Reworking an existing garment, designer print or athletic jersey, known in fashion as upcycling, is what Black people have always done: use what we had to get what we want.
The National Football League is now licensing logos to designer Kristin Juszczyk, the wife of San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk, to use on her now-viral reworked pieces — like the jersey-to-puffer coat transformation worn by Taylor Swift, using the jersey of Swift’s boyfriend, Kansas Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce — but this, reworked, upcycled jerseys, was popularized by innovative Black designers.
“It’s [upcycling] about creating a lineage and a narrative. It’s very much a part of understanding the Black experience and community in terms of not discarding fabrics and reusing them for new things. That’s just a part of the community,” said Darnell Lisby, fashion historian and assistant curator of fashion at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Lisby explained that upcycling is a need that often turns into a brand or lifestyle. And it’s often a driving factor for Black designers in the space: creativity, innovation, necessity, and financial constraints.
The essence of upcycling is evident in designer Willi Smith’s WilliWear, an early “street couture” brand that mixed the relaxed fit of sportswear with high-end elements of tailoring, as well as Patrick Kelly, whose brand was founded based on his grandmother’s refashioning his damaged clothes with buttons when he was growing up, a practice he later incorporated it into his design aesthetic as an homage, though their practice predates the term coined in 1994.
Like Smith and Kelly, couturier and streetwear icon Dapper Dan’s upcycled designs were born out of innovation, creativity, and necessity; in exploring the creative reuse of leather goods from Gucci, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, and MCM, his designs, known as “knock-ups,” became popular amongst rappers and athletes looking for custom-made garments that ventured beyond the offerings from luxury fashion houses.
In 1988, his longtime customer, boxer Mike Tyson, stopped by his Harlem boutique at 4 am to pick up a custom piece when his lifelong rival Mitch Green approached him, leading to a fight. The altercation, in which Tyson wore a custom Fendi coat, put Dapper Dan and his designs under a microscope, eventually leading to a raid and the closing of his boutique after Fendi reported his unlawful use of their trademarked logos to authorities. Consequently, the media named the Harlem couturier a fashion counterfeiter, and legal fees financially drained him.
Despite being forced to start over 30 years ago, Dapper Dan has become one of the most notable upcycle designers, even having his pieces referenced on the runways of brands he previously knocked off. But even though Dapper Dan found redemption in his career, Black designers still struggle to attain the same success, access, and resources as their white counterparts, afforded access based on race, class, and status as opposed to merit.
According to Lisby, the resurfacing and repurposing of jerseys is due to a general nostalgia trend that permeates the entire fashion cycle, which is inherently a part of the Black community’s history. “When I think about that period and the repurposing of jerseys, it was finding something within your closet that you can refresh and restyle,” he said.
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In the early aughts, Black women and designers gave new life to traditional sports jerseys, altering the loose-fitting menswear staple to a more fitted silhouette, the jersey dress. One of the first documented sightings of the form-fitted sports dress was in August 2000, when singer Mya wore a matching University of North Carolina version alongside Jay-Z in the music video for their collaborative track “Best Part of Me, Part 2.” The video, styled by June Ambrose, a renowned stylist, costume designer, and creative director, created memorable moments in fashion and hip-hop.
However, to Reuben Harley’s account, in November 2001, the then-Vice President of Mitchell & Ness took his overload of small jersey sizes to his grandmother and had her transform them into dresses. Harley later gave one of the dresses to his friend, singer Faith Evans, who wore it on an episode of BET’s 106 & Park. Despite the varied chronicling of the jersey dress, it became a marker of the times and a status symbol alongside the jersey.
“In terms of personal style and self-styling within the Black community, even separating it [the jersey] from its direct relation to sports or the celebration of an athlete, the wearing of the jersey represents a certain level of pride. Whether it be pride about self-styling or the cost because jerseys are expensive,” said Lisby. As the trend evolved, so did the stylistic choices of women, who further pushed the DIY nature of the jersey dress, creating one-shoulder dresses, two-piece sets, and crop tops with the addition of laces and rhinestones, though often seen as “ghetto” or “cheaply made.”
Nevertheless, Black designers continue innovating in the upcycling space, showcasing designs that are direct descendants of designers like Smith, Kelly, and Dapper Dan. Cierra Boyd, better known as Friskmegood, deconstructs sneakers and transforms them into sustainable, avant-garde corsets. Her innovative designs have landed her celebrity clients, including Cardi B. and Ciara, and a spot on season 2 of HBO’s The Hype, a streetwear fashion competition. Another designer innovating in the space is Tega Akinola, upcycling fleece jackets to vibrant mini handbags and futuristically adorning footwear and bags with USB cords. Last December, Akinola released her debut mini handbag collection, an evolution of her repurposed signature fleece handbags, but this time with namesake branding.
Despite designers like Boyd and Akinola, who are thriving, the odds remain stacked against them. Lisby said that non-Black designers get a lot more shine and are seen as more “serious” regarding upcycling because they have great marketing. “Black and brown designers don’t get the same marketing push as non-Black designers, even with notoriety, so there will always be an imbalance.” But when the fashion industry actively mobilizes Black designers, upcycling will get the support, access, and opportunities to rise, rightfully.