‘Trash the Runway’ Brings a New Meaning to Sustainable Fashion

Common Threads’ Creative Lab takes upcycling to the next level with its program, Trash the Runway, made for students to explore the world of fashion design while being sustainable. This year, the show was held at The University of Colorado Boulder’s Macky Auditorium with a massive turnout to show off all of the creative and earth-friendly looks of the season. 

The program was created by Common Threads owner, Libby Alexander and Creative Lab mentor, Sarah Tracy. Common Threads, a boutique consignment shop with locations in both Boulder and Denver, also hosts Creative Lab, a program for people of all ages to take classes relating to sewing and fashion. Trash the Runway is one of the many workshops that Creative Lab hosts, but remains exclusive to middle and high school students. 

The initial event was made in collaboration with the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art for Earth Day. It started with only 9-10 students and slowly grew in numbers each year. In 2019, they officially named the program Trash the Runway and became a Colorado nonprofit corporation. The program is now directed and run by Tanja Leonard, a previous mom of a Trash the Runway designer. 

The challenge is anything but simple: design and create a wearable head-to-toe outfit entirely made of trash. Designers collect materials throughout the year but are only given a two-month time frame to put it all together. At the end of the process is a runway show to commemorate their hard work and show off their designs. 

Designers have specific criteria for the materials they are allowed to work with for their pieces. According to Leonard, the material can be used if it is “no longer useful for its original purpose and has to be disposed of in the trash.” Following the City of Boulder rules, the item cannot be one that goes into recycling or compost. Banned materials include duct tape, regular fabric, buttons and zippers. The only non-trash items they can use are glue and thread. 

The materials are entirely up to the designer to decide, but they must be “found” either in their own homes or through friends, they cannot be bought. If they need more of a specific material to work with, Leonard compiles a list and reaches out to people asking to collect materials. Given these guidelines, designers have no choice but to put immense creativity and care into their designs so they are both fashionable and functional. 

“They have to work through these issues and overcome the challenges to make something wearable,” Leonard said. “Every year the designers blow my mind with their creativity, resilience and ability to overcome adversity.”  

The program generates a great amount of local support from the community as shows typically have large audiences and plenty of sponsors. The community even made sure that the show went on during COVID with a virtual runway aired on the City of Boulder TV. 

“The local support has been tremendous, we would not be able to put on the show without it,” Leonard said. 

Year after year, the runway show sold out at Boulder Theater, so this year’s show moved to Macky Auditorium, where there was a massive turnout of 885 attendees. 

The runway featured looks using materials such as coffee bags, tractor tire inner tubes, swim caps, trampolines, butter wrappers, Whole Foods receipts and more. Despite their limited materials, designers have made fun and fitted dresses, pants, hats, jackets and more in all different styles and colors. The outfits are so well done that they even rival non-trash clothing. 

“It is amazing to see them grow: in their design sensibility, their creativity, their perseverance, their skill, and their stage presence,” Leonard said. 

Many students that participate in the program have come back year after year and typically go on to study in a design-related field following their graduation. 

The collection from this year’s show was displayed at the University of Colorado Boulder’s campus in the Museum of Natural History for the community to enjoy after the runway concluded. To see more of this year’s designs, check out the program’s Facebook and website

All photography by Vikki Wong.