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Can Julie Pelipas Make Upcycling Work at Scale?

The former Vogue Ukraine fashion director and LVMH Prize finalist’s upcycled tailoring label Bettter aims to become a platform that helps big brands give deadstock garments new life.
A portrait of Julie former Vogue Ukraine fashion director and Better founder Julie Pelipas in a loose fitting grey suit.
Former Vogue Ukraine fashion director Julie Pelipas is aiming to prove a model for upcycling at scale with her brand Bettter. (Andrew Grey)

Julie Pelipas isn’t just building a fashion brand.

The stylist and former fashion director of Vogue Ukraine has ambitions far beyond the typical influencer-turned-fashion founder. Her three-year-old brand Bettter’s subversively chic collections of vintage mens’ suits reworked for women have already won the eye of the fashion establishment — and a coveted spot on the list of finalists for this year’s LVMH Prize.

But it’s the tech-powered tailoring underpinning the brand’s ability to transform unloved old clothes into desirable fashion that sits at the core of what Pelipas is trying to do.

Her ultimate goal is to prove out a scalable upcycling solution for the huge volumes of waste generated by fashion’s relentless churn that bigger brands can harness.

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Millions of tonnes of clothes end up in landfills or incinerators every year, and yet the industry keeps producing more. Turning old garments back into new ones is tricky and expensive because instead of the blank canvas offered by a roll of fabric, it requires designers to grapple with materials that aren’t a uniform shape and size and have already been cut and sewn for a specific purpose. That’s why even though upcycling is hardly a new concept, it’s mostly been limited to small-scale capsule collections.

“My husband makes jokes, ‘Julie, if you’d launch just a regular brand, you would be so successful,’” said Pelipas. But that was never on the agenda. “This particular concept was in my mind when I decided to launch… it’s not going to be like a small batch of one offs, pieces of patchwork or whatever, it’s going to be an industrial problem-solving technology.”

Tech-Powered Upcycling

The concept for Bettter had been gnawing at Pelipas for years, hovering in her head during splashy fashion shows and conversations with burnt-out designers. There was so much pressure, so much excess, so much waste in the industry, she observed.

“We just keep producing these tonnes of clothes and it’s as if we don’t see that issue at all,” said Pelipas. “When you see how to solve it, when you see the formula, it’s just stuck in your brain and it’s just ridiculous not to do this.”

While plenty of young designers have leaned into the increasingly fashionable concept of upcycling, mostly this has meant turning to leftover deadstock fabric rolls. This comes with sourcing headaches, but it also enables designers to get hold of top quality fabrics at a discount and claim a nice green halo for their labels.

Remaking old clothes is much harder. Though brands like Marine Serre, Ahluwalia and Connor Ives have gained acclaim for collections crafted from repurposed vintage clothing, it’s a bespoke approach that’s difficult to scale.

Reworking tailored pieces is trickiest of all because of the meticulous technical nature of the work needed to structure garments for the human form. That’s the problem Pelipas is going after.

“[Julie] isn’t just creating collections, she’s creating a system. It’s completely different from everybody else,” said Julie Gilhart, chief development officer of brand incubator Tomorrow Ltd. and president of Tomorrow Consulting. “There’s a sophistication level to it that I don’t think is comparable to other things.”

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A model in a sand-coloured backless suit stands on the beach.
Pelipas uses tailoring algorithms to help restructure men's suiting with subversive feminine design. (Bettter)

Bettter is powered by a series of tailoring algorithms designed to take the complexity out of reconstruction. It took years to develop, taking apart suits seam by seam and using digital design and fit software to map virtual patterns and required adjustments. Now that data forms a continuously improving digital backbone that allows the company to quickly calculate how to adjust men’s suits to fit women’s bodies without losing their original shape and proportions.

“We try to replicate [the design] process in the most efficient and the most precise way, so that in the end you have the perfect product in production that will take you no more than a few hours,” explained Pelipas.

