Arts and Culture

Trash bags, CDs and condoms: How one Minneapolis upcycler is changing sustainable fashion

Kristen McCoy poses like a mannequin
Kristen McCoy poses like a mannequin among her own designs made from condoms at the RETHINK studio on Tuesday in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Kristen McCoy used to make purses out of old shower curtains and CDs. This was in the early 1990s in the rural Minnesota farming town of Hoffman.

So experimental design is nothing new for McCoy. She is equal parts designer, upcycler, professional tailor and problem solver.

Her experiences led her to a surprising fashion innovation — making clothing out of old (but unused) latex condoms.

For the “Ready or Hot” Planned Parenthood runway show in Minneapolis on Feb. 28, McCoy made four looks out of condoms. Yes, it was a way to promote sexual health, but it was also another fashion challenge for McCoy. 

Planned Parenthood North Central States began doing condom couture as part of their runway show in 2014 with a dress designed by Joy Noelle.

Kristen McCoy is seen
“There’s so many ways to be sustainable and eco-friendly and glamorous right now and you know, the price tag is right to do so,” McCoy said.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

McCoy’s stint with condoms is just a small part of her overall mission for sustainable fashion. Fifteen years ago, for a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk fashion show, she collected trash from the streets of Minneapolis and used parchment paper and an iron to smooth out possible designs. She then used trash bags as corsets and lace. 

McCoy has a long history as an upcycler, but not with intent. She says there was no money for her to buy new fabrics so she began cutting apart her old clothes.

“Everything just became upcycle out of necessity, it was what I had access to,” she said. “Upcycling is a great home for somebody with an overactive imagination, it has been really nice to channel it into these pieces that are deemed a lost cause and then I bring it back to life.”

Kristen McCoy looks on with a sewing machine
McCoy is hosting a condom couture studio tour Friday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The event is limited to 25.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

After she ran out of clothes, she discovered the thrift store. That is where things started to change — she could buy all of the material she needed for only five dollars.

Later, she decided to go to Minneapolis Community and Technical College to study apparel technologies. She soon learned about fast fashion and how wasteful the industry is. 

“To me, that was mortifying, I had to figure out a way to be okay with being in the fashion industry. Otherwise, I needed to find another field to go into,” McCoy said. “So that is when I dug deep and revisited what I was doing as a kid and realized there was a word for it —upcycling. And from then on, I decided I was only going to work with surplus or secondhand fabrics.” 

At her RETHINK studio in Minneapolis, materials are spread across the room. Upcycled jeans that had been deemed doomed, old choral dresses and floral bedsheets. 

And in the middle of the room, her four condom couture looks. A puffer vest, faux fur, bomber jacket and fringe skirt. 

But they did not come that way. Instead, things began with many boxes of condoms being delivered to her studio. She had to experiment. Could she cut them? Sew them? Fringe them? 

Every outfit was stitched by hand, and if she was lucky, by machine. That meant hours and hours of work. She set up an assembly line with her family. The tips were cut and rectangles were measured. 

A bomber jacket was made with a loom, sweatpants and rubber cement. For a skirt, all the fringes were cut by hand. The puffer vest is cut rectangles, and the faux fur is folded repeatedly and sewed. 

Kristen McCoy poses for a portrait
Kristen McCoy has been upcycling her whole life. She began with old shower curtains and CDs making them into purses.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

For McCoy, her latest fashion adventure came at the perfect time. 

“Things are so polarized now, it caught me off guard. When I made the announcement I was doing this, I lost a bunch of followers on Instagram,” she said. “Which, I mean, if you’re going to have a list cleanse, it’s okay if people leave because they aren’t comfortable. I grew up with abstinence-only education and had some really hard learning experiences with that. The things they [Planned Parenthood] are doing … it’s worth fighting for.”

At the end of the project, McCoy said she isn’t surprised by her latest new medium. She loves a challenge, and showing people what is possible with something they would never consider. And if she can make clothes out of condoms, her hope is maybe we can rethink our fashion choices. 

McCoy says the easiest place to start for those who want to enter the sustainable fashion sphere is by working with what is already in your closet. Any change is still change — and you can’t do it all. 

You can find old pieces in your closet and make new ways to wear them, start getting clothes tailored and treat your clothes better. This means drying your clothes on low and air-drying stretch jeans and delicates. 

Resale and repair stores are a must, and the Twin Cities offers many options. McCoy suggests 4evr Sale’ingOld School, Cake Plus Size Resale, Repair Lair, Science and Kindness and Minneapolis Mending.

“There’s so many ways to be sustainable and eco-friendly and glamorous right now and you know, the price tag is right to do so,” she said.

McCoy is hosting a condom couture studio tour Friday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The event is limited to 25. The tickets are pay what you can. You can shop McCoy’s designs online, or by texting 612-876-7978 to schedule a visit to the RETHINK Studio at 3449 Bloomington Ave in Minneapolis.

Upcoming events with McCoy include Sweetpea's Wardrobe Vault Sale on April 13, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.,  (secondhand costumes/clothes and vintage), Animal. Vegetable. Mineral. art show, April 12 through April 20, Minnesota Fashion Week EVOLVE Fashion Show + Pop-Up on April 20 at 6:30 p.m. and a Hand Mending Basics class on April 27, 1 to 4 p.m.

Kristen McCoy works on the Puffer Condom Vest
Once McCoy realized how wasteful the fashion industry is, she says she needed to figure out a way to be okay with it in her own way.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News
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