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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Recycle Runway: the art of turning garbage into beautiful garments

If you've been through the Atlanta airport lately, chances are, you noticed the dress in the picture above. Well, I did. And I had to stop and look. And since I had a tight connection, I couldn't stop for too long, so I wrote down the words "Recycle Runway," and Googled them the next day. And that's how I met Nancy Judd and her incredible work.

Nancy is an artist and a fashion designer like no other. Why? Because all of her garments are made from recycled materials: cereal boxes, aluminum cans, paper, and even rusty nails. Her work is part of the Smithsonian permanent collection and, besides the Atlanta airport, it has been on display at the airports of Pittsburgh, Albuquerque, and Phoenix. Her mission? By turning rejected things into elegant fashion, Nancy educates the public about sustainable living. I was so awed by her work and mission that I knew I had to have Nancy come over to CHIMERAS and tell us her story. And I was thrilled when she agreed!

It's such an honor to be talking with you, Nancy. How did you get started designing fashions from recyclables?

I made my first recycled fashion in 1998-- while working as the recycling coordinator for the City of Santa Fe, I realized that art and fashion could be used to raise the consciousness of the public about recycling in a fun and positive way. I started an event called the Recycle Santa Fe Art Market that is still going strong! The opening night always features a recycled fashion contest and I would make a dress every year to promote the contest. Soon I had a wonderful collection of recycled garments, and I started to get invited by other recycling coordinators around the country to give recycled fashion shows in their communities.

I am intrigued by your "crime scene" dress. Where did you get the idea?

Over a year ago I asked my cousin, Grant, and my friend, Michele, who are both police officers, if they would save “police tape” from crime scenes for me. Within about 6 months I received big tangles of yellow tape, some with stories I did not want hear. It is made from police tape that reads: “Crime Scene Do Not Enter”. At first I thought it would be an edgy and fun garment, but soon I realized that this piece is very serious… for me it’s the most provocative work of art that I have ever created. It is about many forms and levels of violence: It is about sexual abuse. It is about the destructive effects of the fashion industry on the people who grow, sew and model clothing as well as those of us who are made to feel inadequate in numerous ways so as to “feed” the industry with consumers. It is about the destruction we have done to the body of mother earth. It is about the over 200 toxic chemicals deposited in each of our bodies from our poisoning of the earth.

No, this did not end up being a fun dress. But like many of my pieces it is deceptive. From afar people may find it to be an appealing design, and only upon closer inspection will they discover some of the deeper meanings.

Wow. It was intriguing to see the dress at the airport, but it's even more fascinating to hear the story behind it. What inspired you to start using recycled materials to create fashion garments?

From an artistic stand point, the challenge of transforming trash into elegant fashions is very exciting. I love watching people discover that what they thought was a glamorous dress, is made from garbage, and recycling classic styles from the 1900s-1950s works to enhance that juxtaposition.

As an environmental educator I can use the garments to initiate a deeper “conversation” with my audience about environmental stewardship in a creative context.

On a personal level, working with garbage has been an often unconscious way of working through emotional challenges.

How do you pick the materials to use and what was the most unusual material you have used so far?

I choose materials based upon the project. If the piece is sponsored by an organization then I use their materials, which they will often send to me. The Environmental Steward-ess is a recent example of this process. In other cases, I start with a waste product that I want to use and then design a garment that I think is well suited to the properties of that material. The Faux Fur Coat is a good example of that.

As for the most unusual things I've used, definitely car parts! Toyota commissioned me to dig through their recycling containers (note: they recycle betwen80%-95% of their garbage, so there is not much in their trash cans to choose from!). This garment proved to ME that I could make anything elegant… even car parts!

And indeed, it turned out fantastic -- check it out!

Have you considered doing other things (like home decor, utensils, etc) with recycled garbage, or are you pretty much sticking with fashion design?

No, for whatever reason my inspiration comes in the form of the garments, I don’t think I would make anything that interesting in other areas!

I am not interested in creating manufactured sellable items. My focus is using art to raise awareness about environmental issues. I love the challenge of making garbage beautiful, glamorous and sexy. By publicly displaying my recycled garments, I invite people to redefine their definition of waste, garbage and trash. I strive to transform the concept of “waste” into “resource” and encourage individual responsibility for the environment in a fun, playful and positive context.

What is the piece that you loved the most doing and why?

The piece that I am working in any given moment is always my favorite. I always have the most passion for my current project! My next project is a Toyota and Audubon Society fellowship called TogetherGreen. The project will engage at least 200 households—through sixth grade students from low-income under represented families in Santa Fe schools—in reducing energy use. The students will begin by recording baseline energy use in their homes, then they will be given a list of easy and no/low cost energy conservation actions they can implement with their families’ help. Participants will document implementation of these actions for a final report on the amount of energy saved and CO2 reduced. My plan is to incorporate this information into the recycled garment, which will be made of waste items related to energy conservation.

This is all so fascinating. Thank you so much, Nancy, for sharing your story with us today and, most importantly, for the mission you have taken over. I'm a strong believer in the proverb, "We don't inherit the Earth from our fathers, we borrow it from our children." As such, we all need to do our part in keeping our planet clean. I wish you all the best in your work and endeavors.

If you enjoyed reading about Nancy's work as much as I did, go check out her website: you can find out about her current projects, upcoming events, and you can browse the incredible collection of dresses. You'll be amazed at the beauty Nancy creates with the most incredible materials.


  1. Fascinating. Intriguing to read the ideas behind the art and discover (happily) that they are a lot deeper than gimmick :-)

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank _you_ for reading, glad you enjoyed it.

  2. So cool! I was just in Atlanta and this absolutely blew my mind, as did several other of her pieces. Very cool to get the back story on this work.

  3. WoW!!! I love Nancy Judd's work!!!

  4. Compost as much kitchen waste as possible, and keep it out of your green garbage bag. Besides, it's like gold for your gardens. This is probably one of the best recycling-tips there are.


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