The fashion for turning junk into art

Mumbai-based milliner Shilpa Chavan scours street markets for materials

Haute couture was once rich fabrics and no expense spared, but many designers now favour cheap knick-knacks bought from market stalls to bring their clothes to life. Plastic toys and broken bicycles have found their way onto the catwalk.

Using empty plastic bottles, cheap toys and rubber flip flops, milliner Shilpa Chavan transforms tat into high fashion.

She has furnished some of the world's most style-conscious heads.

But her work, in all its luxury and flamboyance, is rooted in the street markets of Bangalore and nostalgia for everyday objects.

Chavan's approach is not uncommon.

Shilpa Chavan

Shilpa in a hat made from toy soldiers
  • Bangalore-born milliner now based in Mumbai
  • Trained with Philip Treacy
  • Lady Gaga is a customer

British milliner Stephen Jones once fashioned a crest of dismembered Barbie legs into a hat resembling a Mohican, while designer Avsh Alom Gur incorporated rubbish picked off the streets of East London into one of his fashion collections.

But how did tat find its way into haute couture?

The knack lies in not seeing it as tat at all, but in viewing anarchic knick-knacks as shapes and colours, or objects that trigger emotions.

"My basic raw materials are definitely Indian fabrics. I use a lot of toys in my work, I use bras, stones, glasses, twigs, stainless steel strainers, slippers, feathers, everything," says Chavan.

"When people from fashion see it they think of it as fashion. When people in the art world see it they think of it as art."

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Historically, high-end fashion was luxurious. Silks were woven from the finest threads and embellished with jewels - it was the most expensive of clothing for the richest of people. But the tendency to weave in cheaper materials goes back further than you might think.

Oriole Cullen, curator of fashion and textiles at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, says the link between finery and tat is longstanding.

"In the early 19th Century it was quite common to use straw in embroidery. We have a Regency period dress that has straw embroidered on to it, the rest of the dress is made from very expensive silk, but the straw gives it an incredible golden glow.

"During World War II, hats were the one thing that weren't rationed. The idea was that they would boost morale. People had to become more creative about the materials they used. There was a milliner in Paris called Madam Agnes who used wood shavings to make hats."

Tatty Devine bracelet made from the size cubes from coat-hangers Size cubes turned from tat to treasure

At the other end of the scale, Cullen mentions an 18th Century court dress on display, which has silver thread woven through the fabric.

"This was the most expensive kind of dress at the time," she adds.

Creativity is often linked to ingenuity. A designer who can take an ordinary object and make it extraordinary often receives plaudits.

The UK company Tatty Devine started with two designers making jewellery from found objects and selling them at markets. Cake decorations, coat-hanger size cubes and guitar plectrums were their tat of choice.

And London-based fashion designer Avsh Alom Gur based his 2008 spring/summer collection around rubbish.

Wrap dress embellished with rubbish and found objects, photographed by Ian Gillett, left; and right a top embossed with cola can bases, photographed by Lydia Goldblatt Avsh Alom Gur uses litter, left, and cola can bases

Drink cans were crafted into jewellery and embossed to form intricate panels, while sweet wrappers and plastic bags were intertwined with rich fabrics, and bicycle wheels were worn as oversized bracelets.

"I see things that inspire me every day," he says.

"It used to be the chained-up bicycles that got more and more vandalised over time until they were just a frame leaning against a column. They always seemed to be beautiful colours. Otherwise it would be a tangle of wires stripped from a building and left on the floor. To me that is a beautiful feather hat.

"Some rubbish appeals to me, whether it's shape or colour - some doesn't, so I'll leave it on the floor. It's hard to say what makes it good rubbish or not."

As well as the litter of East London, Gur cites French artist Marcel Duchamp as an inspiration.

Duchamp was an adherent to objet trouve, the art movement formed on the theory that ordinary objects can take on an artistic significance, if they are given one by the artist.

What is objet trouve?

  • Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning often cited as first example
  • Tracey Emin made her unmade bed into an artwork, complete with dirty sheets and used tissues
  • Marcel Duchamp's Why Not Sneeze, Rose Selavy? consisted of small birdcage, thermometer, cuttlebone and 151 marble cubes

Through his Readymades project, Duchamp created a series of provocative works.

His 1913 sculpture Bicycle Wheel comprised a wheel and fork on the seat of a stool, and his work Fountain was a porcelain urinal.

Duchamp selected the pieces on the basis of visual indifference - a theory summed up by surrealist Andre Breton as "an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist".

It is an approach embraced with gusto by those who turn tat into treasure.

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