High “garbage”! A brief history of fashion’s love affair with trash

Artist's touch: model Shalom Harlow is spray-painted by robots (Shalom-Harlow)

Artist’s touch: model Shalom Harlow is spray-painted by robots (Shalom-Harlow)

Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga has never shied away from controversy. This week, the internet is seething with criticism over the self-proclaimed “world’s most expensive trash bag,” which first appeared at Balenciaga’s AW22 catwalk show back in March, which Gvasalia dedicated to Ukraine’s refugees.

The bag itself is a calfskin version of the typical black bin bag and has now gone on sale for $1,790 (around £1,500).

Balenciaga's new handbag has been compared to a dustbin (Balenciaga)

Balenciaga’s new handbag has been compared to a dustbin (Balenciaga)

In May, the fashion house faced similar controversy when it released its “ruined trainers” – beaten up, muddy and falling apart – which sold for $1,850 (around £1,500) a pair. While Gvasalia has moved on from items that should be in the trash and instead turned to the trash itself for inspiration, he’s far from the first designer to base couture around what you might find in a tip.

I’m not talking about upcycling here. London in particular has an amazing array of talented young designers pushing for sustainability in fashion: Helen Kirkum, Ahluwalia, Bethany Williams, Paolina Russo and Tolu Coker to name a few. But this article is not about them, nor about sustainable materials and practices. I’m talking shit. Rubbish, trash, actual waste. Clothes that have been destroyed on purpose. Garments that were once beautiful were deliberately twisted into something with a more poignant meaning or purpose.

With the help of the grunge aesthetic, the nineties had a particular fascination with destroyed clothes. Towards the beginning of the decade, one designer put himself at the forefront of both our minds and nostrils. Mold is generally avoided by most people (unless you’re on a piece of stilton), but for Cypriot fashion designer Hussein Chalayan, it was the goal of the game.

Models never quite know what they’re going to get at the Central Saint Martins graduate show. When Chalayan showed his collection in 1993, I can’t imagine they were overjoyed to discover they’d be stomping the runway wearing rotten, oxidized rags. Months before, Chalayan buried his entire collection in a friend’s yard, only to uncover it days before the final show. Entitled ‘The Tangent Flows’, his ambition was to highlight the beauty of decay. To this day, he remains one of London Fashion Week’s most legendary, innovative designers.

During the same year, Lee Alexander McQueen also showed his debut fashion collection. Long before Balenciaga’s “garbage bag,” McQueen lugged his possessions around in garbage bags out of necessity. ‘Taxi Driver’ AW93 was his first collection after graduation and was displayed at the Ritz. After the show, McQueen and friend Simon Ungless quickly packed the entire collection into bin bags before heading to a party to celebrate editor Michael Roberts. Instead of paying the locker fee, McQueen and Ungless decided to store the trash bags behind some trash cans around the side of the building. When they left the party, the bags had been taken. Nothing of that collection remains today.

McQueen in particular had a penchant for destroying his own creations. Taking something perfect and tearing it up, making it as ugly as possible – in beautiful, fascinating ways. One of the most famous examples of this is his infamous ‘spray paint dress’, part of his spring 1999 collection entitled ‘No. 1. 3’. The only moment that ever made McQueen cry at one of his own shows was when model and dancer Shalom Harlow spun between two mechanical arms that sprayed her white dress with thick flecks of black and yellow paint. He had robots graffiti his collection, and it became one of the most memorable moments in fashion show history.

Alexander McQueen and Shalom Harlow backstage at his spring 1999 show (Alexander McQueen)

Alexander McQueen and Shalom Harlow backstage at his spring 1999 show (Alexander McQueen)

Before this in 1998, Issey Miyake had a similar idea. Imagine a white, sleeveless column dress. Now imagine burying it under explosives and lighting a match. That’s exactly what the Japanese designer did in 1998 when he collaborated with Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who used gunpowder to burn images of dragons into the Pleats Please collection. It’s a spectacle, then worth watching if you haven’t seen it before (skip to 6m 20). These pieces, scorched by dark, explosive spatter, are now worth around £3,000 each.

Burning also became part of Jeremy Scott’s Moschino AW16 collection – inspired, of course, by cigarettes. Models including Anna Cleveland walked the runway as their dresses glowed, smoke billowing from their skirts as the edges curled and burned. Many of Scott’s Moschino collections certainly include items that could also be found in the bin, but for his AW17 collection, he literally sent a model dressed as an American bin down the runway. Her black latex dress was made to look like the trash can, while her hat was (literally) a large silver container lid.

    (MOSCHINO AW17)

(MOSCHINO AW17)

Personally, my own favorite ‘trashion’ story belongs to John Galliano, who in 1985 showed his legendary Fallen Angels collection. Moments before the models were to walk the runway, Galliano made a snap decision that the shoes were too clean. He demanded that they all go outside and drag their shoes through the mud. Patrick Cox, who had put blood, sweat and tears into making the shoes, confronted Galliano with the decision: “Don’t worry, they’re worth more money now because they’re designer mud, dear,” was Galliano’s reply.

Whether it’s clothes that belong in the trash or fashion inspired by trash, Balenciaga isn’t the first and won’t be the last to take from the trash. But whether it is in good taste to charge so much for an object inspired by and dedicated to people displaced by war is up for debate.

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