothes back to life. There is no attempt to hide the mending; in fact, it is celebrated, and Fisher encourages clients to ‘wear your repairs like a badge of honour.’

In contrast, other designers are devising entirely new production methods, inventing tools and processes to create new materials and products. James Shaw and Will Yates-Johnson both follow this route, using innovative techniques that challenge preconceived views on the aesthetic and social value of different materials. Shaw is rehabilitating plastic, working very much with the mash-up approach to colour described above, and finding some of his best results come from unexpected combinations. Yates-Johnson makes extremely specific use of colour to demarcate the transition from one iteration of an object to another.

All the designers featured here are sending a strong message about sustainability and the importance of reuse, embedding these even more firmly in the mainstream agenda and underlining the importance of making repurposed items not only conscientious purchases but also desirable for the consumer. They are also setting an example in their use of colour, showing that standardisation doesn’t have to be standard and homogenisation can be shaken up. Opening up the colour process rather than controlling it can lead to a whole rainbow of new possibilities.

Helen Kirkum

Helen Kirkum

In 2016, Helen Kirkum spent the beginning of the final year of her footwear, accessories and millinery MA course at the Royal College of Art (RCA) collecting and disassembling old trainers. Initially, this process helped her to understand the ‘construction and materiality of the footwear as a form’ – but over time she realised that the process was her practice. Her final collection, Our Public Youth, featured ‘remastered’ sneakers comprising multiple components from shoes sent to recycling centres.

With her trainer collection, Kirkum seeks to re-evaluate the construction and production processes of the mass-produced trainer, as well as address its planned obsolescence. She created her own production process, where shoes are ‘created like a collage’, intuitively building them piece-by-piece, ‘from inside out and the bottom up’ over a period of weeks. The knitted elements of the shoes were made by the contemporary knitwear designer Jacob Patterson, a graduate of the RCA’s Textiles MA programme, and Kirkum sees the combination of the textures as a narrative that creates a dialogue about ‘the evaluation of process and ownership.’


William Yates-Johnson

William Yates-Johnson

William Yates-Johnson is a multidisciplinary designer who is ‘obsessed by the effortless chaos’ that comes about within the manufacturing process. In his practice, the arbitrary reactions that emerge between the material and process becomes the aesthetic. After studying architecture at the University of Nottingham, Yates-Johnson worked for the Philippe Malouin Studio for three years before returning to education to complete a master’s degree in design products at the Royal College of Art. On graduating, he set up his own studio.

His Polyspoila project, initiated in 2015, is ‘a proposal for a new manufacturing model.’ It describes a circular, carefully considered process, where the object can be continually broken up and remade into a fresh composition. No waste is created during renewal –production energy is countered by using a chemical reaction rather than a heat production method. Yates-Johnson uses a notably vivid colour palette and loose terrazzo patina to mark the material’s history from piece to piece. Smasher, a recent commission for London’s 77 Broadway Market store, expanded on the Polyspoila technique, using resin-reinforced plaster instead of thermosetting plastic.

‘From the beginning I wanted this project to stem from a zero-waste process. In cutting the forms out of a large whole block, excess material is left over; it is this ‘waste’ that I crush up to become the seeds for the creation of a new edition. I love that the excess material, often discarded, becomes essential to the formation of a new generation, and that, instead of the physical or visual quality degrading, the process creates more beauty and complexity as the series progresses.’

Bethany Williams

Bethany Williams

Bethany Williams is a young fashion designer committed to environmental and social change. A 2016 graduate of the London College of Fashion’s MA in fashion design technology menswear, her practice focuses on devising, facilitating and promoting alternative systems in order to challenge fashion’s status quo and make it a force for social good.

Her approach is holistic and all the materials used in her last two collections have been 100% recycled or organic. Each collection works in conjunction with a series of specialised groups and charities that become part of the production process. The 2016 Breadline collection devised a scheme that exchanged fresh fruit and vegetables for waste materials that would form the basis of the range. For her spring/summer 2018 Women for Change collection, Williams used intricate handwoven textiles made from recycled materials sourced from the workshops at San Patrignano – a crafts-based educational and rehabilitation programme in Italy.

The aesthetic is playfully hand-made, with an underlying issues-based narrative. Tracksuits have are printed with primary-coloured slogans and logos in red, yellow and blue, and recycled denim is assembled with a Japanese-style boro patched effect, then screen-printed and embroidered by hand.


Eileen Fisher

Eileen Fisher

Eileen Fisher opened her first store in 1987 in New York’s East Village. Over the past 31 years, she has grown a successful, women-led and environmentally sustainable company. She advocates a transparent supply chain and the use of less toxic materials in the manufacturing process, and continues to progress towards a circular fashion business.

Fisher started her first take-back recycling scheme, Renew, in 2009 – it invites customers to return their old clothes, in any condition, to be resold or renewed by the company. By 2017, the brand had taken back over 900,000 garments. In 2015, Fisher launched DesignWork, an artistic solution to the clothes received that were damaged beyond repair.

DesignWork sees Fisher collaborate with artist Sigi Ahl and designer Carolina Bedoya to transform waste textiles, using a traditional craft felting process, to produce unique artworks and designs. Li Edelkoort, design forecaster and dean of hybrid design studies at Parsons School of Design, describes Fisher’s Renew efforts as further proof that recycling as a philosophy and as a practice is becoming a ‘new school of thought. When waste becomes wealth and culture, the circle has come around twice, empowering new ventures, and gifting the world with amazing beauty.’


James Shaw

James Shaw

From the outset, Shaw found plastic a ‘quick and expressive’ material to work with and the process of creating, he says, is ‘almost like painting in 3D.’ His Plastic Baroque furniture aims to frame plastic in a new light, elevating this much maligned material by demonstrating its aesthetic potential and historical relevance. Shaw incorporates colour using natural powdered artists’ pigments, accommodating the original base colour of the plastic. His making process is gestural and intuitive, so colour becomes more imaginative – an experimental alchemy, where the unexpected often brings the best results.

‘I got into the project because I wanted to explore plastic. It started with this perversity of plastic being considered as inferior to natural materials … It started me off on a mission to build a machine to work with plastic. Once I started making, I found that plastic is a quick and expressive material. You can make things in a way you can’t with any other material – wood is a slow and painstaking material in contrast.’


Words → Julia Jarvis and Franklin Till

James Shaw