.. that’ll keep your teens oc­cu­pied

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As the drum and bass beat starts up and the coloured spot­lights scan the stage, my heart con­tracts. I’m sit­ting a few rows back from the front of the stage at the He­lix in Dublin. Be­hind me are packed banks of teenagers, the air around them throb­bing with ex­cite­ment – a scream­ing, Snapchat­ting, smart­phone-flash­ing mob. I’m one of a hand­ful of adults in the au­di­to­rium, most of the oth­ers are teach­ers. I fid­dle ner­vously with the press pass around my neck – my ex­cuse for be­ing here. My real rea­son is that my teenage son’s out­fit ‘Pop of Colour’ is com­pet­ing in the Con­naught Re­gional Fi­nals of Bank of Ire­land Junk Kou­ture 2018. I’m hav­ing a stage mom mo­ment. Much to his mor­ti­fi­ca­tion. ‘You just keep find­ing new ways to em­bar­rass me?’ he com­plains when I grab him for a photo opp be­fore the show. ‘I’m creative,’ I quip. While we wait for the show to start I keep out of his way, en­joy­ing cor­po­rate nib­bles in the hos­pi­tal­ity room, chat­ting with teach­ers from all over the coun­try

dis­cussing the com­pe­ti­tion. The Bower in Athlone has ten fi­nal­ists and are hot favourites. Moate is an­other big con­tender.

In just eight years, Junk Couture has turned it­self into The X Fac­tor of the Ir­ish school art de­part­ment cal­en­dar. In fact, this year they even have Louis Walsh as a judge in the fi­nal.

I’m in­tro­duced to Troy Ar­mour, Bank of Ire­land Junk Couture’s CEO and joint founder. The suc­cess­ful com­puter en­tre­pre­neur started the com­pe­ti­tion eight years ago after com­ing across a teacher who was en­ter­ing a sim­i­lar com­pe­ti­tion. ‘I love good de­sign,’ he says. ‘I just wanted to cre­ate an op­por­tu­nity for young peo­ple to shine.’

So what at­tracted a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man to side­line into cre­ativ­ity? As a phil­an­thropic en­deav­our, its un­usual to say the least. ‘When you see the stan­dard of what they pro­duce, it’s ex­tra­or­di­nary,’ he says.

As par­ents we feel it, we know it, but truth­fully, there are very few out­lets for teenagers to show what they can do. Too young to work, too old for colour­ing com­pe­ti­tions, their life stage puts them in a no-man’s land of achieve­ment. They are ex­pected to go straight from star-charts on the fridge to the rigours of ex­ams, which are noth­ing but an ex­er­cise in earn­ing your place in adult­hood. Tran­si­tion Year gives them their first op­por­tu­nity to ven­ture into the adult world with work ex­pe­ri­ence, busi­ness projects and com­mu­nity work.

But, Junk Kou­ture is dif­fer­ent again. The

com­pe­ti­tion in­vites stu­dents of all se­condary school ages to cre­ate unique, orig­i­nal and in­no­va­tive out­fits us­ing only re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als. Peo­ple of my age who grew up watch­ing Blue Peter would as­sume this in­volves a great deal of tin foil, milk bot­tle tops and rather a lot of glue. Arty-craft stuff is fun but not much more than that. I have to ad­mit to a cer­tain amount of scep­ti­cism my­self. Nat­u­rally, I’m very im­pressed with the dress my son made out of white bin­lin­ers and glad that he has the mo­ti­va­tion to en­ter this com­pe­ti­tion, but at the end of the day, what is the ac­tual point? ‘Just watch the show,’ Troy tells me.

From the mo­ment the first con­tes­tants in the re­gional fi­nal come out on stage I get it. In Head Space, en­gi­neer­ing stu­dents have col­lab­o­rated with de­sign stu­dents to cre­ate, build and weld to­gether a mas­sive caged head­piece. Sec­tions of skirt are seem­ingly sus­pended in mid-air. Pre­sen­ta­tion Col­lege Tuam has made a pink and taupe dress coat/gown out of teabags that’s so orig­i­nal and stylish, I ac­tu­ally want to wear it.

Our Lady’s Bower – with those im­pres­sive ten fi­nal­ists – sends a girl out in a coat made from sym­met­ri­cally cut pieces of milk car­tons. At­tached to­gether with small bits of wire, it’s so sturdy, she throws off the coat to re­veal a

match­ing jump­suit and does a hip-hop rou­tine! It’s noth­ing short of amaz­ing. The mes­sage? Give teenagers mo­ti­va­tion and a bit of back­ing and they will per­form mir­a­cles. They will, lit­er­ally, turn trash into some­thing beau­ti­ful.

