Every component of this event has a journey," Elizabeth Underwood says about Worn Again Nola3, and she isn't joking. Roughly a month before the sustainable-minded fashion show and Recycle For the Arts' (R4A) third-annual fundraiser, the R4A program director is on the second floor of the Green Project's Marais Street headquarters, helping Worn Again co-founder Garyt Shiflett piece together six reclaimed lightboxes into what will become the show's modular stage.
Days earlier in this same space, the pair spent an eight-hour shift stuffing mounds of thrift-store detritus into 70 recycled white-cloth duffel bags, each marked with a design of the number 3 fashioned from two adjoined sewing machines and stenciled with recycled house paint. Even the music for the Recycled Dance Competition after-party — mash-up remixes by DJs Karo and Bees Knees — is reused. "It means a lot for the event that everything sets a little bit of an example," Shiflett says.
Underwood, an area artist and director of the nonprofit AORTA Projects, took the reins from previous R4A captain Karen Kempf in March and is getting her first taste of Worn Again's save-everything ethos. "I'm a firm believer that everything is material, and that everything is valuable," she says. "You can keep reusing something and keep imbuing it with value and life. Especially in a post-disaster landscape. Taking the abject and saying that it's actually got value, that it's worth paying attention to and worth respecting — I feel like that's in direct correlation to what Recycle For the Arts does."
Out of a back office at the Green Project, R4A operates a "trash-to-art storefront" with neatly organized reclaimed supplies available on the cheap. So cheap, in fact, that Worn Again's modest profits — typically around $2,000 to $3,000; this year's goal is $5,000 — provide most of the steam to keep it running. "Green Project is kind of floating Recycle For the Arts," Underwood admits. "This money helps me with community outreach; it helps me with the straight-up work of getting donations, increasing the quality of donations."
Shiflett, credited by Underwood as "the creative mastermind of Worn Again," conceived the show for an art-school assignment at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2003. "We had to come up with [a fundraiser] for a nonprofit," he says. "I wanted an event that's realistic. Anti-sweatshops was the one I picked. I was thinking, 'If it's a nonprofit, they don't have any money. Let's recycle everything.'"
Relocated to New Orleans after college, Shiflett and co-founder Anna Virginia brought the Worn Again model to Kempf. The two previous iterations, while successful, were loosely structured affairs that resembled a free-for-all party more than a business event, something Underwood aims to modify for Worn Again Nola3. "There have been these levels that I wanted to take it to but didn't know how to get there," Shiflett says. "Elizabeth is not afraid to ask people for more."
"It was much more casual," Underwood says of previous events. "Though that has a certain charm, and we don't want to alienate people who need to function that way, I believe in order to ensure the sustainability of Worn Again, we have to give it some structure. So this year, even though it's approximately the same amount of people who registered, because they had to go through such a rigorous process — the resume, the artist statement, paying a higher fee to be in the professional category — that we had a larger number who went through that process is very encouraging. It tells me that the community wants this. We're going to make it worth their while."
New additions for 2009 include a distinction between amateurs and professionals (the latter can't use glue guns); structured, juried voting criteria (on technical sewing skills, wearability, innovative use of materials and creativity); and a patron party at which 10 of the 65 contestants will discuss their wares and offer them for sale via silent auction. From the 10, winners will be picked in the categories of best professional, best amateur and best in show.
Last year's champion, Sarah Dunn, spun old upholstery fabric into golden-shimmering haute couture. Shiflett and Underwood expect similarly magical metamorphoses from this year's cocoons, the contents of which came from a mix of personal donations and castoffs from used clothing stores Funky Monkey and Buffalo Exchange. Sample contents might be jeans, khakis, a leather miniskirt, two T-shirts, a satin nightgown and a headband.
"It made me kind of sad," Underwood says. "What would happen to this stuff if we weren't doing [Worn Again]? We had a roomful, stuff they've been sitting on. But as the night went on, and we're putting stuff in these bags, I'm thinking, 'Wow, we're actually giving this a new life.'"
Up to 10 percent outside materials are allowed, so long as everything is reused. But the items themselves often hold untold tools. Designers have been known to extract everything from thread to buttons, Underwood says. "We give them full pieces of clothing, so they can take out zippers, anything they want. That would increase their chances of impressing the jury."
Most of all, Worn Again hopes to impress upon people the possibilities of creative recycling. "You have to show people examples that blow their mind to make them see the relevance of it," Shiflett says. "You can't just keep giving them the same thing over and over again. There's no limit to it. It's not just about cutting a sleeve off a shirt and sewing it to another shirt. It's really taking these things and (making) art."
"[There's a] misconception that recycled art has to be cobbled together in a sort of nonpermanent way," Underwood adds. "You know, 'It's just for Mardi Gras,' or 'It's OK if it falls apart.' I feel that Worn Again is trying to change that perception and raise the idea of what you can do with recycled materials — that it can actually be something that sustains itself. That's what we're trying to do with the event itself. ... Every component of the event is a perpetuation of the ethics of the event."
Even down to recycling aesthetic themes. "This year's is kitschy bordello," Underwood says. "It's going to be so sexy."
And last year's? "Kitschy bordello," Shiflett says, grinning.
Worn Again Nola3
6:30 p.m. patron party; 8 p.m. fashion show; Sat., July 18
Howlin' Wolf, 907 S. Peters St., 522-9653; www.thehowlinwolf.com
Tickets $50 patron party (includes show), $15 show only