A year after her older brother passed away during one devastating day in school, Rachel Irwin, a 15-year-old in Ireland, decided to channel her deep-seated grief into the making of a dress. She participated yet again in the, now global, contest, Junk Kouture, for students to make couture fashion out of recycled materials, working hard over many months.
Troy Armour, CEO and founder of the venture, recalls what Irwin had said about her inspiration: “She said, ‘One year ago, my brother died at school – his heart stopped in class. I had an extremely tough year – my father doesn’t speak anymore, my mother is crying most days. And I decided to make a dress to talk about the grief of this one year.’”
Titled Serenity, the dress was in black and white – the black representing grief and the days that were tough for the family, while white stood for hope, faith and the days that they believed he was in a better place, and they could smile, says Armour. The hooped skirt was made of a 13-foot trampoline mat that her brother, John, loved to use, and the headpiece – from Christmas wreaths laid on his grave.
It also incorporated white turkey feathers from their family farm that her brother had advised she use in her first year competing, and in a 2018 interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Irwin said the embroidered robin bird drew on the saying that whenever a robin appears, lost loved ones are near. Every material, every design and texture interweaved the stories of the family’s loss, their hopes, prayers and love for John.
As she stood on stage cloaked in Serenity, answering to the judges, Armour remembers her saying, “She said, ‘I wouldn’t have survived this year if I didn’t make this dress. This dress kept me away from grief that I would never get over.’ And I was crying. It was impossible not to cry.” Tears were starting to form even now, as he told me this story, having touched down in Dubai for the World Conference on Creative Economy at Expo 2020, in 2021. In 2018, Serenity had gone on to win the northern regional prize at the Bank of Ireland, Junk Kouture competition.
Something personal to everyone in the world
Armour had also been a creative kid himself. Within old school systems that only shone light on academics and sport however, he found little acceptance. Fast forward a couple of decades later, and the platform meant for such children – Junk Kouture has become the world’s largest youth fashion sustainability program, with almost 16,000 designs created by students and 40,000 kgs of waste diverted from the landfill.
But, why fashion as a creative outlet?
He says, “For me, fashion is the most important art form. Because we get to live our lives and express who we are through it every day. Right? Isn’t it personal to us… ? It just tells you a little bit about that person and whom they express they want to be. If you want to change that tomorrow, you can go to a completely different store, and come out almost a different person.”
For me, fashion is the most important art form. Because we get to live our lives and express who we are through it every day. When you put the right clothes on someone, they’re laid up. Fashion has the power to make them feel better about themselves, and fashion is very personal to everybody in the world.
– Troy Armour
Armour adds, “When you put the right clothes on someone…. Fashion has the power to make them feel better about themselves, and fashion is very personal to everybody in the world.” He points to his black leather shoes, from which protrude metal spikes – the statement piece of his fashion look.
Also joining him at Expo 2020 to hold workshops about sustainable fashion with UAE students, was Khairunisa Suhail, Head of Design at the UAE-based homegrown sustainable ActiveWear brand, ‘The Giving Movement’. She had a similar childhood experience, saying, “As a child I loved art and being creative at school. However, I had no specific creative outlet for fashion. I was also not educated about the many creative career opportunities out there. By introducing kids to fashion at a young age we are encouraging them to follow their passion as well as teaching them that they can be successful pursuing a creative career in fashion.”
According to Suhail, fashion specifically can teach you about rich history and cultures through each decade of design, how to tell a story through an art form and experiment with your drawing skills and other forms of application. She adds, “You learn how to engineer, sew or build 3D items that are wearable and functional, you get to unlock creativity within you that you may not know is there.
“I believe it gives youth a platform to grow and most importantly, confidently express themselves through a creative form.”