A few months ago, while my son was work­ing on his de­sign, we called in to see my old school­friend Lou Bren­nan. Lou is a tex­tile de­signer who worked with Alexan­der McQueen just after they both left col­lege. Among her claims to fame is that she did the wail­ing on McQueen’s first cat­walk show, ‘Ban­shee’.

Lou de­signs her own range of scarves in silks and cash­mere, so I was afraid she might turn her nose up at Leo’s box of bin bags and rub­ber gloves. Far from it. Over cof­fee she ex­plains why Junk Couture is a bril­liant de­sign con­cept.

‘Work­ing for de­sign­ers in the 1990s, es­pe­cially for the first few sea­sons in busi­ness, with­out the big mills be­hind them we had to be in­no­va­tive with tex­tiles,’ she says. ‘Fi­bre glass resin from car re­pair work­shops helped build bodices. I once made a ball­gown for Bjork out of “tyke”, a pa­per re­served for Royal Mail en­velopes, and it’s now in the V&A col­lec­tion. We used plas­tic lace table­top fab­ric to make suits, and cre­ated shoes out of cling film and sel­l­otape. Years later, these

de­sign­ers were cre­at­ing Per­spex shoes at top Ital­ian fac­to­ries and hav­ing their own bonded lace pro­duced. Junk Kou­ture frees up young de­sign­ers to end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties. Fash­ion aside, think­ing cre­atively is a skill in it­self. Creative peo­ple see prob­lems not as road­blocks but as op­por­tu­ni­ties. That’s some­thing that all em­ploy­ers are look­ing for these days.’

Last year, Maruiz Malon from Scoil Mhuire in Bun­crana be­came the first male over­all win­ner on his third time en­ter­ing. The vic­tory earned him two schol­ar­ships, to Lim­er­ick School of Art & De­sign and Grif­fith Col­lege in Dublin, which also spon­sors a place on its BA in fash­ion de­sign.

Jane Leavey, pro­gramme di­rec­tor of Grif­fith Col­lege, tells me: ‘Bank of Ire­land Junk Kou­ture of­fers stu­dents real op­por­tu­ni­ties to un­der­stand the col­lab­o­ra­tive na­ture of fash­ion work, but also teaches them about sus­tain­abil­ity, which is so im­por­tant to the fu­ture of fash­ion.’

Fash­ion de­signer and for­mer win­ner Stephen McLaugh­lin is also on the judg­ing panel this year and he agrees. ‘Win­ning the com­pe­ti­tion re­ally gave me the hunger, de­sire and con­fi­dence to study fash­ion. It’s the pre­fect step­ping stone to jump­start your ca­reer.’

Ad­vice from River­dance en­tre­pre­neur Moya Do­herty and spon­sor­ship from Bank of Ire­land has en­abled Troy to de­velop the com­pe­ti­tion out of its hum­ble beginnings in lo­cal ho­tels and into a glit­ter­ing, pro­fes­sion­ally-pro­duced show at the He­lix. Light­ing and stag­ing does jus­tice to the stu­dents’ work – this is no am­a­teur pro­duc­tion.

But cen­tre stage are the teens. Be­hind us, a school from Long­ford seems to have brought half the county with them. I look up as their stu­dent leaves the stage with a mas­sive roar from the bal­cony, where they’re fran­ti­cally wav­ing ban­ners.

My son is the only en­try from his school this year and while we’re all de­lighted that he got through, we’re gob­s­macked at the com­pe­ti­tion. Storm Emma had wreaked such havoc that his model, Mary, couldn’t make it, but Sophia, a pe­tite fifth year, bravely steps in with a day’s no­tice. As she comes out on stage, I look around at the sim­mer­ing mass of hor­monal en­ergy sur­round­ing me. All that tal­ent, that hope, a feral en­ergy, the un­tram­melled ex­cite­ment of just be­ing to­gether and be­ing cen­tre stage.

As a jaded, tired adult I feel the priv­i­lege of be­ing in­side that feel­good fog of be­ing young. But I’m also aware that one thing has led to us be­ing here in this en­er­getic, creative space – op­por­tu­nity. Be­side me, Troy’s feet are tap­ping to the beat and he’s smil­ing proudly.

Pop of Colour didn’t get through to the fi­nal but next year, we’re go­ing to nail it. Well, my son and Cather­ine, his art teacher, are go­ing to nail it!

In the mean­time, I man­age to cadge a lift with The Teen on the bus home to Mayo. As long as I sit near the front...

THE grand fi­nal of Bank of Ire­land Junk Kou­ture takes place in 3Arena on April 19, with 80 stu­dents com­pet­ing to be crowned 2018 win­ner. Visit junkkou­

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