Learning Outside the Lab
During one of their trips to a thrift shop, Sammy Johnson ’20 and Chad Varney ’22 thought it would be interesting to take elements from one sweatshirt and combine them with another sweatshirt, making a hybrid shirt that featured their favorite parts of each piece. They bought four sweatshirts and, with the help of Johnson’s grandma, sewed them into two “cool and unique” shirts, laying the foundation for the upcycled clothing company Upcurl.
With Upcurl, Johnson and Varney combat fast fashion by creating and selling thrifted, redesigned clothes. Each week, they buy a set of clothes from a local secondhand store and plan how they will turn the items into more fashionable pieces. The redesigning process includes washing, bleaching, cutting, sewing, and, coming soon, embroidering.
Hometown: Scituate, Mass.
High school: The Groton School
“That day’s always exciting because things go so fast,” Johnson said.
But before Johnson and Varney had the idea for the company, they were refashioning clothes for an independent study course with Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Aaron Strong. Their idea for their course project, conceived after a fateful trip to a thrift shop and a sewing lesson from Johnson’s grandmother, was to learn about clothing sustainability and fast fashion while also experimenting with how to upcycle clothing.
They said that Strong was instrumental to both the course and ultimately Upcurl. “We wouldn’t have had this opportunity without him,” Varney said.
Hometown: Potsdam, N.Y.
High school:The Gunnery School
Johnson and Varney turned their coursework into a company after the spring semester became remote. No longer able to do an in-person fashion show, as they had planned for the end of the semester, they decided to showcase their clothes on a website under the branded name Upcurl.
“Minutes after we launched the site, we had a text from someone saying they couldn’t buy the stuff,” Johnson said. “We figured, if there’s this much of a demand, let’s make it, let’s go.” They then set out a plan to make their clothes purchasable and to start regularly creating and selling new pieces.
Johnson and Varney said that the Hamilton community helped them throughout the establishment of Upcurl. On campus, they received regular support from Strong and Julia Perdue, costume designer in the Theatre Department. Varney noted that Perdue had never officially been assigned to their project, offering assistance simply because she could. “Julia Perdue did this out of the kindness of her heart,” he said.
Moreover, once thrift shops closed, Johnson and Varney again received help from the Hamilton community. Students and staff sent them clothing donations and were responsible for most of the initial purchases.
Johnson and Varney intend to continue Upcurl as long as people are interested in their products. With Johnson moving to North Carolina for a career with Cisco, she and Varney anticipate new challenges. But they feel confident in their company and are eager to see where it takes them.
Learning Outside the Lab