The Designers Making Upcycling Your Wedding Dress Easy

When Mexico-based Nadia Manjarrez launched her self-named bridal line in October 2021, she thought far ahead for her clients. 

Inspired by precious metal-lined Japanese Kintsugi art, her debut collection featured versatile, modular pieces that really could be worn again after the big day: detachable puff sleeves and billowing capes for layering, adorned with stylized but still classic elements, like delicate cut-outs, swingy fringe and tailored separates. Manjarrez took the forward-looking concept of extending the life cycle of bridal even further, though, building in an option to return pieces post-wedding to be altered or completely remade for future celebratory occasions. For an additional fee based on the level of work required, the transformation — completed at the brand’s Culiacán, Sinaloa atelier — takes from six to eight weeks; consultations and fittings are done with Manjarrez, either in-person or via email and video for remote clients.

“The whole upcycling project is 100% customizable,” she says. Her collection is made in Culiacán by an all-female team of artisans; the brand also provides income opportunities for women head-of-households in her hometown.

A Nadia Manjarrez client in her custom-wedding dress and cape, which has been upcycled into a cocktail dress.

Leading up to the April launch of her sophomore collection, Manjarrez reached another milestone: completing her first upcycling project for a bridal client. “We turned a long custom-designed detachable lace cape into a cocktail dress that she’s planning to wear for her baby’s christening,” says the Marchesa and Badgley Mischka alum. 

Manjarrez emphasizes that the method focuses on utilizing recycled materials, including her atelier’s other off-cuts and trims. “We’re very big on not wasting a single scrap of fabric,” she says. “We try to use it all.”

However, Manjarrez is careful in throwing around the term “sustainability,” which she feels is often used as a vague marketing term. Instead, she built reuse practices into her brand: “Upcycling things made more sense. It wasn’t greenwashed — it was taking something that already existed and just transforming it into something else.”

Practicing sustainability when it comes to wedding dresses inherently proves a challenge. Historically, these gowns are worn just once. But, in moving with fashion trends — especially with more socially conscious shopping encouraged by the pandemic and interruptions in the supply chain — sustainability is becoming more top of mind in the wedding planning process, with consumers pushing for change.

A handful of bridal brands, like Australia-based Grace Loves Lace, tout recycled and repurposed materials in their gowns. However, we’re seeing wedding shoppers search for creative ways to reuse their special day looks themselves. Global searches on Pinterest for “upcycle wedding dress ideas” have increased 33% (comparing data from December 2021 to March 2022, versus the year prior), while interest in ideas for “reusing wedding dresses” doubled. An Etsy search for “upcycled wedding dress” also brings up pages of small vendors that customize gowns into heartfelt souvenirs, like handkerchiefs and baptism gowns. Plus, remember last year when Emma Watson wore a bridal gown that had been transformed into an asymmetrical tulle top by Harris Reed?

In response, bridal brands ranging in scale from independent to global luxury conglomerate are jumping on the industry-nascent trend to offer wedding dresses that are designed from the get-go to be converted after the big day.

Pronovias Agnes gown, at left, transformed through Second Life customizations (center and right).

Barcelona-based Pronovias recently introduced a wider-scale upcycling customization program, available globally at any of its flagships, including seven in the United States (and Nicole Milano salons in Europe). Christened “Second Life,” a debut selection of 50 wedding gowns can be transformed into ready-to-wear and special occasion looks — and at no additional cost, as added incentive to shoppers.

“If Alessandra [Rinaudo, Chief Artistic Director] and I had a baby, it would be called ‘Second Life,'” jokes Pronovias CEO Amandine Ohayon, on a video call from company headquarters in Barcelona.

For the inaugural collection, Rinaudo handpicked looks from Pronovias’ luxury line, which proved most advantageous and feasible to evolve into ready-to-wear pieces, and then designed a set of enhancements and alterations special to each look. Customers can change sleeves and straps, adjust length and add color elements on the original silhouettes. For instance, the square-neck, draped cap-sleeve Agnes mermaid gown can be shortened into a below-the-knee dress and accented with black paneling at the bodice and straps; similarly, a ballgown with a pearl-embellished corset can evolve into a more casual tulle-skirted midi-dress with a sweetheart neckline and spaghetti straps. The preferred customizations are then performed by expert in-house tailoring teams at the client’s local Pronovias atelier, thereby also minimizing the carbon footprint.

Pronovias Skellig gown (left) transformed through Second Life (right).

