Wearing your art on your sleeve

Designers create high style from thrift-store treasures to benefit recovery programs

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- A fundraiser for Grace House/Bridge House at Generations Hall in New Orleans featured recycled fashions. Tricia Aguda and designer Jenny Sklar prepare model Carolyn Gabriel for her walk down the runway.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- A fundraiser for Grace House/Bridge House at Generations Hall in New Orleans featured recycled fashions. Tricia Aguda and designer Jenny Sklar prepare model Carolyn Gabriel for her walk down the runway.

The sleeve of a discarded sweater becomes a hat; a cast-off jacket is remodeled into a skirt. And that’s how you recycle fashion.

Such creativity took center stage at Generations Hall recently at the fourth annual Recycled Fashion Show benefiting Bridge House/Grace House, a long-term residential treatment center for drug and alcohol abuse.

Thirty local designers participated to create a runway show of 60 outfits constructed with items from the organization’s thrift stores.

“It’s amazing how much you can find,” said Elizabeth Eckman, an artist and yoga instructor who donated her talent and labor to the event. “Not all garments donated to thrift stores are perfect. There can be a small stain here, a little hole there. But if you are willing to deconstruct and start over ...”

And that’s what Eckman did: deconstruct to reconstruct.

“You take the sleeve of a crocheted sweater, reshape it and add a little millinery wire, and you have an easy-to-wear hat,” Eckman said, who was wearing an example of her work, paired with the Audrey Hepburn-style dress she created by turning a skirt upside down to make a bodice and merging a shirt and part of another dress to create the body-skimming skirt.

Hair stylists, makeup artists and designers gathered on the second floor of Generations Hall hours before the show to primp models, pin clothing and put the final touches on thrift-store panache. Themes ranged from period pieces in regal brocades to contemporary rock-star attire where sequined mini-skirts were paired with T-shirt stripes.

“The line-up goes from men in city shorts to a very avant-garde bride,” said Tracee Dundas, a local fashion stylist and one of the event’s committee members.

The designs were as diverse as the designers themselves, whose real-life professions ranged from computer technicians to architects. Each participant was given a budget to shop the thrift stores, a source of income for Bridge House/Grace House substance-abuse programs. Nothing was off-limits in the two retail spaces that house donated items ranging from hunting gear to designer shoes. Garter belts were fodder for a street version of Lady Gaga style, and pastel bed sheets were cut into hundreds of pieces to create an evening gown of soft cascading petals.

Andre Laborde, an IT specialist who also works as a sales associate at a popular fashion chain-store, turned his technical skills and his knowledge of what sells into a fashion formula balancing simple tailoring with detailed ornamentation.

“This is trim from a night gown,” said Laborde, who had taken the intricate embroidery from lingerie and applied it to a shapely menswear-style jacket. The result was a wardrobe piece that solves the problem of what-to-wear to an event with an unspecified dress code. He revived a pair of kitten-heel pumps by covering them in a brocade fabric to create evening slippers.

Unlike traditional runway shows, this one was sprinkled with the local flavor of the Pussyfooters marching club members in their trademark frocks — hot pink wigs with corset and ruffled mini-skirts to match — and the dancing krewe of Rolling Elvi in jailhouse stripes and rhinestone-studded black denim. Emcee Andrew Ward, dressed in a white tails and red tie, introduced every design in Ringling Brothers ringmaster style.

“Is this rocker chic or Downton Abbey gone bad?” he said of a denim jacket with a high ruffled collar reminiscent of the post-Edwardian style of the British aristocracy.

When a model wearing a red silk slip dress with black lace trim appeared on the runway, Ward summed it up with three syllables rolling off his tongue: “High octane.”

“It is challenging, as the designs have to accommodate the fabric pieces. It’s like solving a puzzle,” said Barbara Meehan, a retired teacher and designer of the “high-octane” piece. “I learned to sew from my Polish grandmother who also taught me to waste nothing. She made undergarments from parachutes after the war and crocheted rag rugs with all her scraps.”

Spectators had to look quickly to grasp this concept of an assortment of thrift-shop finds merging into a single one-of-a-kind design. Accessories were not to be ignored.

“Yes, folks, that’s a duck decoy,” said Ward of the sassy blue cocktail hat LaBorde had created from someone’s donated duck decoy.

Even wedding gowns get a makeover when clothing is recycled. Meehan took the Alencon lace from a gown that had made its debut down a church aisle and combined it with turquoise silk she had harvested from a pair of evening pants. She added black linen. The result was a cream-lace dress with a fitted black bodice, trimmed in turquoise. Enough lace was left over for a removable overskirt.

Architect intern Katherine Champagne saw “bachelor-pad-silk” sheets and a white linen table cloth as fodder for an American Gothic style dress, complete with an intricately pleated bodice (with a collar that doubled as a hood) over a full skirt puffed with 50s crinolines.

“It was an experiment putting structure and form over soft underpinnings,” said Champagne, who had also plucked buttons from another garment to throw into the mix.

For Amy Knower, another local architect, discarded clothing was the perfect medium for showcasing the ’60s “Mad Men” influence. She took her inspiration from a prom dress to recreate the era where feminine clothing was defined with belted waists and full skirts.

At the conclusion of the show, fashion was recycled yet again. All 60 pieces were auctioned off that night to benefit the organization’s treatment facility.