Upcycled clothing is on the rise. Over the last few years, thrift shops and upcycled clothing apps have seen an uptick in popularity as climate change and environmental awareness has ascended to mainstream consciousness. With this being said, something still missing from the upcycled clothing trend is an ample selection of gender-diverse clothing, according to University of New Hampshire (UNH) professor Tamsin Whitehead. Thus, Whitehead created her own upcycled clothing brand focused on gender-versatile clothing, called Diffinity Design.
“I wanted to create it for two reasons,” Whitehead said. “One was that I’m very interested in sustainability…Thinking about sustainable fashion, so I got interested in upcycled clothing, the sort of idea of that. Just turning old things into new, fabulous things. But also, at the time when I first started thinking about it, I was looking online at what other people were doing. I didn’t actually see a lot that was not still very much being made within a sort of very gender-binary kind of way. I thought it would be good to develop some that would be possible for people of all kinds of gender expression.”
Whitehead features UNH students, friends and staff in her department as models for the brand’s clothing on its website. One of the models, senior linguistics major Tom Carlson, got involved with Diffinity Design after discussing the lack of upcycled gender-diverse clothing available on the market.
“Well, we started talking about fashion somehow out of the blue – or perhaps because the color blue – she wears a lot of blue and it’s all wonderful,” Carlson said. “We then began to talk about the lack of gender-neutral clothing in the world and then about different fits and fashions. Next thing I knew I was modeling for her brilliant company.”
Whitehead is a lecturer in UNH’s women’s and gender studies program, specializing in topics such as sustainability, environmental and food justice, the fashion industry, LGBTQ studies and feminism. With a busy schedule as a UNH lecturer, Whitehead still manages to dedicate a hefty part of her schedule to Diffinity Design.
“It’s not only going out and finding the clothes, bringing them home, taking them apart, putting them back together again, the laundering of them, it’s also taking photographs, paying models, spending time on the internet,” she said. “People look at things like homemade clothes and think ‘Oh, somebody just sits in front of a machine and sews something,’ but there’s a lot of other stuff that goes into it.”
Whitehead gathers the materials from various places.
“Sometimes from thrift stores, sometimes friends leave it on my doorstep, or people who are having a clear-out or something like that,” she said. Sometimes, she chooses certain clothing if she has a specific idea of what she wants to make. Other times, she picks out pieces because the fabric is cool or interesting. She either re-decorates or re-makes the clothing.
She described the distinctive style of a specific piece she makes, denim ponchos.
“That’s just taking jeans and totally tearing them apart and re-making them into something completely new, as opposed to something like this western shirt where I might just decorate something. Sometimes I have to design from the ground up what I’m going to make, other times I just need to think about how I’m going to make this cool, fun. I think I’m bringing a sort of a fun vibe to some of that.”
Whitehead said that she uses a lot of denim and plaid materials, joking, “I don’t know the extent to which that might just be because that’s where I live, in the land of that.” While she sometimes makes more than one clothing piece in the same style, each piece is unique because she utilizes different materials and fabrics.
In terms of the business, Whitehead sells pieces on her website and takes commissions or requests for certain styles and pieces. She explained the issues with the fashion industry, explaining how it is the second most polluting industry in the world. There are also substantial issues with the treatment of garment workers.
“Fast fashion is able to sell at such low prices because of those things I just mentioned, and what I’m doing, I’m not trying to compete with fast fashion prices,” she said. “I’d like to think that my prices reflect more the time and so on that I put into it, but actually if you really, really calculated how much time I put into this, I’m probably not charging enough. It’s partly a mission I’m on.” Whitehead noted that she is lucky to have another job as a lecturer at UNH so that she is not relying solely on this business in terms of finances.
She recently took part in an event called Project Upcycle, which was organized by Jennifer Moore, who collaborated with Goodwill and 3S Artspace in Portsmouth. It was based on Project Runway, but upcycled designers created outfits out of donated clothing.
“For me that was really awesome,” she said. “It sort of gave me more confidence in a way in what I was doing because I met other people who were interested in it as well, and it helped me make connections in the local area with people who were equally interested in doing some of this work.”
Carlson is one of those people who share this passion with Whitehead, which lead them to want to model for Diffinity Design
“My favorite part about Tamsin’s work is that it’s equally representative of the individual designing it and the spectrum of wearers,” they said. “She talks to all her models about what we like and our relationship to clothing. She also has models of all sizes, fits, genders, and more.”