BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN — Green is the new black, going green that is, and at the forefront of the eco-fashion movement in Brunei is UPSYKL founder Nabilah Jeffery.

Launched in April last year, UPSYKL is a startup that redesigns, repurposes and refashions old garments into new pieces. Implementing this strategy would not only reduce fabric waste but also decrease the industry’s contribution to land and air pollution.

“The problem with the fashion industry is that it produces a lot of fabric waste in the production system, which is just one of the many ways that fast fashion negatively impacts the environment,” she laments.

The fashion industry, is in fact, one of the biggest polluters, with recent reports suggesting that polyester materials are exacerbating plastic pollution. Industry giants the likes of Nike and Adidas have introduced eco-friendly options, such as reproducing their garments from recycled plastic bottles.

Nabilah Jeffery, founder of UPSYKL, sits in front some of the upcycled pieces. Photo: Rafidah Hamit/The Scoop

According to the 25-year-old full-time social entrepreneur, when clothes are trapped within layers of garbage and start to decompose, it will begin to produce a number of byproducts including methane, a greenhouse gas.

Methane is far more potent than carbon monoxide and absorbs 20 times more heat in the atmosphere which can contribute to global warming.

Nabilah considers this problem a design flaw.

“I believe that if a garment or production contributes to a lot of waste whether to the environment or to the consumer’s perspective, it is a design flaw.”

Drawing from inspiration

An active member of Projek Bina Ukhwah — an NGO which aims to empower underprivileged families — Nabilah had noticed that the most donated item from the public is clothing.

This realisation coupled with her love for thrift shopping was what sparked her interest to upcycle clothes and advocate for sustainable fashion.

 At UPSYKL, we want to encourage customers to buy less, choose well and make an impact.

Upcycling is the process of transforming by-products or unwanted products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value.

“Back when I was in university, I would always go thrifting, not just for clothes but also books as well as furniture at stores that would use the funds for noble causes such as Cancer Research UK or the British Heart Foundation.”

Influenced by the idea of giving back to the community at the same time, being eco-friendly, she started UPSYKL in hopes of doing the same.

When she first kick-started UPSYKL, Nabilah would tell people to recycle for cash and was surprised to receive an overwhelming response.

With more than enough material, she started looking for a designer to start production and seven months later, she engaged local designer Humaira Zakaria and started work on her first collection — Pop-Recovered — which was launched in March this year.

This was followed by the June launch of the second line, the ECOEID’18 collection, outsourcing the work to two designers  – Humaira Zakaria and Aisyah Azlan.

Cutting against the grain

Because upcycling is a very new concept in Brunei, Nabilah says she faces challenges in trying to change perceptions.

“It’s quite tough to shift mindsets, let alone the stigma toward pre-loved clothes which can actually be disinfected and cleaned”, she says.

She adds that this is particularly true among the older generation who tend to perceive them as dirty and unhygienic.

“There are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to sustainable fashion. For us at UPSYKL, we want to encourage customers to buy less, choose well and make an impact.”

Another challenge is the availability of designers with sufficient training and expertise in designing pre-loved clothes.

Upcycling involves a deeper level of creativity to further expand the lifespan of pre-loved clothes, says Nabilah, adding that, 90 per cent of the time it is used in re-sewing and in the deconstruction of clothes.

Hence, the creative process needs a certain mental endurance and sewing skill to be able to produce upcycled pieces, she said.

“There are many other challenges, however none is greater than the aim of starting UPSYKL — which is to save the planet one shirt at a time.”

“I am very fortunate to be surrounded with talented designers and sewists who have helped me in raising awareness of green consumption in fashion,” she adds.

When asked about future plans, Nabilah said in five years’ time, she aims to expand her business to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and perhaps Korea and Japan as an upcycling platform for the public.

Stitching together a sustainable future

It doesn’t just stop at upcycling, Nabilah is keen to start practicing a zero-waste cutting strategy in order reduce fabric waste and protect the environment.

Inspired by her recent trip to Malaysia, she explains that the zero-waste cutting strategy is when sewists design garments with pattern pieces which generate no waste.

It is actually difficult to practice a zero-waste cutting strategy, which is why not many designers want to embrace it. 

“It is actually difficult to practice a zero-waste cutting strategy, which is why not many designers want to embrace it. It requires creativity and a lot of thought process goes into it,” Nabilah says.

The design process should include sustainability, longevity and biodegradability of the products, the environment-conscious fashion designer says.

In terms of giving back, UPSYKL is currently in discussions with a local NGO to empower  underprivileged women in the country. “Through this [upcoming] project, we hope to teach and sharpen their skills to produce garments. A portion of the sales will be donated towards this cause.”

The fashion brand is also looking to ramp up production by introducing a basics collection which will be regularly updated every month.

“People may see it as mass producing like other retail companies, but in fact, we are performing mass cleaning.”

Locally, she says that she has observed a growing trend and awareness to be eco-friendly and hopes everyone can do their part to make the world a better place for the future generation.