Complex SHOP Presents Reconstruct: Levi’s® SecondHand Reworked by Makayla Wray
Over the summer, many New Yorkers were surprised to see a young woman crafting clothes out of an old coffee cart turned into a mobile sewing station in the middle of SoHo. The cart, dubbed “Pedalmaw,” quickly garnered a cult following in Downtown New York, as many locals approached the street seamstress for all their tailoring needs. Whether that was adding a missing button onto a shirt or turning distressed pieces of clothing into new items like bucket hats or stuffed animals. The person behind that cart was Makayla Wray, a 29-year-old tailor and designer who helps sew collections for well-known designers during the day while crafting her own, usually upcycled, garments at night. Last year, Nike tapped her and several other designers to reconstruct USWNT jerseys. And this year, Alpha Industries asked Wray to design an upcycled collection of garments sourced from old bomber jackets. Now, Wray is using her sewing skills to make an upcycled collection out of denim from Levi’s® SecondHand, Levi’s® new buy-back denim program, for “Complex SHOP Presents ‘Reconstruct,’” a curation of sustainable and upcycled products exclusively releasing at ComplexLand.
“I started sewing when I was 15 because I came from a big family. When you're the youngest, you always end up getting a bunch of hand-me-downs. So I reworked my own clothes to keep up with what I wanted in my head,” says Wray, who remembers flipping through fashion magazines and comic books as a child. “I really enjoyed the hobby of sewing and making clothes. And to this day, I still enjoy doing that.”
Although Wray graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in fashion design, the Pittsburgh-native credits much of her sewing skills to the assembly lines of garment factories she's worked in since the age of 17. While many young designers prefer to be the creative visionaire who take the bow at runway shows, Wray says she’s never minded being the person behind the scenes, working on the sewing machine, to bring a designer’s idea to life. Garment factory jobs in New York and Pittsburgh taught Wray the craftsmanship that goes into sewing—her personal creations include everything from leather Murakami flower pillows to upcycled jackets made out of old army tents.
But her experiences on the assembly line also unveiled the darker side of the garment industry to her. Outside of seeing the amount of waste produced, she also worked 12-hour shifts in factories with no AC in the summer or heat in the winter. At times, basic necessities like toilet paper weren't even provided to her or other employees, who were typically immigrants who were also subject to getting their wages cut so a factory’s client could foot a cheaper bill for production.
“Everybody always assumes that people are only being mistreated within the garment industry overseas. No, this happens on 38th Street," says Wray, who now works for a sustainable clothing designer that pays fair wages. “Seeing that people in the industry don't respect the craftsmanship of making clothes, it's made me go my own route.”
Wray says the idea of a mobile sewing station came to her while she worked part-time for a coffee cart after she quit working in local garment factories in 2018 to work as a freelance designer. She often joked with her boss that if he installed a sewing machine in the cart, she could serve coffee all day. When COVID-19 hit, she floated the idea of actually turning one of his old carts into a mobile sewing station. A couple weeks later, she had a coffee cart outfitted with a vintage sewing machine, iron board, and even a set of speakers. But Wray says the cart was intended to be more of an art installation rather than a business venture.
“I wanted people to see and meet somebody who could potentially be making their clothes and have them question who makes it for them,” says Wray. “It’s also promoting being sustainable and not purchasing something new, not going down to buy another pair of trash pants from a fast fashion brand like H&M.”
For ComplexLand, Wray has designed an upcycled collection of denim goods sourced from denim scraps and pieces from the Levi’s® SecondHand program. Levi’s® SecondHand lets customers turn in worn denim apparel for a gift card and lets them buy refurbished denim online. To launch the SecondHand program, Levi’s® worked with Trove, a recommerce tech and logistics start-up that specializes in creating circular shopping experiences for brands. Outside of SecondHand, Levi’s® plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent across its global supply chain and fulfill other sustainability goals by 2025 as outlined in its Climate Action Strategy plan—the brand’s sustainability review for 2019 can be found here. Wray created jeans, denim skirts, bucket hats, tote bags, and 1 of 1 soft goods using all the material Levi’s® provided her with.
“When I worked in a factory in Pittsburgh, the older women would take the scraps and quilt something together,” says Wray. “Pounds of materials that are usually just thrown out into the landfill could be reused if somebody wanted to make a program for that within their company.”
In the near future she looks forward to releasing her own full collection under her label “MAW,” incorporating recycled fabrics with her own patterns and silhouettes. Although many large brands and designers have hopped on the trend of releasing upcycled collections to promote sustainability, Wray emphasizes to not lose sight of the larger conversation.
“Are you [brands] really doing this or just saying that? Are you just putting a patch on it and running it through an assembly line of unpaid workers? Who actually made this? When big brands are just like: ‘Oh, yeah, this was recycled’ but don’t show any of the process, it makes me question it,” says Wray. “When you're doing this type of work, you should be able to vocalize it. We can't really fix just one thing at a time when there are multiple things that are wrong.”
Shop pieces from Levi’s® SecondHand Reworked by Makayla Wray on complexland.com now. The collection will only be available today, so don’t miss out.