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At 7:40, the lights go down, and the beat-heavy music swells and people finish buying their drinks at the bar and sit down. Ally Bling Bling, producer and cohost of the online radio show Art Rocks!, eases out from behind the screen wearing high-waisted jeans and a black top that is tied in front. A painting of Salvador Dalí adorns the denim clinging to her right leg, Frida Kahlo, her left. “I’ve got a recycled look myself!” she declares. “I love fashion — my mother was a fashion designer.” Bling Bling gives a shimmy-shake, and parts of the audience send up a cheer. She introduces the judges — including the winner of last year’s recycled show, Tania Diaz — and the show is on.

What follows is both astonishing and delightful, and my only wish is for a program, something that will explain the makeup of each outfit as it is borne down the catwalk. Okay, I can tell that a skirt is mostly greeting cards, but is that wrapping paper underneath? A dress made from magazine fashion ads — how meta! But is that Saran Wrap giving it that sheen and cardboard giving it that shape? Some of the very best outfits don’t look recycled at all. This may be a testament to the genius of the designer, but it sets up a disassociation in the audience, and the response tends to be muted. And even when the source material is clear, fortune tends to favor the bold. One of my favorite outfits is built from a corrugated cardboard bodice and a brown butcher-paper skirt; something about the shape and the way the pink crepe trim offsets the brown just charms me. But the crowd seems to disagree.

I sidle up to Judge Tania, curious as to her criteria. “I was looking for originality and a little bit of complexity of texture,” she tells me. “And also, movement and flow. And if it’s modern — something you would wear now.”

While the judges are doing their judging, Ally reappears and invites questions. Someone asks how long the various pieces took to make. A young woman answers — she had constructed a lavender ball gown of fairytale proportions entirely out of paper — crumpled puffs for the bodice above and a great crinkly billow of skirt and petticoats below. “My dog peed on the first one I made,” she admitted, “so I made this one in a day.” Others are obviously the product of much longer labors, but the point here is how it shows, not how it wears, and her one-day job stacks up nicely.

In the end, the winner is also the clear crowd favorite: a bathing costume — bottom, top, skirt, and hat — made from the panels of brightly colored beach balls. It’s eye-catching, adorable, and cheeky — the blow-up nozzles placed directly over the nipples — and well-built to boot. (The designers, Judy Nielsen and Shaun Muscolo, live in northern California, where they form part of the Haute Trash design collective.) Third prize goes to a couple of youngsters who built their bodices from ’60s-era English floral wallpaper they dug out of the rubbish (and who fashioned their skirts from mattress covers). And second prize goes to one Linda Shaffer, for her trio of shopping-bag dresses: Target, Nordstrom Rack, and Stater Bros. (The Target Dress drew the first big cheer of the night, the woots and applause mixed with the laughter that comes from recognition.) “I just want you to know that I bought stuff from all these stores!” she proclaims as she accepts the $300 prize. “Thank you very much!”

You Need the Pop of Visual Impact

Linda Shaffer’s Carlsbad home is a lovely Spanish-style jumble set amid thousands of similarly lovely Spanish-style jumbles, except that hers features a silver Porsche hood on the dining-room wall, offset by an orange safety cone on the floor. “I’ve been using recycled materials in my work for a long time,” she offers. “My neighbor was bringing this to the trash, and I said, ‘Can I have that?’ She got busy with her paintbrushes, affixed some shards of broken mirror, and.… The piece is called Changing Lanes. My daughter was in a horrible car crash, and she just walked away. I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, isn’t that right — sometimes, you’re just happy to be alive and who cares about the car?’ That was the energy for that.” The jewelry studio is upstairs on the landing; the kilns and workbench are in the garage. Shaffer has been making art of one sort or another for over 20 years, but this was her first attempt at clothing.

Every plastic Target shopping bag features a list of possible ways to reuse it: line your trash can, use it to collect road-trip rubbish, line your cat-litter box, etc. “Make a dress” is, understandably, not on the list, but when the Escondido Arts Partnership put out a call for recycled fashion, Shaffer found her inspiration in the designer-friendly superstore. “I got home, cut the bottom off a bag, put it on over my head, and thought, ‘I can do this.’ I just started cutting and sewing. I double-stitched, tried to make it as tough as possible, because I didn’t know how it would work on a human. And I realized that I probably needed two layers so it wouldn’t look too sheer.” (Another designer’s dress, made from single-layer kitchen trash bags, proved a touch translucent under the runway spotlights.)

Stitched one atop the other, two bags naturally made a sort of straight-bodied Flapper dress; Shaffer highlighted the effect with a frill at the hem and a fringy collar. But the main thing is still that great swath of red-and-white targets running down the front and back. “I wanted to focus on the logos,” explains Shaffer, “because that’s what’s recognizable. You need the pop of visual impact right away. One of the artists at the show made the dress and handbag from recycled thread — she really made her own fabric. Up close, it was magnificent, but on the runway, you didn’t understand what it was made from.”

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