Junk kouture

The competition inspiring young people to create rubbish fashion

Orla O’Hagens’ design ‘Skin Deep’ is made from upcycled plastic

Thanks to Junk Kouture, young people are unleashing creative brilliance by creating sustainable couture from junk like old film reels, seat belts and coffee pods

I’m never going to look at a milk carton
the same way!

Michelle Visage, Junk Kouture judge

Imagine a phoenix rising from the ashes. But it’s made from 12,072 homemade paper feathers, painted, cut out and trimmed to appear as realistic as possible. And it’s designed by a 16-year old.

This couture might have been inspired by fashion designer Alexander McQueen, but it was made from IKEA mattress packaging, dust sheets and garden canes. 

At a time when the whole world seems hell-bent on throwing away, the pioneering souls behind Junk Kouture are doing the opposite. The now global youth sustainability fashion competition challenges young people to design, create and model high end couture from everyday junk. Nothing is too random. Think: plastic sanitary wrappers, a mannequin bust, ATM receipts, living moss and even an old trampoline.

Everyday junk gets reborn with a new purpose and destiny

Now hitting its 13h year, and constantly-evolving, Junk Kouture has established itself as the premier recycled fashion competition for teenagers and is getting a global reputation, all the while creating “circular engineers”.

The fashion design competition is paving the way for circular fashion

Second-level pupils aged from 13 to 18 are invited to create wearable art and outrageous couture trash fashion. The challenge is to rework ‘junk’ – like vinyl records, cattle tags, orange peels and old computer hard drives – and to craft them into eye-catching bespoke designs. Using only recycled materials, students embark on a nine-month programme of innovation and creation, with the grand hope of qualifying for a spot on the Junk Kouture stage. 

And the finalist might just turn up the next Alexander McQueen. In 2016, a junk dress and headpiece called Skin Deep made from upcycled plastic designed by Orla O’Hagens led to her creating her own footwear and accessories brand, Orla Vera Accessories.

Junk Kouture was created in 2010 by entrepreneurs Elizabeth Curran and Troy Armour to encourage people to create art. It is really a subtle education in the importance of collecting rubbish. “Junk Kouture doesn’t just inspire outstanding creativity in young people, but also highlights the importance of environmentally aware behaviour and mindfulness of how much we consume and how much we throw away,” Armour explains.

“Creativity has the power to address and pull back our planet from the greatest crisis it’s ever faced. We really recognise that by nurturing young people’s mindsets and talents, it can make a massive impact,” says Katie Brill, who now works as the Senior Vice President of PR and Communications at Junk Kouture. She and her team were the 2012 regional winner and Glamour Award winner of the Junk Kouture Grand Final with their design, ‘Re’Juicing is Ap’Peeling’, which was made out of orange peels.

At age 16, she was inspired to enter the competition after witnessing what happened to the food waste in her town. She diligently collected orange peels and processed them into the leather-like material that would later become her award-winning design.

In Ireland, where the competition started, over half of the secondary schools in the country take part in the contests, which has become an everyday part of school life. Junk Kouture has even been compared to The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in the UK or the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the US. But the platform is more than a design competition: it’s a way to engage today’s youth in climate action, to change the way we look at fashion and waste, and to come up with creative solutions to tackle the climate crisis.

Junk Kouture’s Rory Kelly accepts the 2022 Ocean Hero award won by Junk Kouture at the Footprint Sustainability Summit in Phoenix, Arizona

In 2021, Junk Kouture went global, launching in five additional cities, London, Paris, Milan, NYC and Abu Dhabi with a ten-year goal to enrich and empower the lives of a billion young people across 13 cities throughout the world. Troy Armour, CEO and founder of Junk Kouture said, “No one ever changed the world by being the same as anyone else.

No one ever changed the world by being the same as anyone else.

Troy Armour, Junk Kouture

Growing up broke in rural Northern Ireland, Armour used to make “rubbish” into art. He would paint empty cereal boxes or sew a karate suit for his brother using his mother’s old dusters. After a breakthrough moment at MIT, he began thinking of Junk Kouture as “the sport for creative kids”.

This year, on 11 January, 18-year old Joshua Osabuehien and 17-year old Solomon Eduard made history when the two Irish students won the first ever ‘World Sustainable Designer of the Year’ at the first Junk Kouture World Final in Abu Dhabi Their ‘Back to the Future’ design is a futuristic coat of armour.

“The planet is on the brink. The risk is real. If we continue to consume and power our lives the way we do now then our forests, oceans and weather systems will collapse,” the entrants said. “We need to go back in time and live sustainably and reconnect with our planet in order to have a future. If not, then it is survival of the fittest for the food we eat, the water we drink and the very air we breathe.”

Dedicated to encouraging creativity, self-expression and spreading environmental awareness, this was the first time that the sustainable fashion design competition had ever been held on a global stage. “Tackling climate change and promoting sustainable practices has never been more important,” Armour said, “and our team is now looking forward to reaching and empowering more young people through Junk Kouture 2023.”

What’s so good about this?

Junk Kouture is on a mission not just to reuse rubbish but to change teens’ mindsets about the environment — and to set that all on the global event stage. Anything that draws attention to the unstoppable rise of fast-paced, mass-manufactured clothing, all made by severely underpaid garment workers using environmentally unfriendly materials is the right way forward for a cleaner, better future.

Meet the writer

Lisa Goldapple is the creative brain behind the world of TOPIA. The magazine’s Editor-in-chief has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. Today her desk faces the trippy side of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which might explain a few things. To understand how TOPIA came out of this rare brain, read ‘Mind Blown’. As she puts it: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”

Follow @lisagoldapple on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. (Open to freelance collaborations.)

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