THE RUBBISH IDEA...
.. that’ll keep your teens occupied
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 junkkouture.com