From Garbage to Garments


On any given day you can detect the smell of burning plastic and flecks of glitter wafting out of Leah McCall’s Tellico Plains High School classroom.

McCall’s fashion design students are wearing problem solving on their sleeves, quite literally. Their ingredients are less than glamorous: plastic lunch utensils (recovered from the school cafeteria), garbage bags (thankfully not reused), discarded floor tiles, coffee filters, old newspapers, and anything else worth throwing away. With the help of their bold visions and careful calculations, students are morphing these recycled elements into final fashion pieces worthy of the Alexander McQueen runway they are modeled after.

Tellico Plains 2014 Fashion Show: Courtesy Jennie Andrews Photography

McCall’s team of students, that can only described as fiery and determined, have produced nearly 120 garments out of recycled materials over two years. It is a process that starts with inspiration from the world around them and ideas from some of fashion’s biggest stages.

Fashion design student Moira Nelson uses a collection of sources, ranging from Disney movies to sci-fi flicks, to get inspired.

“The ideas explode in my brain and then I put them on paper,” said Nelson

Last year, the team started with 100 student sketches, ultimately cutting 25 as they evolved. Once they determine which sketches  have potential, students work through the process of producing the garments. Is it possible? How will it be made?

Throughout the process, this team of designers is also humbly foraging for materials.

Hey, are you done with that fork?

Can I grab this newspaper?

It is a conversation starter you don’t normally hear in a high school cafeteria. Student Hailee VanLandingham describes the puzzled reactions her peers give her when she is scavenging for resources.

“I ask, ‘Hey are you going to use that newspaper?’ And then you tell people ‘I am going to make a dress out of it.’ They look at your like you’re crazy, but when they see the final product they say, ‘I should have given you more,'” VanLandingham said.

Kristen Calhoun Photography

Tellico Plains 2014 Fashion Show: Courtesy Kristen Calhoun Photography

But students aren’t just facing skeptics outside the class. Because the passionate group is often pushing the limits with their ideas, they regularly face healthy disagreements about design in class. Vivian Medina actually describes that as her favorite part.

“I love the beginning of this process because we argue so much with each other. It sounds like it would be the worst part, but that is when we all became friends. During all of those arguments, you get to know each other. You figure out what makes your peers tick,” Medina said.

McCall purposefully builds in opportunities for feedback in the design process.

“The hardest thing about working with teenagers is going through the critique phase of this process. A lot of times with design, there is truth in what other people say, but it feels so personal because it is your work,” McCall said.

A student model showcases a garment made from garbage bags at Tellico Plains’ 2014 Fashion Show.

While students admit it was hard to hear feedback from their classmates, McCall enforced strategies to help.

“We weren’t ever allowed to say phrases such as ‘don’t like.’ We had to give specific feedback that could help each designer,” said Kaylee Dixson, a student in McCall’s class this year.

In the end, collaboration helped this group turn Wal-Mart bags, bubble wrap, paint color chips, and potato chip bags (just to name a few) into one-of-a-kind garments that students modeled for an audience of 300 at a fashion show in January.

McCall worked with community partners to transform Tellico Plains’ gymnasium into a runway, complete with photographers, videographers, and makeup artists, all donating their time.

Students outside McCall’s class roster also sought out opportunities. Dozens signed up to model garments and crowded in to watch the fashion show.

“A lot of people from the rest of the school have come into this classroom wanting to get involved.  In more one ways than one, we have really created something from nothing,” said VanLandingham.

You can watch this WBIR story for even more video of these student creations.

The fashion design class at Tellico Plains High School is aligned to Tennessee’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) standards. These standards prepare Tennessee students for opportunities across 16 different career clusters, each designed to help students choose their personal pathway to success. While there are dozens of fashion design classes across the state, there are also a myriad of other innovative CTE programs, from Aviation to Veterinary Science, preparing students for postsecondary education and the career of their dreams. You can visit the CTE Website to learn more.