High-end trashion show

Recycled Runway inspires local teens to create garments exclusively from found materials

The participants in Recycled Runway re-purpose thrown away items into chic fashion.

For the latest trends in fashion, some local students are looking no further than their own recycling bins.

Participants from middle and high school will send their designs across the stage of the Boulder Theater on April 12 in the seventh annual Recycled Runway fashion show. The profits of this year’s show will be donated to Blue Sky Bridge, a local child and family advocacy center.

A total of 26 competitors have been using the independent study workshop in the Common Threads Creative Lab to create garments made entirely from recycled materials for the show. Thread, glue and any kind of tape besides duct tape are the only non-recycled materials the participants are authorized to use.

“It’s fascinating what they come up with and what they use: keyboard keys, wires from phone cables and computer cables,” says Tanja Leonard, Common Threads Creative Lab mentor and director. “Your imagination is the limit to what [you] use.”

In the past, participants have used materials such as shredded paper, shopping bags and even their own math homework. In this arena of recycled fashion, as in the real world, trends come and go, encouraging the young designers to think creatively.

Nicoline West models her dress made of book pages, dyed with tea.
Nicoline West models her dress made of book pages, dyed with tea. Colby Evans

“Bike inner tubes, for a while, was very much in vogue as something to use, but they’ve stopped doing that quite so much,” Tanja says. “VHS tape, the tape that’s inside [a video cassette], a girl used that a few years ago. Window blinds, the metal of the window blinds, a girl made a whole dress out of that and painted it. It looked really cool.”

During the six-week period leading up to the runway show, the teens and preteens with varying levels of design and sewing experience, create one garment and one accessory each. Tanja’s daughter, Boulder High School senior Audrey Leonard, will be competing this year for the fourth time.

“We have a lot of workshops, and you see what other people are doing, and it prompts you to think of other ideas of what to use,” Audrey says. “And you start becoming much more aware of what you’re throwing away on a daily basis.”

Audrey will be attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City next year to study fashion design. For this year’s competition, she is making a romper out of coffee filters. In previous years, she has made outfits out of bike inner tubes, shopping bags from, bubble wrap and candy wrappers.

“I knew I wanted to use the bubble wrap because we had so much of it in our house, but I couldn’t really think of something I wanted to do with it because it kept being so thick, and I didn’t want to look like a marshmallow man or something,” Audrey says. “So that one definitely took the most innovation for me to come up with what I wanted to do.”

Gaby Gutierrez wearing recycled tissue paper and gum wrappers.
Gaby Gutierrez wearing recycled tissue paper and gum wrappers. Colby Evans

The middle school participants are judged separately from the high school participants. And both groups have a winner and a runner-up, who each receive a photo shoot with a local photographer.
There are also awards for innovation, functionality, creativity and construction. Audrey has won the award for functionality every year she has participated.

“Sometimes a design is so functional that they just say that kid should win functionality and not be the overall winner because this other outfit is so amazing that, even though it’s not functional or the use of material isn’t that incredible; it just looks cool,” Tanja says.

The participants typically begin collecting their found materials from their homes and their parents’ workplaces. The designers are prohibited from buying any materials — even the lining of their garments must be made out of recycled items.

“They figure out how the material works,” Tanja says. “Often times they have a material that does not drape the way they think it should drape, so then they have to change their design idea. So it’s just a continuous process, but not that much different from making clothing [with traditional materials].”

Audrey says participating in Recycled Runway has impacted her decision to study fashion design. She has learned to be less of a perfectionist by allowing the materials to dictate the design instead of creating a design and trying to manipulate the materials to fit it.

“It definitely allowed me to be more creative because it pushes you to think outside of the box because you have to figure out how to work with different materials or think of what will look cool in different shapes,” Audrey says. “Like I couldn’t have made a flowy dress out of bike inner tubes, so I had to think about what else I wanted to make out of it.”

Presley Church in her outfit of vinyl banners and mesh.
Presley Church in her outfit of vinyl banners and mesh. Colby Evans

The participants walk away with more than just prizes. They gain the ability to construct a garment along with other skills and values they can apply to everyday life.

“They learn trouble shooting,” Tanja says. “They learn to deal with challenges because every single year we have challenges where kids, at the last minute, can’t figure out how to put something together or it falls apart right before the show. And they have to stay calm, and we have to put it back together again.”

Another takeaway for the competitors is self-confidence. Unless they choose not to, or they construct a garment intended for someone of the opposite gender, most of the participants model their own clothing.

“When you’re right about to go on and you look at yourself in the mirror, you see your full outfit on and your hair and makeup done, and you just see that all those hours actually created something really beautiful and that you’ve accomplished something that you actually really like and that you’re proud of,” Audrey says.

The rules allow anyone of eligibility to participate in the competition as many times as they desire. Competitors are chosen based on their applications, which outline their design ideas.

“When they first come in, they’re quiet, and just standing around and not really knowing what to do,” Tanja says. “And then they grow each time. And then when it culminates, and they’re standing on stage and have a big smile on their face because they’re so excited about what they made, it’s really fun. It’s really the most amazing part.”

On the Bill: Recycled Runway. 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 12, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.