by Jennifer McNally
photo by Rene Treece
Yes, opportunity knocks, but these days, it can also make a little electronic “ding.” In this case, Asheville clothing designer Moe Donnelly was sitting at her laptop in late May when she got an email from a cast member from the TV show Project Runway. The person had seen Donnelly’s work online and thought she would make a good candidate for Season 7 of the show. “At first I was convinced it was junk,” Donnelly says, admitting she didn’t even respond to the email for days. “Then I got very excited. Then really nervous.”
A week later, Donnelly drove to Atlanta, made it through a round of interviews and walked into a taped audition with a panel of judges that included the show’s fashion guru Tim Gunn. In an instant, she realized the judges were less than thrilled with her signature garb: funky, vintage-inspired pieces that can be dressed up or down, some made with new fabrics but many made from recycled fabric and scraps. A bit of soft cotton jersey here, a little purple plaid rayon there, and voila, you get a one-of-a-kind Sew Moe creation. “It was clear they were looking for new construction from the first stages, something more ‘high couture,’” she says. She was doubly surprised at their disdain for her recycled pieces, since Season 3 of the show was all about making clothes from recyclable materials. “They were not looking for everyday clothes,” she says.
But lucky for Moe and a handful of other WNC designers, Asheville’s haute couture is all about scraps. Recycled and earth-friendly fabrics couldn’t be more au courant in an area so full of artsy types and DIYers. And there’s good evidence that now “recycled couture,” which is both earth-friendly and recession-friendly, is everywhere. Cities around the country have staged “recycled fashion” shows with names like Junk to Funk (Portland);
Discarded to Divine (San Francisco); and last fall’s earth-friendly New York show, Be Eco Chic. Santa Fe artist Nancy Judd, who’s been making arty outfits out of garbage for years, got a chance to debut a “green” cocktail dress, made entirely from Obama campaign posters, at January’s $500-a-ticket Green Inaugural Ball. Afterwards, newspapers and other news outlets around the country hailed the “trashion trend.”
To be sure, a recycled outfit may not suit everyone—especially if your idea of a good time does not include wearing a dress made entirely of pieces of colorful junk mail. But there’s no doubt about it, WNC’s trendsetters and tastemakers have embraced recycled fashion, which is a tremendous opportunity (no matter what sound it makes) for these three designers and others.
For Myah Hubbell, the true charm of recycled design is in the backstory. “When I’m working with vintage pieces—and everything I look at, really—I like to think about where it has been and where it came from. I think it’s beautiful when you can turn objects that have already had a history into another creation that’s going to have its own history.”
Hubbell got her start in design nearly ten years ago, creating complex costumes for the Surreal Circus, an Asheville performance art troupe—no formal training whatsoever. As people began to notice her work, she found herself with custom orders for real clothing, which soon transitioned into her own company, Recyclone Designs. In her early days, Hubbell’s work was known for having an almost other-worldly quality. But in the last year, her garments have become more sophisticated, evolving into what she’s temporarily calling “futuristic bohemian pretty.”
Her goal is to create special, one-of-a-kind pieces with an everyday wearability. But in doing that, she has started to need larger pieces of material, making it almost impossible to use only the scraps of deconstructed clothing. She does take care, though, to buy only scrap fabric bolts, making use of the dregs of what the fabric industry leaves behind.
“Our society seems to be out of control in terms of endless consumerism. There are enough things in the world. No need to create more,” she says. “Instead of having a ton of clothing from the mall that they halfway like, a lot of my customers have decided they want to buy a few, very special, nice things. And they like knowing the person who made them.”
Donnelly describes her style as “neo-classical.” She likes taking parts of eras past—the bustles from the Victorian age, the boyish charm of the 1920s flapper era—and incorporating them into her own modern designs. Some outfits are fancy, some basic, some incorporate humorous touches like fabric covered in red monkey heads. Overall, most dresses and sweaters are in the “functional fashion” category. “My market is definitely the working woman,” she says.
Recently, Donnelly has started to transition into using bamboo fabrics. The bad part: bamboo’s price tag. Raw fabric can range from $8.99 a yard to $20 a yard, compared to, say, cotton jersey at $3.99 a yard. The good part: bamboo is one of the most eco-friendly materials available—fast-growing and requiring minimal pesticides, it thrives in tight spaces and produces fabric known for wicking moisture in summer and insulating in winter.
These days, Donnelly is just working to keep up with the brisk business she does through her online store at etsy.com. Her long-term goal is to steer the catalogue portion of her work toward a 100 percent bamboo line, and to supplement with sustainable fabrics like organic cotton and hemp. And she’ll always keep up her one-of-a-kind pieces made from scrap—no matter what those Project Runway judges think. “I have no hard feelings, but I know I don’t want to do it again,” she says of the audition process. “I still watch the show religiously, but I know now I don’t want any part of it.”
Alanna Hibbard starts listing her inspirations, dropping each like an alien missile in a friendly game of Space Invaders. “I enjoy retro pieces,” she says. “I’m into new technologies. Science fiction. Interstellar travel. Imaginary technologies. Space-age theory. High fantasy. Intergalactic visualization. Time travel.” And then finally: “I like utilitarian design,” she says, out of ammunition for now. “But I don’t like boring.”
And boring she is not. Working on her clothing line POUTfits from perhaps the smallest studio in Asheville (think short hallway with walls and a door), Hibbard sets a techno playlist in motion and gets to work bringing old fashion to new life. A plan isn’t always necessary for her work. Originality, however, is a must.
With their angular lines and mixed fabrics, Alanna’s designs have an undeniable space-age appeal. Made from super soft vintage material (she’s extremely picky in this category), she thinks of them as “comfortable high fashion,” ideal for party situations, or any occasion that calls for a dash of freaky fabulous.
One of her most clever creations is the hooded, fully reversible, one-piece mini-skirt. (She felt extra smart when she came up with that one.) And then there are her shrugs. Minimalist by design, the “jackets” are little more than sleeves and a hood—small enough to be folded and fit into one’s purse or pocket.
When it comes to her target market, Hibbard knows the people who appreciate her designs. She’ll tell you straight out, she’s aiming to reach “the weirder people.” “There are plenty of nice dresses out there,” she says. “My work is something all together different.”
Clothing by Moe Donnelly, Alanna Hibbard and Myah Hubbell is on sale at Honeypot, 86 North Lexington Avenue in downtown Asheville, 828-225-0304. Hubbell’s clothes are also at Woolworth Walk, 25 Haywood Street in downtown Asheville, 828-254-9234. Online, check out the designers’ handiwork at sewmoe.com or poutfits.com, or call Recyclone Designs at 828-216-1936.
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