How old car parts are upcycled into the fashion industry

How old car parts are upcycled into the fashion industry
Credit: Anouk Wipprecht

The idea of turning your old car windshield into jogging pants or backpacks may seem far-fetched, but many designers have already investigated the possibilities. New collections are made from waste or unused products from the automotive industry: airbags, tarpaulins, seat belts, and carpets are now raw materials that can be upcycled and made into fabrics for new clothes to fill our wardrobes.

Optimising waste recycling management is fundamental in all sectors to meet environmental goals. The fashion and automotive industries are no exception and are multiplying innovations to reduce their impact on the planet. One of the more creative solutions could well find its source in upcycling.

This practice, which has become common in the world of fashion, consists in offering added value to materials or objects destined to be thrown away. It now allows collections of clothing and accessories to be made from waste or rejected products from the automotive industry.

One of the leading innovators in this sector is the Zürich brand Freitag, which embraced upcycling even before the term became widely known. It was in the early 90s that Daniel and Markus Freitag developed the very first prototype bag designed from used truck tarpaulins, seat belts and bicycle inner tubes. Called the "Messenger Bag", this model was hand-sewn in an apartment nestled in Zürich, a few steps from the Hardbrücke, a road bridge on which trucks follow one another to cross the city.

Nearly three decades later, the brand is still thriving, with its truck tarpaulins and seat belts being joined by new materials, including airbags, to create bags, clothing and other accessories. It’s a case of killing two birds with one stone for the Swiss label, which, discontent with having to resort to exhaustible resources to fill our wardrobes, also makes it possible to limit the waste of the automotive industry. Since then, other brands have leapt into the breach, offering prototypes or even entire collections made from these raw materials.

The South Korean car manufacturer Hyundai has also chosen to recycle its vehicles - or parts of its vehicles - into ready-to-wear collections for men and women. Through his Re:Style project, entirely dedicated to upcycling, the car manufacturer has used old airbags, windshields, pieces of leather from seats, carpets and seat belts to transform them into shorts, sweatshirts, hoodies, and sweatpants, combining style, comfort and functionality.

And if these are only limited collections, it could inspire more than one brand and/or designer.

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The American artist and designer Heron Preston also partnered with the car manufacturer Mercedes in 2021 to design loose pants or puffy hooded jackets from its used airbags. A one-off partnership that nevertheless shows a certain interest of the fashion industry for these materials often intended to be discarded.

In Japan, designer Ryohei Kawanishi recently presented an entire collection designed from upcycled car airbags, at the request of the recycling company Nishikawa Shokai. It took a year to complete but the project has given rise to a line of bags, hats and jackets, which should soon be expanded with new basics available in a wider range of colours.

These and other innovators have shown that dressing from the waste of the automotive industry is not only possible but also - and above all - beneficial for the planet.

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