From Rags to Riches: Upcycled T-Shirts Go Couture

Angela Johnson, designer of costure t-shirt ballgowns

Perform a quick web search for “upcycled t-shirts” and you’ll find websites with DIY tutorials on turning t-shirts into, well, let’s face it–a ripped-up version of the same t-shirt. There’s a lot of cutting and slashing, but not a lot of true garment construction. Angela Johnson’s website is the notable exception–she takes her tees seriously. She’s been transforming your neglected Wu Tang Clan and “Save the Whales” crew necks into beautifully constructed couture ball gowns for the past decade.

That’s right. Ball gowns.

Couture ballgown made entirely of vintage t-shirts

Photographer: Nicole Clemetson, Wardrobe Stylist: Shannon Campbell, Make up: Lorri Mitchell, Hair: Luis Solis, Model: Jade Pruitt

Johnson admits that the idea for giving vintage tees the Cinderella treatment happened quite by accident. She transplanted herself out of her mass-produced clothing line in LA and landed in an Arizona school teaching fashion classes. The ball gown was an evolution of a lesson she taught on repurposing and recycling objects into garments. “When I found that I had created something that was eco-friendly, unique, comfortable, washable, versatile and fun, the entrepreneur in me immediately decided to act on the idea and start another clothing company.”

Using 25 or more shirts to create one finished gown, Johnson sees each shirt as a piece of fabric, not as an existing garment. She has the uncanny ability to manipulate a stretchy knit fabric into shapes and structures for which it was never engineered, incorporating highly tailored shaping details such as darts and boning. Sure, she could easily source knits in an endless rainbow of colors from any fabric wholesaler in the country, but the end result would have no meaning, no story and no power. There is beauty in the transformation from utilitarian tee to girlie confection; a resourceful frivolity.

“The thing that works with my collection is that everyone wears T-shirts. I offer a way to hold onto that sentimental shirt and wear it again in a different, more modern, way”, says Johnson. So you already burned your slimy ex-boyfriend’s super awesome Sublime/Sugar Ray/Smashmouth Summer Tour 1998 rags? Oh, and your mom sold your “My Parents Went To The Bahamas And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” t-shirt at last year’s yard sale? Have no fear! She’s happy to pull source material for your future cocktail frock from her current stash of vintage goodness.

Cocktail dress made entirely from t-shirts!

Photo: Larry Stone, Hair: Annie Cavanagh of E’s Urban Hair, Makeup: Nahoko Yasumura, Model: Lulu Kaiali

Angela Johnson has dressed every conceivable member of a wedding party (including the grandmother of one bride!), made corsets every month for a year with someone’s favorite band tees, fashioned prom dresses galore and has even had a gentleman or two commission blazers. “Once I got a collection of super hard core heavy metal band shirts that this girl wanted me to use to make her wedding dress…those bizarre orders are my favorite ones. One of the most inspiring batch of shirts I got was from a breast cancer survivor who had run countless breast cancer marathons. I made her a ball gown (which takes 25+ shirts) and a snuggie (which took about 40 shirts) and she still had shirts left over!”

Awards season is nigh and we’ll be inundated with celebrity “Best & Worst Dressed” lists for the next few months–which celebrity would Angela Johnson like to see donning one of her creations this year? “I love a girl with a lot of tattoos and vintage style. I would love to have someone like Kelly Osborn wear it…for the MTV Awards or something fun like that. I would love for her to wear my T-shirt Ruffle Dress…styled in sort of a pin-up girl style with pin curls and shiny vinyl pumps and red lips.”

Team Sarandon/Robbins made positive waves at the 2003 Oscars by rolling up in a Prius, countless starlets have been spotted in vintage Valentino, but upcycled t-shirts couture just might be the ultimate vehicle for waving a green flag on the red carpet!

Main photo credit: Cassandra Tomei, courtesy Angela Johnson

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