Style and sustainability meet for Earth Day fashion show

University of Iowa’s first-ever Recycled Runway fashion show took place on Earth Day, showcasing fashion designed out of donated plastic bags.


Model Samalya Thenuwara poses during a Recycled Runway fashion show at Becker Communication Studies Building in Iowa City on Friday, April 22, 2022.

Olivia Augustine, Arts Reporter

This Earth Day, students at the University of Iowa brought fashion and sustainability together with the Recycled Runway fashion show, where models strutted a runway decorated with greenery while wearing outfits crafted primarily of plastic and recycled materials.

The show took place in the Becker Communication Building auditorium, though the room didn’t appear as any typical lecture hall would. The stage area was covered in greenery, potted plants, and decor crafted out of – you guessed it – plastic bag donations. Free reusable bags were also placed on the seats in the theater.

Six students in UI’s Event Management Workshop organized the show, led by junior Sam Longo, who said the event collected over 900 bags – and that’s not including what was donated to the donation basket during the show.

Materials for the garments were collected through two plastic bag drives on campus in the months leading up to the event, where students could bring 10 plastic bags in exchange for one reusable bag. 

Model Christina Sullivan poses during a Recycled Runway fashion show at Becker Communication Studies Building in Iowa City on Friday, April 22, 2022. To celebrate Earth Day, the fashion show featured nine models in recycled clothing made by student designers. The clothing consisted of plastic bags and other sustainable materials. (Grace Smith)

A few last-minute changes occurred that the team had to navigate. Friday’s rain caused the event to move to Becker rather than the IMU River Amphitheater, and a designer and model dropped out of the event just this week.

To fill the hole, team member Acacia Lopez joined the lineup of designers and models to showcase some of her own last-minute handy work. In just a few days, she created a knee-length dress made of black trash bags, complemented with a leafy green belt and a green flower crown.

Challenges aside, Longo said that seeing the fashion show pull together the day of the event was the most rewarding part of all the planning. She said she was surprised by how good the turnout was.

“Just seeing how much six people can accomplish in a short time – especially for six students who have never planned a fashion show or an event like this – is pretty cool,” Longo said.

She said she was also impressed by the fashion-forward abilities of the designers and models who turned plastic bags into something so beautiful.

“It’s like a unique way to highlight how plastic harms our planet and it’s a cool way to do it on campus and something free that everyone can attend,” Longo said. “It’s just an interesting thing that I don’t think the university has ever done before.”

The show then went on to feature a wide range of fashion styles, displaying everything from earthy pieces with greenery and flower accessories, to couture dresses complete with headpieces, high heels, and pop tab embellishments. 

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The winners of the fashion show, voted by the audience, were model Rylee Fichter and designer Maren Williams, who crocheted a dress out of over 180 plastic grocery bags titled Patio Table. The pair of best friends both said they were surprised to win.

“I had a lot of fun making this and I didn’t make it with the intention of competing or anything, I actually didn’t know we were competing for anything,” Williams said. “But it feels really nice because I’ve always been really interested in fashion design.”

Event manager Sam Longo speaks during the Recycled Runway fashion show at Becker Communication Studies Building in Iowa City on Friday, April 22, 2022. Longo said preparation for this event began in January. (Grace Smith)

Williams said that she didn’t start getting into crochet until last December. Her piece took her over 80 hours to complete, she said.

The inspiration for the piece was two-fold, Williams said. She was first motivated by a reusable bag Fitcher had crocheted out of plastic bags, and secondly by the patio table — now the piece’s namesake — at Fitcher’s house, which is where Williams spent a lot of time constructing the dress.

Samalya Thenuwara was the first model to walk the runway wearing a plastic bag garment she designed entirely on her own, titled No Thank You Dress. She said that she enjoys sewing clothes for herself, and as a newer seamstress she thought that using plastic bags as a medium would be fun.

It took several tries for Thenuwara to choose an outfit she liked or didn’t accidentally tear apart while trying to sew, she said. Through some trial and error, she eventually realized she couldn’t go wrong with a little bit of tape, glue, and hand sewing. 

Thenuwara’s garment was a play on the words often written on typical plastic grocery bags. Where a grocery bag would regularly read “thank you” or “have a nice day,” she adjusted the ones she wore to read “no thank you” and “have a terrible day.”

Thenuwara said that this is because she wanted to make a statement about why it’s important to step away from plastic bags and start using reusable materials.

“The dialogue surrounding the environment is so important and it’s important to talk about it,” Thenuwara said. “But sometimes, people need to see information and just connect to be inspired in a different way.”

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The Event Management Workshop is taught by UI Event Management Certificate Coordinator Heather Spangler, who initially came up with the idea for a fashion show promoting sustainability. 

Spangler said she has taught this course nearly 15 times over the years, and this semester has overseen projects including a fundraising gala for the Cedar Rapids Library Foundation and the Beyond Barriers women’s retreat at Big Grove happening this Saturday.

Yet of all the events she has supervised, Spangler said that the Recycled Runway show may be the first to repeat annually because the roadmap wouldn’t be a clear one to follow.

“Sustainability is really important to us in our program, it’s a really important value,” she said. “Because the events industry has really been a part of the problem with sustainability, and we want to be part of the solution.”