Upcycled couture

Chicoans increasingly embrace the eco-chic appeal of “upcycled” clothing

Samantha Zangrilli hits the catwalk in an upcycled doily dress at Chikoko’s Oct. 20 Metamorphosis fashion show.

Samantha Zangrilli hits the catwalk in an upcycled doily dress at Chikoko’s Oct. 20 Metamorphosis fashion show.

photo by claire hutkins seda

“It’s unbelievable how much gets thrown into the landfill. It’s shocking, frankly!” exclaimed local artist and fashion designer Muir Hughes. Hughes is a member of the fashion-arts collective Chikoko.

The five Chico artists who make up Chikoko gathered for the group’s annual fall fashion show at the fairgrounds last month, this time under the theme Metamorphosis. As in past years—the show has been going for seven years now—Hughes and the other Chikoko designers incorporated used materials, from grandma’s doilies to literal pieces of garbage, diverting some of that awfully huge flow of trash away from the landfill and bringing it to the runway as unique haute couture pieces—blouses, dresses, miniskirts, hair accessories and more.

“It’s hard to find a particular thing that you want [to incorporate into a design], but it’s not hard to find good, useable materials,” said Hughes. “So oftentimes our work will be guided by what we find rather than what we think we want to find.” This year, Chikoko members relied on local dumpsters, thrift stores, Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, and their own closets, “using materials that already exist in the world,” as Hughes put it, to pull together the highly anticipated fashion show.

The results were at times bizarre and outlandish, like the puffy outfit made from packaging materials that prevented the model from being able to put down her arms, and at other times, remarkably wearable, as was a tight-fitting strapless dress made out of burlap coffee bags. All the pieces were “upcycled"—a current buzzword in the fashion biz referring to clothing designed and made by updating and reworking old pieces of clothing or other materials.

Most notable was the “Indecent Disposal” portion of the show, featuring literal pieces of trash as high fashion. Cassette tape, bicycle inner tubes, colorful hair rollers, and plenty of unidentifiable junk were perfectly fitted to the models, who expertly strutted down the runway, often in unthinkably high heels.

Doilies, moss, brightly colored polyester blankets, and single-use plastic bags were all featured in the eye-catching wares that models donned on the runway. Hughes estimates that upward of 1,200 people attended the event. And the Chikoko designers, along with a dozen or more other local artists, will team up for their annual Bizarre Bazaar (Dec. 15-16, at Chico Women’s Club), the holiday-market event that features upcycled and original fashion and gifts, all locally made. “There has been and has continued to be a really strong do-it-yourself movement,” Hughes observed.

As it turns out, a growing number of local shops also support the DIY ethic by selling upcycled wares, often made by the growing number of local designers, including the ones from Chikoko. The grandmother of the eco-fashion shops in Chico, Three Sixty Ecotique, has been around just 3 1/2 years, and is continually expanding its vision of environmentally forward fashion. The popular downtown boutique was voted (once again) the Best Place to Buy Vintage Threads in the 2012 CN&R Best of Chico readers’ poll.

Crystena Hemingway, who co-owns the shop, believes the store’s popularity is partially the result of consumers who want to internalize “the idea of recycling, people wanting to be more globally and eco-minded and unique. … We can change our system with where we put our money.”

Yard Sale Swap Shop co-owners Anne Crutchfield (left) and Jaime Wyman hold up tablecloth dresses sewn by local designer Ellen Jordan.

photo by claire hutkins seda

Three Sixty Ecotique, which had the unpurchased items from the Chikoko show for sale until last week, will begin a new chapter in its life next month by offering a fashion-based quarterly ‘zine. Each issue—offered for free and paid for by local companies that place ads—will focus on a particular fashion era and how to wear clothes from that era today, starting off with the Mod era (from the late 1950s until roughly the mid-'60s).

In the last year and a half, five other stores have opened in town, specializing in vintage, upcycled, or higher-end resale. Pepper Grand Coulee’s Funky Trunk, on Mangrove, focuses on vintage, “quirky” clothing, while BOHO in the Garden Walk mixes gently-used fashion with vintage pieces. Konjo, another newer store on Main Street, also offers high-end used fashion. Others include Yard Sale Swap Shop and Cocoon.

At the newest addition to Chico’s eco-fashion world, Yard Sale Swap Shop, on Main Street next door to Home Ec, co-owner Anne Crutchfield holds up a dress pieced together from an old tablecloth and some ribbons, tucked into a rack of resale blouses and dresses with higher-end fashion labels.

Crutchfield moved here from the Bay Area four months ago and opened the shop with Jaime Wyman the same month. Their store specializes in gently used high-end fashion and pieces from local indie designers, like the tablecloth dress which was made by Chico designer Ellen Jordan.

“Especially in a town like Chico, I think people like having something different” to wear, said Crutchfield. “You’re not looking at a rack of the same thing over and over.”

Cocoon, on Park Avenue near the MANAS gallery, takes upcycling a step further. Stores focusing on gently-used clothes will usually buy the clothing they sell from the public for trade or cash, but Summer O’Neill, owner of Cocoon, buys damaged clothing as well—clothing that other shops usually reject. She calls it “trading for parts.”

“Maybe one wool sweater has moth holes, and we’ll take a cool trim off another shirt that has damage, and we’ll cover up the holes with the trim,” and then put it in the shop for sale, explained O’Neill.

“The community definitely is coming out and showing support of local designers and artists,” said Hughes, who hopes that ecologically minded people will come out to support the brick-and-mortar stores that continue where Chikoko leaves off when the models leave the stage. “The key to not just the success of artists, but I think the community as a whole, is to value the unique offerings within the community.”

Hughes believes the growing number of eco-fashion shops won’t cause competition among them, but will create a bigger pool of consumers by raising the availability of eco-fashion overall.

Crutchfield echoed similar sentiments: “There are so many places opening—we’re all sort of hoping Chico will become a destination for selling and trading clothes.”