Junk Kouture goes global as fashionistas embrace recycling

Lockdown has forced the Irish student fashion show to go online – and onto the world stage

Clothes made from plastic cutlery, bike gears, old aprons, recycled glass and Barbie dolls are just some of the materials used by teenage creatives to be unleashed next week at the grand final of the annual Junk Kouture fashion competition for schools around Ireland. The fashion extravaganza, usually held in the 3Arena before an audience of thousands, takes place instead with a film aired on RTÉ2 for the first time. The wild, superstar creations made by post-primary Irish students from 12-18 years from recycled junk now has an alternative, televised, modern format to counter the effects of the pandemic.

Junk Kouture began 10 years ago as a small independent fashion competition for local secondary schools in the northwest of Ireland by Buncrana-based entrepreneurs Troy Armour and Elizabeth O’Donnell. A “highly driven” philanthropist and tech company founder, Armour – along with O’Donnell – set up the project for second-level, predominantly art students, challenging them to create fashion outfits recycled from everyday junk and discarded waste. When 200 entrants turned up in City Hall in Derry for the first competition, it was clear that there was real enthusiasm for the idea.

Since then the sustainability and design contest, which incorporates fashion, art and engineering, has taken on a life of its own in Ireland, north and south, capturing the imagination of some 100,000 students in more than 52 per cent of schools every year and culminating in a highly publicised, high-energy grand final in the 3Arena with celebrity judges Louis Walsh and American DJ Michelle Visage.

Expansion plans

Junk Kouture has now ambitious expansion plans to give Generation Z a worldwide creative voice and drive home in other countries awareness of sustainability and climate change. Teams are already at work to facilitate this in France, Italy, the US, UK and UAE.

“We want to be similar to Formula 1 and bring the spectacle with 13 shows, one every three weeks, across seven continents,” says Rory Kelly, the company’s chief relationship officer.

With long experience in event and music management, he explains the strategy.

“As soon as you show people what Junk Kouture is, it gets their attention and we now feel these elements can be translated globally,” he says. Sponsorship and partnerships have already been secured with with RTÉ, Bright Energy, Waste2Wear and Creative Ireland – “companies who want to make a positive change,” adds Kelly.

Junk Kouture has certainly attracted the attention of young creatives looking for something other than sporting activities to generate teenage confidence. This is another way of empowering and inspiring them, according to Kelly.

After I did Junk Kouture, I changed quite a lot and became more extroverted. I think everyone should have something in their lives that drives them all the way

“What Junk Kouture does is present them with another way of gaining social capital. Our 2019 winner was Maxim O’Sullivan from Dingle and, after he won, the town wanted to set up a parade for him. These kids are the driving forces,” he says. “What it does is present them with a real platform showing what they can do and giving them a boost in confidence. It is driven by teachers and art teachers factoring in alternatives to life drawing.” Most items are made at home by the students individually or as a team.

O’Sullivan’s winning outfit, selected from 85 finalists, was entirely made from old videotapes, film reels, DVDs and other discarded items from his family’s cinema in Dingle, much of it hand-crocheted. “After I did Junk Kouture, I changed quite a lot and became more extroverted. I think everyone should have something in their lives that drives them all the way,” he said after the event.

Exposure

Others have benefited from the high-level exposure that the spectacle generates. Heather O’Connor, for example, went from Junk Kouture in 2012 to working with Ralph Lauren in New York and now designs for Diesel Ireland. Orla Hagen launched her own handbag line Orla Vera using leftover leather in her entirely plastic-free workshop having started in fashion with an internship with Sophia Webster in London. Another winner, Gráinne Wilson, now works with Joanne Hynes.

For Troy Armour, the idea behind setting up Junk Kouture was the hope that it would reach a scale of the Young Scientist of the Year competition. Its success has a special meaning for him as it has changed attitudes to students without academic abilities, releasing their creative sides in spectacular ways. “All of a sudden kids were coming out of the woodwork, all of sudden discovering that they were good at making things.”

He admits that he was also a “big maker of things. I was known as Homestead at school because I made everything – sewing, knitting, go-karts – and in my hands cornflake boxes became castles. I did all the art homeworks [of others in the family].  If you are into sport there are so many outlets – you can win medals, you can be a champion, but if you are not good at these things, you are just a nobody and I felt on the outside. I was told there was no career in art and it was only after three years of studying accountancy that I realised it was not for me. Junk Kouture was born out of a need to create a hobby for myself, so it’s a homestead person meeting the fashionista. My goal in life is to change attitudes [to art and design]. We live our life in clothes and they are a great way of expressing who we are.”

As for aspiring to Formula 1 level for Junk Kouture, he has his own ideas.

"Formula l is about colour, fashion, energy, noise – cars are the least of it and you just have to be part of it. We can change the world through our ideas."

The Junk Kouture Grand Finale is on RTÉ2 at 7pm on Thursday, February 4th

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