Make Do & Mend: Why Repairing Our Clothes Is The Key To Sustainable Fashion

For a good year or so, I’ve been deliberating over what to do with my favourite pair of shoes. Back in 2017, I stumbled across a buzzy French trainer brand with impressive eco-friendly credentials and decided to spend a good chunk of my student loan on a pair of all-white leather low-tops. Seeing them as an investment purchase, I was determined to keep them immaculate: every couple of weeks, I’d clean them inside and out with a delicate detergent and a little brush, wipe them down with a cloth, apply a leather cream, and hand-wash and replace the laces. Several months down the line, they were almost as white as when I bought them.
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However, even with plenty of TLC, the insoles eventually wore down, the lining began to tear and the paint on the leather started to peel. After a year of wear, they were pretty much tattered. In line with the brand’s eco-friendly ethos, I was hopeful they’d have a solution – perhaps an offer to repair them for a small fee, or at the very least recycle them in exchange for a discount. Sadly, I was told, there was nothing they could do. And so I bought a new pair.
With a wave of sustainable fashion options entering the market, from brands such as Reformation and Everlane offering desirable pieces with a low carbon footprint, to luxury resale and rental platforms like Vestiaire, Hurr and By Rotation, the concept of making do with what you already own might not seem appealing. However, this very action could have the most significant impact on overturning the fast fashion model.
"Repairing our clothes is incredibly important," says Orsola de Castro, a sustainable fashion pioneer and the founder of the Fashion Revolution movement. "We know that lengthening the life of our clothing from one to two years decreases their carbon footprint by 24%, so it actually has an environmental effect. And obviously keeping clothes means mending them, as things inevitably break."
It wasn’t so long ago that repairing clothes was an ingrained habit, when spending a slightly larger proportion of your income on what you wore and taking good care of it was the norm, and being able to sew a button or mend a hem was a basic life skill. But with the dawn of fast fashion, repairing clothes started to feel rather obsolete. Why spend the time and money to mend something when it’s cheaper, easier and far more thrilling to buy new?
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Alongside the carbon-intensive processes of producing and shipping fast fashion, how we dispose of our clothes carries a significant environmental impact. According to WRAP, around 300,000 tonnes of clothing – worth about £140 million – go to landfill every year in the UK alone. With organisations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation urging us to move towards a circular fashion economy, putting an end to our current linear and highly unsustainable model, it’s clear that repairing, alongside reselling and renting, is an intrinsic part of the solution.
The trend towards sustainable fashion may be in its infancy but there is in fact an old guard of brands for whom offering repairs and extending the wear of their products is stitched into their ethos. Most notable among these is perhaps Patagonia, which has shown a longstanding commitment to environmental activism and whose products are guaranteed for life. In 2016, the company launched its Worn Wear repair tours, travelling around European ski resorts offering free clothing repairs, whatever the brand. Meanwhile British heritage label Barbour is also known to reproof, repair and alter its flagship wax jackets in-house (antithetically to fast fashion, the older a Barbour, the greater its charm).
A new breed of 'built-for-life' labels are tapping into millennial concerns around sustainability and engaging a younger, more urban audience, too. Scandi denim brand Nudie Jeans not only boasts solid ethical and environmentally friendly practices (using organic, fair trade and recycled materials, and paying factory workers a living wage) but also shows a genuine interest in the full life cycle of its products. Every pair of Nudie jeans, no matter when or where they were bought, comes with free repairs for life at the brand's in-store or mobile repair stations. And if you can’t make it to one of those, they’ll send you a free repair kit that includes denim patches, needles, yarn and an instruction booklet. When you no longer want your jeans, you can hand them back to Nudie, where they’re either resold or reworked into a new pair, in exchange for 20% off your next purchase.
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Yet brands like Nudie which offer a product that’s truly made for life are still few and far between. Even in the luxury sector, where you might think that spending a small fortune on an item would guarantee a lifetime of wear, repairs after the one- or two-year warranty period are hard to come by.