Pronovias Skellig gown (left) transformed through Second Life (right).

“The feedback has been quite incredible,” says Ohayon. “I went to stores and we’re getting a lot of interest, especially in the U.S., around this.”

Ohayon joined Pronovias in 2018, after the heritage brand’s founder sold a majority stake to private equity firm BC Partners for a reported €550 million (about $627 million USD.) With the resources of a global conglomerate, she set goals to shift the bridal industry: innovate in the digital space, promote size inclusivity and introduce more eco-friendly practices. 

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“Especially post-pandemic, I think there’s an even greater focus from everyone on how we need to take care of our planet. We need to do something,” says Ohayon. “One of the conundrums of the bridal industry is that it’s not an industry where product circularity is really top of mind. Because, of course, it’s a dress that you wear once in your life.”

Second Life joins existing Pronovias sustainability initiatives, launched in 2020, like the #WeDoEco collection made with “100% ecological fabrics and materials,” per the brand. Pronovias also partners with Recovo, a platform to recycle surplus fabrics. According to its 2020 Sustainability Report, Pronovias aims to “gradually increase the sustainability component” across its portfolio of five brands to 40%. The company also has a recycling campaign in Europe (and launching soon in the U.S.) titled “Brides Do Good” campaign, which invites brides to donate pre-worn gowns back to a store location for resale, with proceeds benefiting non-profits helping to empower and educate vulnerable young women around the world. (The brand matches the sale amount.) 

“Responsibility is not just responsibility for the planet, but also responsibility for communities that are less fortunate,” says Ohayon.

Sketch of a christening gown remade from a Kosibah wedding dress.

Sketch of a christening gown remade from a Kosibah wedding dress.

Ohayon was in the process of planning her own nuptials when she joined Pronovias, so she understands first-hand the personal connection with a wedding gown and the meaning behind holding onto one, even if it’s been transformed into a memento. Going forward, Rinaudo and Ohayon are looking forward to designing original gowns with a second life — and a repeat moment (or moments) in the spotlight — for future celebratory occasions. 

Nigerian-British couturier Yemi Osunkoya, founder of New York-based custom bridal and evening-wear line Kosibah, has been fulfilling design transformation requests on post-wedding gowns long before the term “upcycling” became an industry buzzword. He considers extending the life of a precious wedding gown as part of the upscale bespoke experience he provides to his dedicated clients.

“I thought to myself, ‘What can I do to make the bride just feel almost psychologically allowed to indulge herself in this purchase?'” he says. “It can be the most expensive item of clothing she’s ever bought. So I design to make it more lasting.” 

Osunkoya’s latest undertaking passes couture onto the second generation: a baby’s christening gown, which by its sentimental nature turned into a sustainable project. “I think it’s more special to use all of the original [dress],” he says. “She said she wanted to create an heirloom.” 

Los Angeles-based Katharine Polk founded (and recently revived) her boundary-pushing, size-inclusive and retail-innovating line, Houghton, with intention, too: “Being that we are made-to-order and custom, the brand has traditionally always had that sustainability factor just baked into our model,” says Polk.

The Houghton by Katharine Polk Holly dress.

The Houghton by Katharine Polk Holly dress.

Houghton, which is ethically manufactured in Los Angeles, doesn’t have an official upcycling program in place. However, over the years, Polk has also remade and altered previously purchased bridal (and ready-to-wear) pieces upon request.

“We tell our brides, ‘Bring it back and we’ll make it a cocktail. We’ll make it a midi. We’ll dye it for you. Whatever you want to do. We’re happy to cater to whatever you’re thinking,'” says Polk, who recalls transforming the flute-sleeved Holly dress into a draped cap-sleeve mini for a client. 

The new Holly.

The new Holly.

“Obviously, many people don’t want to spend a huge amount on their dress and have it sit in their wardrobe for 20 years afterwards,” says Polk. 

In recent years, she’s received more interest from clients in ways to practice circularity, waste reduction and smart spending, although not so much in reworking a post-nuptials gown. Instead, they want to recycle or purchase a gently-worn wedding look, which Polk also happily facilitates. 

Brands and designers are offering the option for clients to think beyond their big day in shopping for a dream outfit, whether practicing more conscious shopping or creating a celebratory keepsake — or both, really.

“I would hope that all my brides would come back to me and make something else from their bridal outfit,” says Manjarrez. “It would be huge if this turned into some sort of tradition that you do with your dress.”

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