After crafting a dress using recycled trash bags for her high school art class, Riley Phillips fell head over heels for sustainable design. “In the fashion industry, products and materials are quickly discarded without a second thought,” she says. “I want to show people that beautiful things can be created with not-so-beautiful materials.”
Now a full-time student at Wake Forest University, Phillips is back at it again, this time unveiling a red carpet-inspired gown made from paint chips, magazines, canvas, mirrors, pencil shavings and VHS tapes. She calls her piece “The Art of Fashion” and knows it will turn heads at the upcoming Environmental Excellence Awards and Trashion Show, a fundraiser hosted by Asheville GreenWorks on Saturday, April 14. The event will be held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Asheville-Biltmore.
Though this is the nonprofit’s first time hosting a sustainable runway event, it will be its second year recognizing select community members for their dedication to environmental stewardship. Honors are bestowed in seven categories: the Susan B. Roderick Lifetime Achievement Award, Individual, Organization, Business, Education, Youth and the Golden Shovel Award. Last year’s winners ran the gamut from Highland Brewing for its environmentally conscious brews to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville for its rainwater catchment systems and energy-efficient fixtures.
GreenWorks staffers expect this year’s fashion element to draw 300 attendees. Per submission guidelines, outfits must “think outside the bin” and only incorporate materials that would otherwise be relegated to a landfill or recycling facility. For Phillips, that means gluing together defunct art supplies. “As a sculptor, I find myself refusing to get rid of old or dilapidated materials with the reasoning that ‘anything can be used for a new project.’ Because of that, I’ve accumulated quite the collection,” she says.
Other designers are using cigarette butts, old coffee filters, broken crayons and plarn — plastic yarn made from recycled grocery bags. Like wool, it can be a little hot and itchy, but it commands the catwalk.
“You hear a lot of kooky stories about where people source these materials,” says GreenWorks Executive Director Dawn Chávez. “One guy had been riding his bicycle along a road and picking up trash for 10 years. He made a dress out of the stuff he collected.”
Founded in 1973, Asheville GreenWorks is an environmental nonprofit that inspires, equips and mobilizes volunteers to make changes in their communities. “It boils down to trash and trees: We plant trees and we pick up trash,” says Chávez.
Last year, 3,500 volunteers cleaned up 63,000 pounds of trash in Buncombe County alone. Though that seems like a gargantuan amount, it barely made a dent in the jettisoned water bottles, Styrofoam cups, bald tires, plastic bags and soggy cardboard lining our streets. This junk eventually winds up in the French Broad River, where it degrades, releasing small plastic particles that pollute drinking water.
“Microplastics are becoming a huge issue because everyone lives downstream from someone else,” says Chávez. “But for many people, that concept is hard to grasp.”
The Trashion Show will put a face (or at least a cute dress) on littering. Artist Kyana Wilborn, for instance, will roll out a ready-to-wear look called Kindness Is the Brightest Color. Inspired by Audrey Hepburn’s exquisite fashion and humanitarian work, the outfit is flamboyant, playful and bold, and made entirely from colored plastic bags.
“Plastic bags are handed out like Halloween candy and most just end up in the garbage or in another bag in your kitchen,” says Wilborn. A former costume designer for Disney, Wilborn participated in her first environmentally friendly fashion show, Orlando’s Trash 2 Trends, in 2015. She won the Most Wearable category in both 2017 and 2018.
Taking note from Keep Orlando Beautiful, the organizer of Trash 2 Trends, Chávez and other GreenWorks staff members opened the Trashion Show to designers of all skill levels — from novices to trashionistas. There will also be a Repurposed Retail category, in which Asheville-based retailers can flaunt their funky, repurposed outfits. Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre will perform excerpts from its original piece, “Death by Plastica,” as well.
Funds raised benefit GreenWorks’ Youth Environmental Leadership Program, an outreach initiative that provides young adults ages 16-19 with environmental career exploration opportunities. For six weeks each summer, the high school students manage river quality projects, research invasive species, learn about field science and more. For Chávez, the program is all about grooming the next generation of environmental stewards.
“My children and I were eating at a restaurant one time, and my son was just walking around carrying this banana peel because there was no place to compost,” she says. “It’s so easy to learn these things at an early age instead of reformatting our habits later.”
And the banana? Chávez laughs: “We brought it home for our compost pile.”
WHAT: Environmental Excellence Awards and Trashion Show, ashevillegreenworks.org
WHERE: DoubleTree by Hilton Asheville-Biltmore, 115 Hendersonville Road
WHEN: Saturday, April 14, 5-9 p.m. $50 general admission/$40 GreenWorks members