Fashion designer channels inner child for bold upcycled looks


Ashani Scales is the type to take the expression “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” to heart. In 2021, Scales went on a thrifting hunt for a quilted blanket she could turn into a coat. Having recently started sewing again, Scales was searching for soft, easy-to-manage fabrics that would keep her warm. After a trip to Jomar, she thought she found exactly what she was looking for: a warm green quilt large enough to be cut down and turned into something else — but instead, she wound up with a paw-printed dog cage cover she mistook for a heavy blanket.

At first she considered using the cover for her own dog, but unwilling to give up on her vision, Scales proceeded to repurpose the cover into a mid-length quilted coat with paw prints lining the inside. Her first real upcycled piece, and her most talked about design to date.

“A lot of people ask me about the coat, and they’re like, ‘How did you come up with that?’” Scales says. “Sometimes you don’t know that you’re being innovative until you get to a part where you’re stuck. It’s that part of creativity that’s kind of fire.”

Ashani Scales transforms unlikely items — like a dog cage cover — into bold and unique fashion statements. Photo by Troy Bynum.

Philadelphia-based clothing designer and artist Scales likes her work to start in the thrift store, like any great upcycler. In stores like Goodwill and Jomar that carry gently-used clothing items for low prices, Scales yields to the interest of her inner child and shops for fabrics and materials she can repurpose.

Scales has been upcycling clothing since she was 11 years old, when she was given her first sewing machine by a neighbor. Growing up, Scales says when it came to clothes she always had everything she needed, but if she wanted more she’d have to get creative. Her curiosity for fashion led her to practicing with old jeans, which she cut up and turned into small tote bags.

Despite bad sewing and less-than-perfect stitching, Scales saw the endless possibilities of upcycling for herself and others in need of refreshed relationships with what they already owned.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Scales, locked in the house with nowhere to go and nothing but time, recommitted herself to her childhood dream of being a designer and began sewing again.

“My favorite part of upcycling is taking things apart [and] seeing what pieces I have before I can put them back together again. It’s really fulfilling,” says Scales.

Her upcycling and sewing has led her to creating costumes for children’s plays, participating in Philly Fashion Week, collaborating with fellow designer Taseen Abdulbarr, making a custom jacket for Philly rapper Tierra Whack, and most recently, becoming a teaching artist with The Village of Arts and Humanities, where she’ll begin working with a cohort of 12 to 15 middle schoolers to create zero-waste tote bags from clothing scraps collected from the community.

I want to be your clothing therapist. If you have something that you don’t like, let me change it, or let me help you fix it.”

Ashani Scales

As a designer, Scales’ work focuses on how we can collectively continue loving our old clothes made new through alterations and ingenuity.

“I want to be your clothing therapist. If you have something that you don’t like, let me change it, or let me help you fix it,” says Scales.

One of Scales most recent ‘therapy’ services was for her sister, Aaliyah Joiner. The two often worked together on upcycling entire outfits from used goods, but Joiner was adamant about having her sister create a pair of pants from a thrifted chartreuse blanket with thick fringes around the edges from a Goodwill store in New Jersey, purchased for $8. Joiner prompted her sister with a text that read “work your magic,” and from there Scales got to work.

“My sister has been really into fashion ever since I could remember. She can always make something out of nothing,” says Joiner. “She is my own personal seamstress, who could want more? I already have my next project in mind for her.”

Throughout her pieces Scales weaves sentiment in her garments and stitches with the intent of creating something new from something used. Her work feels exciting at a time when what’s being churned out online and in stores is a result of unethical mass production in the fast fashion industry.

“I think that in a way the world can sometimes drive itself more on greed than ingenuity, and that’s kind of messed up,” says Scales. “Yes, there’s always going to be a demand for quicker, faster, but is the quality still going to be the same?”

According to ethicalconsumer.org, the fast fashion industry is responsible for roughly 20% of industrial water pollution and 10% of total global carbon emissions. It thrives on the use of synthetic fibers like nylon and acrylic, which are processed petrochemicals. As criticism continues to mount, small upcycling clothing designers like Scales are the vanguard against fast fashion’s negative impact on the environment.

In Philadelphia, Scales has become synonymous with fashionable and sustainable wear, but that’s only an added bonus as to what drives her to slice up jeans and old blankets. Upcycling has been an outlet for getting in touch with that inner child still excited about finding new use for old jeans. It’s art therapy that allows Scales to unleash her creative ideas in constructive (and deconstructive) ways.

“I want to grow up and be the person that the kid who just started sewing could be proud of. And I think I work more and more every day to see myself as that kid again,” says Scales.

Across her Instagram page, @ashanii_, Scales shares photos and videos of herself repurposing kente cloth pants into two-piece outfits, and transforming Eagles jerseys and 76ers blankets into jackets and puffer coats. While some materials have proven to be tougher, stiffer and less pliable, Scales doesn’t shy away from what could be.

Scales hopes that from her work, fans of unique and often costume fashion will explore sustainable designers and brands local to Philadelphia, and that the upcycling community will only continue to shape, taper and grow. Leading the next generation of designers to look at something old and see only possibilities.


  1. Giving “fashion therapy” a whole new meaning! This article was not only well written, but I truly feel that “hey I know that girl” moment. Thing is, I can gratefully say I know that talented girl! Super proud of you and all the recognition you are getting, Ashani! The dog cage-jacket will forever be iconic, but not as ICONIC as you! Great to see people chasing their dreams. What our city needs! Go Girl!

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