This lack of aftercare even among high end brands inspired management consultant Vanessa Jacobs to launch The Restory in 2015. After she struggled to find a decent repair for a pair of designer boots, she decided to quit her job and set up an on-demand restoration service for shoes, handbags and leather goods. Her cofounders are Thaís Cipolletta, a leather expert with a master's in fashion artefact who heads up the atelier, and Emily John, who looks after branding and partnerships.
"Most brands might offer a hardware replacement or replace a strap, but no one had really continued to develop techniques to be able to offer aftercare," says Emily. "We’ve actually had to develop our own training programme because the techniques are quite unique to us." She describes the intricacies that go into restoring items, including sourcing hardware from brands or finding near-perfect matches, filling and smoothing scratches, and using a light box to ensure paint colours are identical. Where mending and caring for clothes can often seem tedious, sending items to The Restory and receiving them back almost as good as new, wrapped in tissue paper and packaged in a sleek branded box, feels like shopping your own wardrobe – far more treat than chore. "For us it was really important to create that experience and make you fall back in love with your clothes," says Emily. "You want to get them back and think, God, they look great! It brings back that feeling of when you first bought them."
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However, as with most repair services, enlisting the help of The Restory might only feel worth it for those more expensive or irreplaceable items. Restoring and repairing an old Hermès Birkin or Chanel 2.55 is bound to be a fraction of the cost of buying a new one; meanwhile the quote for my trainers was more than double their retail price. "I think that’s one of the biggest challenges," says Emily. "We’ve had to invest in building the technology so our pricing is still reflective of that. And we’re still researching and developing techniques to be able to offer… As we grow and we have a bigger library of items that we’ve worked on and we have better techniques that we’re constantly optimising, it should reduce the cost."
While The Restory offers a niche and highly skilled service that’s currently tailored to luxury accessories, Clothes Doctor aims to encourage more of us to adopt a make do and mend approach to our entire wardrobe, whether that’s darning and de-pilling old jumpers, turning collars or shortening hems. The company was set up by former financier Lulu O’Connor after she tore her favourite coat and struggled to find a local mending service that was convenient and which she could trust to complete the job to a high standard. "I wanted to build a platform so that people could look after their clothes in a really easy, convenient and efficient way," says Lulu. "Not to mention the fact that, as I became more interested in the effect of fast fashion on the planet, I started to understand the magnitude of the problem, and the importance of looking after our clothes properly as an antidote to this."
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On the brand’s website, customers can choose from a range of competitively and transparently priced repair and alteration services, then have their clothes collected from their home and sent to the brand’s workshop in Cornwall, where they’re worked on by a team of specialist seamstresses before being returned within seven to 10 days. "We believe that every item of clothing is worth mending, and we aim to make it as easy as possible for our customers to choose to mend rather than throwing an item away," says Lulu. "We also try to convey the message that [repairing clothes] can also save you time and money in the long run, and reduce the need to buy more. We aim to spark a revolution where clothes are fixed rather than sent to landfill."
With an increasing number of repair services available – Orsola flags a soon-to-launch site called Save Your Wardrobe, which aims to help users "make the most of [their] wardrobe", partnering with Clothes Doctor as well as eco-dry cleaners Blanc and donation service Thrift+ – there’s an opportunity to bring back a culture of caring for our clothes and gradually put an end to the 'buy, use, dispose' model. Still, encouraging people to repair ultimately hinges upon a fundamental change in our attitudes to buying clothes in the first place. "We need to get people to buy only what they love," says Orsola. "If you don’t buy 10 skirts but you buy one, and then you show the fast fashion brand that you’re actually prepared to take it to have it mended or mend it yourself, then you’re making your voice loud and clear."
Amid the eco-friendly fashion buzz, there’s also the hope that retailers themselves will take responsibility not only for their production processes but also for where their clothes end up. "More encouragement is needed, but I think it’s going to be part of a brand’s best practice for the future," says Orsola. "The more we talk about it, the better it is." The creative director of the cool, sustainable French trainer brand has reassured me that his team is "200% working on it". Until then, my tattered leather low-tops stay put in a box at the back of my wardrobe, far away from landfill, with the hope of one day being revived and reworn.
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