Minnesota ‘slow fashion’ artist recycles discarded clothes to create wearable art

I bet you forgot all about that oversized t-shirt of no name steaks dad used to love for mowing the lawn. The one Mom finally dropped in the donation bin?

Eco-conscious artist Stephanie Dillon dug it out of the more than 10 million tons of clothes Americans throw away each year and treated it with a pastel dye job. Now, the transformed t-shirt has resurfaced on a young, supple model for Citizen-T, Dillon’s upcycled clothing company.

Her foray into so-called ‘slow mode’ began after a life-changing breast cancer diagnosis in 2016. “I started a completely new life because I realized it was the only one I I had,” she explains.

Dillon’s previous job, financing independent films, was to support the creativity of others. Now she was drawn to creating, as a way to explore how imperfect things could still be relevant and beautiful. She bought damaged canvases from second-hand shops and started painting as an emotional release.

Dillon began to consider the health impacts of environmental toxins and dedicated herself to tackling the climate crisis. The self-proclaimed “beauty junkie” – as a teenager, she saved up for designer duds and lined her walls with the pages of W magazine – has set her sights on the dirty, wasteful fashion industry.

Most Citizen-T apparel starts out as used or surplus stock. Some tees commemorate one-time events (Wisconsin’s trip to the Rose Bowl in 1994; the Hot 97 Summer Jam in 2007). Others promote products or groups, from Harley-Davidson to Fleetwood Mac. Often, Dillon dyes or bleaches the fabric or adds inspirational messages, such as “be kind” or “ars longa vita brevis” (“art is long, life is short”).

Dillon does the same with trendy jackets and high-end handbags – hand-painting once-loved leather or denim with bright images or bold messages. (F-bombs and bull skulls are recurring themes.) Using stencils and splatters, she layers an edgy rock ‘n’ roll vibe over a luxe aesthetic.

By diverting clothes from landfills and giving them a second life, Dillon raises awareness of the true costs of fashion and donates a percentage of its profits to charity.

“We have such a detachment from where we get our clothes and our food, like it doesn’t matter,” she says. “And in fact, there is nothing else that matters.”

Christopher S. Washington