Junk Kouture may not be a familiar name right now, but if its founder Troy Armour gets his way, it soon will be.
Founded in 2010, Armour's vision is simple. He aims to engage and inspire 1 billion children around the world to harness their creativity using nothing but the rubbish around them. Now, as part of this ambitious plan, Junk Kouture has arrived in the UAE, tasking children aged 13 to 18 years to create fashion designs from materials that are usually thrown away.
Keen to get the wider community involved, Junk Kouture has asked leading figures in the UAE to lend their passion and energy ahead of the finals in June. Syrian fashion designer Rami Al Ali, YouTuber Haifa Beseisso, CTZN Cosmetics co-founder Aleena Khan and Fatema Aref Almulla from the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment have been named as judges.
With expert knowledge of the fashion industry, the environment and the need to engage the new generation, these four judges will choose the winners of the UAE competition, who will then be a part of the global finale, which will feature finalists from 13 countries and is scheduled to take place in the latter half of 2022.
Speaking to The National at the World Conference on Creative Economy in late 2021, Armour said that the events of 2022 are a long way from Junk Kouture's humble beginnings.
“I grew up in rural Ireland in the late 1970s and '80s and life was simple. I was a creative kid, but there wasn’t a huge supply of art materials, so raw materials were waste materials. Cornflake boxes were white on the inside, so you could paint on it, and we used to wash out jams jars and put our pencils in them. Everything had a use," he says.
This creativity sparked a wish to encourage children to think differently about the things they consume, and to see value in things that would otherwise be thrown away. The premise of Junk Kouture was simple — ask children to create a fashion outfit using nothing but rubbish.
“To start, I wrote to all the schools in Ireland to see what the response was,” Armour says.
Of the 967 schools across Ireland, 190 wrote back saying they were interested. As well as creating a look, Junk Kouture asked the designers to walk on the catwalk in their own creations. With the strong response, Armour organised four fashion shows for the budding designers, all held in hotels on a Sunday (“the rooms were cheap”, he says, laughing). Sold out to proud family and friends, all cheering the children on stage, Armour realised he was on to something bigger.
Today, Junk Kouture has gone global. In Ireland alone, it has signed up more than 100 schools, staged 60 sold-out shows, showcased 15,000 unique couture designs and saved about 40,000kg of rubbish from landfill, he says. The switch to online learning triggered by the coronavirus pandemic also helped Junk Kouture reach almost one million school children worldwide.
YouTuber and TV presenter Beseisso explains why getting involved in helping support Junk Kouture was important to her.
“Just like these young designers, I try to use my videos to bring about deeper discussions and generate change. Programmes like Junk Kouture are helping to shape the leaders of tomorrow and encouraging teenagers to embrace their individuality," she says.
For Almulla, it's about unlocking a child's potential. “Young people really are the key to our future and we want to do all we can to help them understand the importance of sustainability and encourage them to come up with their own solutions and creative ideas for combatting climate change," she says. "I look forward to meeting the leaders of tomorrow at the City Final in Abu Dhabi, and seeing what amazing and ingenious ways of recycling they have come up with.”
With a focus firmly on creativity, self expression, support and, above all, fun, it is clear the message behind Junk Kouture resonates. Part of this comes from the personal experience of being excluded at school, Armour explains. To help access what he describes as the “untapped resource” of childhood creativity, Armour is building a community for children left out of other activities such a sport and academia.
“I was terrible at sport," he says. "I was that kid who was picked last for the football team, every week. You don’t realise that it’s a rejection every day and has an effect. You build a resilience, but I understood as a teenager that the social capital of sport was unavailable to me. And that social capital was huge; it didn’t matter who you were, if you were in that football team you were looked up to.”
Armour is all too aware of how such children can be made to feel unwanted. "I was the weird, arty kid," he says. “Junk Kouture is the sport that I would have played as a kid. Fashion is the most important form of art, because we get to express ourselves through it every day, and it can be whatever you want, because you put it together. And fashion is universal, everyone has to wear some kind of clothes.”
With the UAE finale being held this summer, it is the beginning of what Armour hopes will become a wider programme. "I had this notion: 'Could we create a Eurovision Song Contest of fashion, colour and creativity of the world?' And I thought, 'Wouldn’t it be cool to bring kids from all around the world — Mumbai, Cape Town, Australia and bring their creativity onto this global stage and get it broadcast like Eurovision?'
"[The UAE] is the centre of the world right now, and this nation sells a big vision all of the time. If you can teach children to dream big, if you can give them that gift, if they can soak up some of that and take it back to their peers, their peers will go 'I can do that!'
"You want to be in Junk Kouture? You just need rubbish! It's totally free to enter and you could be anywhere in the world. We have no clue what [talent] is out there. I think we will blown away."
The transformative power of the initiative keeps Armour going.
“Parents have written to me saying 'You don’t know what you have done for my child. I have a daughter [who is] self-harming, a son not fitting in and being disruptive. Your competition came along, and six months later, I have a brand-new kid who wants to go to college'," he says.
“And this is what we are all about — about these kids not quitting, about saying to themselves: 'This is my time'. This is why, for me, this is like sports. Sports for arty kids. We are building the Olympics for creatives.”