Every Saturday, the block of green at the corner of Center Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way springs to life with bustling crowds, busy vendors and brassy bursts of salsa music. Organized by the Ecology Center, this farmers market is a weekly occurrence and a source of both fresh produce and entertainment for Berkeley and East Bay residents. But on Aug. 10, visitors could be spotted not only carrying bags of potatoes and tomatoes, but wearing them as well.
This year, the Ecology Center partnered with Haute Trash, an artist and designer collaborative based in Nevada City, California, to create a photo booth displaying the latest fashions — all made from recycled or discarded goods. Current Executive Director Kathi Griffis is the mastermind behind the photo booth, as well as Haute Trash’s backlog of shows — more than 100 to date since she took the reins in 2002.
“I’ve almost been there since the beginning,” Griffis reflected in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It’s certainly come a long way since then.”
Before she took over as artistic director, Griffis had been creating pieces for Haute Trash since 1988, designing high-fashion garments under the alter ego Prima Debris.
“I like to think that we started the wave of trash fashion,” Griffis said. “These days, you see everyone from high schoolers to professional designers create pieces from recycled goods or secondhand clothes, and I love that. But I’d like to believe that we really began that trend.”
Seamstress Susan Lamela created Haute Trash in 1983. According to its website, the idea for the organization is said to have come to Lamela as she was repairing a designer suit. Frustrated by the garment’s poor craftsmanship, she exclaimed, “I could do better than this with trash!”
Lamela passed away in 2000 after struggling with liver cancer. While the community was shaken by the tragedy, members were determined not to let the Haute Trash collaborative die. With help from many of the original designers and some new recruits as well, Griffis took over as artistic director and pushed the project forward.
A third-generation seamstress herself, Griffis is part of a legacy of artists and designers that extends far beyond her. Her daughter, having modeled at Haute Trash’s shows since 1988, joined as a designer, and her granddaughters enjoy both walking the runway and helping to create Griffis’ newest pieces. Their favorite family pastime, however, is thrift shopping in search for the perfect addition to an outfit.
Griffis expressed appreciation for the rise of thrifting, trading and secondhand shopping in younger generations, despite some of the negative financial effects. “Sure, at one point, you could have gotten a jacket for $6 that is now $10 or $20, but it’s still less expensive in the long run, and it makes me happy to see young people focus on sustainability,” she said.
Since Haute Trash’s formation, the collaborative has expanded its focus as well, Griffis said. The growing perils of climate change have brought on a wave of activism that was much less present in the 1980s, and while the organization was founded partially in reaction to an increasingly wasteful and consumerist society, consciousness about sustainability has grown to inform most of its goals.
It was from this understanding that attractions like the photo booth were born — not simply for entertainment, but also to raise awareness for Haute Trash’s activist mission through the collective’s humor, camp and suits made from U.S. mail envelopes (among thousands of other striking designs). Griffis finds the importance in the individual, in doing what she can to ameliorate a situation far bigger than her. After all, one more bottle cap on a skirt is one less bottle cap polluting a river.
So what’s next for Haute Trash? Griffis said the plan is simply to keep creating. The Ecology Center and Haute Trash hope to set up a series of youth design lessons in Berkeley in the coming months. Until then, as always, Haute Trash and its disciples can be found across the nation, from the original home base in Nevada City all the way to Hawaii.
“We’re just going to keep on educating, creating and having fun,” Griffis said. “Trash fashion is here to stay.”
Contact Maura Cowan at [email protected].