‘Transforming secondhand clothing is so fulfilling. I’ve embraced my flamboyant side’

May 28, 2024 | News

Fashion influencer Nicole Aong has a blast – and a beautiful wardrobe – by transforming secondhand clothing

Pre-loved fashion has exploded in recent years, as a result of the cost of living and an increase in eco-consciousness. Secondhand sales are now expected to reach 10% of global sales. eBay has also just eliminated fees for sellers of preloved clothing.

In our Second Nature Series, we explore this growing trend. We also meet the pioneers of preloved who are helping it become mainstream. Preloved is no longer the moth-eaten, austere item of the past. It’s now stylish, expressive, and fun.

In the final article of the series, we will meet Nicole Akong, a fashion designer and maker, alteration specialist, secondhand fashion influencer, with a flair to embellishment. She was a finalist in the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee 2020 series. Akong was forced to learn dressmaking as a child in Trinidad, where the options for imported clothing were limited. She is now based in London.

Nicole Akong

After appearing on BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee, it took Nicole Akong a long while to allow herself to buy ready-made clothing again. The public expected her to always wear self-made clothing. After dipping her toe into charity shopping two summers ago, at the request of Akong’s then tween daughter, who had been joining friends for charity shopping trips, and asked her mother if she would accompany her, Akong discovered the perfect middle-ground: transforming secondhand clothing.

“I felt like I was supporting a good cause, but I also bought something that would otherwise end up in landfill,” says Akong. “I began to see sewing patterns in a restrictive way, and I became overwhelmed by the decision-making process. Now I can change the things I don’t like, or elevate the clothes in a way that is more me. It’s satisfying, I find it so enjoyable as a creative experience.”

Akong prefers to use the term “transformation” instead of “upcycling”, and she does transform. While others would add a simple patch or cuff to cover the burns on the red-striped t-shirt (pictured), she bought at a local kilo-sale for PS1, Akong cut the entire garment down, replaced the cuffs, and embellished with sequins.

Her signature is embellishment (as can be seen in her trousers with tassels on the front). “As I have grown into myself, it’s clear that I’ve embraced a more colourful, flamboyant aspect of me, which I don’t think I would have had confidence to embrace in my 20s or 30s,” she told Positive News.

Nicole Akong in London wearing a shirt that she purchased at a local kilo-sale for PS1

Akong needed a smart shirt to wear to school meetings. It may have looked like a party t-shirt to others, but it was exactly what she was looking for. Her secondhand shopping trips are based on her ‘occasion-minded’ approach. She also uses this to create her design vision. “The moment I see something that fits, the dots will start to connect,” she says.

She may have developed her skills after the Sewing Bee, but it was evident that she had the knack for making a bomber from old clothes, including a colourful African Dashiki, during the show’s Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle Week. “It didn’t do well in judging, but i love the mashup of different influences.”

Akong describes her skills as empowering but encourages everyone, even non-sewers, to embrace transformation. “There are people with those skills out there who love to use it, so why don’t you let them ?”?

Images: Nicole Aong photographed by Will Sanders for Positive News

The facts

  • 2.2

    According to research conducted by Vestiaire Collective, buying a used garment can extend its life by an average of 2.2 years, reducing its carbon footprint, waste and water footprints by 73%.

  • 61 %

    The rise in sales of thimbles, colour dyes and patches can be attributed to the Make-do-and menders. John Lewis department store reported that it sold out of darning thimbles in 2023 and that sales of repair products such as patches and repair tap were up 61%.

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