Trash Makeover Challenge Inspires Local Artists to Create Sustainable Fashion

Written by Alyssa Hiarker.
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran.

Dressed in superhero tights and capes, fashionmongers and environmentalists alike traveled to the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs on Sept. 14 for Texas Campaign for the Environment’s ninth annual Trash Makeover Challenge.  

The Trash Makeover Challenge, a fashion show and silent auction, used local artists’ sustainable fashion designs to showcase the importance of considering environmental implications within the world of high fashion. Created in 2011, the event was initially a 20th anniversary celebration for Texas Campaign for the Environment, but became an annual event after the original’s success.

Ceci Guevara, the fashion show’s producer, said she envisions a future built upon the ideas presented at the competition. 

“We all have superpowers to take care of the planet,” Guevara said. “Anyone can be a hero with their acts and anyone can save the planet. Whether real or imaginary, there’s heroes that inspire you to take care of the planet.”

Battling a world of fast and high fashion, the Trash Makeover Challenge creates an environment where models wear pieces completely composed of recycled materials and textiles. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there were 10.5 million tons of municipal solid waste created from textiles in 2015. That 10.5 million tons translated into 7.6% of all municipal solid waste landfilled that year.

Currently, researchers like Jonathan Chen, a professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel at the University of Texas at Austin, are working to create sustainable textiles to replace current materials that use unsustainable chemicals, plastics or are unable to be sustainably discarded. According to Chen, the idea of zero waste is just as much about regulating production as it is about providing sustainable options for disposal.

“People think of the idea of zero waste during production and the consumption of materials during the fashion production, but still it doesn’t completely solve the situation,” Chen said. “For sustainability for all kinds of industrial products, we need to think about the whole life cycle.”

Hosted during the second international fashion month of the year, the Texas Campaign for the Environment’s fashion show is a reminder of changes that could be made by industry leaders, according to Guevara. With the rules of the competition focused on keeping items out of landfills, the contestants create outfits where the key components are materials such as bubble wrap and an old tarp, like Austin artist Megan Pinto’s winning design, Elektra.  

Inspired by 19th century nurse Florence Nightingale, Veronica Vivanco’s design featured a model wearing a white dress made out of repurposed vinyl, a red nurse’s cap created from a lamp shade, and a hand-crocheted cape made out of 900 Coca-Cola caps.  At the end of the night, the audience crowned the look the People’s Choice Winner and the judges awarded it second place. 

 “It surpasses all the industries, whether event planning, whether the fashion industry,” Guevara said. “It’s learning how to minimize your trash and taking something you’d easily discard and giving it new life.” 

This year, the theme of the fashion show, Sheroes and Heroes, followed the idea of making a difference through individual actions. The event’s conservationist ideas drove guests like Laura Friedman to attend for the first time. 

“I’m new to the Austin area and wanted to find something that fit with my passions of environmentalism,” Friedman said.  

The Trash Makeover Challenge started off in a much smaller venue, a clothing shop in an Austin mall. According to guest of the original event and executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, Robin Schneider, the first event impressed even those staunchly uninterested in fashion, like her husband. 

“We did it at the Highland mall as the stores were closing up one by one, and it was in an old clothing store,” Schneider said. “We had a committee of people who just transformed that space into a magical platform for this really fun fashion show. I thought it was going to be a one-time thing, but people just had so much fun.” 

Far from the show’s cramped origins, this year’s competition was hosted in the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs where the foyer was turned into a superhero hang out, complete with a telephone booth for quick costume changes. 

For Guevera, the consistent message of the importance of environmentalism that the show has emphasized each year matters for everybody, not just fashionistas or those involved in environmental activism. 

“If you want to have a planet, it matters,” Guevara said.

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