Bullets, beach plastic, seat belts… no material is too much
Finding expression through fashion as a young person can take you down many a rambling path – from small epiphanies, to the occasional disaster, but there is no right answer. I remember when I had graduated from high school after two personally gruelling years, and decided I wanted to be a different, bolder person – to express myself more freely. A year down the line and I was happily sporting green eyeshadow paired with a thick green jumper, and dark metal Indian jhumkas on my ears on a crisp, chilly day in UK; a look I remember because it was my attempt to comfort myself when homesick, with bright colours and a reminder of home. Even today, an unusual, challenging look works wonders to keep my woes away.
Other than help you find your personal style, fashion can also make bold statements for social causes. Armour recalls some participants who had come up with unexpected ideas, tackling uncomfortable subjects they cared about with bravery. He says, “There were kids talking about road safety, and the dress was made out of seat belts because they’d lost somebody in their family from a car accident.
“This one girl wanted to make a dress out of bullets, because she wanted to show that something that is so destructive, could also be beautiful. That this was a more beautiful use for it, than to put it in guns to shoot people.”
The 2012 Winner of the Junk Kouture World Designer of the Year award, Katie Brill, had made a dress entirely out of orange peels. It was titled ‘Rejuicing is Appealing’ and was made after she found a way to make leather out of orange peel. Armour adds, “And that’s the innovation of a 16 year old.” Junk Kouture will take place in the UAE too, with almost 50 schools signed up, and UAE students modelled various such dresses at Expo 2020.
Armour says, “There’s so many stories like that [Rachel Irwin’s]. A young guy from rural Ireland was asked after one year [of winning at Junk Kouture] – he was at the Royal film premiere in London, he was at Cannes Film Festival – and they asked him, ‘Wow, these are huge things – but what was the biggest thing?’ And he said, ‘The biggest thing for me was that I found my personality.’
Suhail adds, “Creativity through fashion is a powerful outlet which allows kids the freedom to learn about themselves, who they are and what they enjoy.”
The drive for sustainability
There’s also another reason why it is important for youth to consciously engage with fashion early – the need for sustainability amidst social media encouraging unhealthy fashion consumption. Big fast fashion retailers are known to drop a mind-boggling 700 to 5000 new styles in a single week, circulated in millions of social media posts that generate enormous social pressure for impressionable teens. It seems to be time to yet again shop for the trendiest look of the season – a cycle that often leaves a trail of unethical labour practices and environmental damages.
Armour reminisces on growing up in Ireland in the 1980s, washing out jam jars to put pens in and painting over packaging boxes – a time when reusing was the only acceptable way. He says, “My point is that kids nowadays are going to stores to buy plastic things to put their pens in. All I’m trying to do is get people to see that we don’t have to buy things all the time. But we don’t want to put it in a bin either – these things can have other uses.” Such as – become a beautiful dress at Junk Kouture too.
Suhail summarizes it for us: “It is important to involve youth here in the UAE in sustainable fashion as I believe the UAE is a fast paced, ambitious region making its way to be one of the next powerhouses for fashion on a global level. As creativity and passion for the arts grows more in this region, it is crucial to give the youth here a platform to learn about the importance of sustainable fashion as well as express their creative side.”
It is important to involve youth here in the UAE in sustainable fashion as I believe the UAE is a fast paced, ambitious region making its way to be one of the next powerhouses for fashion on a global level. As creativity and passion for the arts grows more in this region, it is crucial to give the youth here a platform to learn about the importance of sustainable fashion as well as express their creative side.
– Khairunisa Suhail, Head of design, The Giving Movement
Armour recommends encouraging youth to wear clothes at least 30 times, and to avoid viewing fashion as having 52 seasons – instead, considering 26 seasons, or every two weeks, to cut consumption by 50 per cent. Here’s a guide on sustainable fashion as well. Armour says about Junk Kouture participants, “The way I see it – these kids will innovate the sustainable solutions we need for the future.”
Creativity, self-expression, sustainability – fashion is the whole package and for the Gen Z-er in your life, it can be a transformative journey of fun and self-discovery.