From Covid to Conflict

Bettter was built in extraordinary circumstances.

The brand launched in August of 2020 as the world grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic. It was actually good timing, says Pelipas. Enforced isolation created space for the Bettter team to figure out how to make the business model work and develop its tailoring algorithms.

People stuck at home were also spending plenty of time scrolling the internet and shopping. With nearly 250,000 Instagram followers of her own, Pelipas had a neat pre-existing platform to launch her first collections. Produced in small volumes, they sold out almost instantaneously.

By early 2022, Pelipas felt the company was on solid footing. She’d built an R&D and production facility in Kyiv with backing from a handful of angel investors and was considering raising more money to fund expansion, while exploring wholesale and brand partnerships.

Then her world fell apart.

Days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Pelipas was juggling her Paris Fashion Week schedule with efforts to raise awareness of the crisis, support creatives still on the ground in Ukraine and figuring out how to evacuate her team.

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Over the last year, she’s had to start from scratch multiple times over. The production team initially moved to Portugal, but asked to return home after a few months. Back in Kyiv, they worked under constant threat of air raids. Pelipas lived in fear of a phone call telling her someone had been hurt. When the bombing increased and a warehouse filled with Bettter’s clothes nearly burned down, she drew a line and asked if the team would move again. Bettter now runs production from Portugal and R&D from London, though Pelipas hopes one day to return the company’s operations to Ukraine.

“It was just a nightmare, to be honest,” Pelipas said. “I lost my hair, I lost my health, my time with my kids.” She wasn’t sure whether to continue with the business. For almost a year, the company was in survival mode. Things held together only through a mix of adrenaline and determination, fuelled by her belief that she was doing something that mattered.

A Concept with Currency

This year, Bettter is once again poised for growth.

As an LVMH Prize finalist, the brand is solidly on the radar of the fashion establishment. Pelipas is exploring wholesale partnerships and planning to open her own retail space in 2024. She’s also moving on ambitions to build Bettter into a platform that partners with other brands to upcycle their deadstock.

It’s an unconventional business model, but it’s bang on trend. A generation of buzzy young brands selling upcycled products have made retailers more receptive to the concept. And though consumers remain driven more by price and aesthetics than ethics, they may linger longer over a product with a responsible story.

“It’s so timely and fashion is about timing,” said Gilhart. “You can have the best ideas, but if it’s not the right timing it doesn’t have currency.”

Meanwhile, regulations and economics are pushing brands to explore new ways to manage excess inventory, making them more open to the unconventional ways of working and developing collections Pelipas says Bettter’s technology opens up. The financial fluctuations of the last few years mean many companies have been stuck with warehouses of unsold clothes and policy makers are pushing to ensure they’re disposed of responsibly. Last week, European Union governments agreed the bloc should ban the destruction of unsold clothes.

Though Bettter is still a fledgling brand, Pelipas says it’s on track to cross into profitability in 2024. The company has signed a partnership to upcycle deadstock for a major luxury player and is planning to raise at least $1 million this year to invest in its tech platform.

“I’m not a person who is there to gain success or status or earn huge money,” said Pelipas. “The initial impulse is to really change the system.”

Disclosure: LVMH is part of a group of investors who, together, hold a minority interest in The Business of Fashion. All investors have signed shareholder’s documentation guaranteeing BoF’s complete editorial independence.

Further Reading

How Old Clothes Became Big Business

From The RealReal dropping upcycled collections to LVMH planning to launch a platform to sell off deadstock fabrics, fashion is finding value in its excess.

The Hunt for an Easy Way to Recycle Old Clothes

Technologies that can recycle old clothes back into new ones have been touted as a holy-grail sustainability solution. As they begin to scale, the industry is facing a tricky new logistics challenge.

About the author
Sarah Kent
Sarah Kent

Sarah Kent is Chief Sustainability Correspondent at The Business of Fashion. She is based in London and drives BoF's coverage of critical environmental and labour issues.

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