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A Q&A with the Ladies Behind Discarded to Divine

Discarded to Divine is an innovative fundraiser for the St. Vincent De Paul Society of San Francisco that challenges designers to use discarded clothes, textiles, accessories, furniture—anything they can get their hands on—to make reclaimed, one-of-a-kind creations. More than 100 unique items, including 10 jury-selected winners, were just previewed at the de Young Museum. The April 26th Gala features both a silent auction and a live runway presentation and auction of this wearable art.

Here's a Q&A with four of the fascinating women behind the annual Discarded to Divine event: Bette McKenzie, Co-Chair, Lisa Salamone, Past Co-Chair, Discarded to Divine Gala, Connie Ulasewicz, Associate Professor in Apparel Design & Merchandising, SF State University & Discarded to Divine event Advisory Committee, and Sue Friedland, Textile Designer, Textile Arts Council of de Young Museum, Discarded to Divine Designer.
 
Bette, you’ve been part of the event from the start, six years ago. What are some of your favorite pieces from past years?
 
Bette McKenzie: My favorite designs are the ones that have stories. Two years ago, Lisa Salamone, a former SVDP board member and two-time Discarded to Divine co-chair, cleaned out her late father’s closet. She gave all her dad’s fabulous sport coats to Barbara Kelly, an instructor at CCA and D2D Committee member. Barbara’s class at CCA de-constructed them to learn how beautiful men’s tailoring is made and then reconstructed them for Discarded to Divine. One of the creations—a one-of-a-kind ladies camel’s hair jacket—now hangs in Lisa’s closet. This year Lisa gave me some antique doilies hand made by her grandmother. I gave them to well know local artist Sue Friedland, who transformed the crochet pieces into a textured wool throw that will be auctioned on April 26 at the Gala. All the creations at Discarded to Divine are not just amazing pieces—they have stories. Stories about where they came from, who touched and transformed them, and where they go from here.
 
Lisa, it must be very moving to see your father's wardrobe come to life again in this new incarnation. What was your reaction when you saw the creations in their renewed form?
 
Lisa Salamone: Seeing that jacket gave me goose bumps. I remember the softness of this particular cashmere blazer that my Dad wore whenever I gave him a hug. I was so very close to my Dad so when I wear this jacket I feel he is hugging me.
 
Sue, what was your inspiration for your pieces? What was your creative process?
 
Sue Friedland: When I saw Lisa’s crochet pieces in an old worn out box, it flooded my mind with memories of being five, with my grandmother as she taught me to crochet. Being an artist whose primary medium is textiles meant that it was easy to be inspired by this historical thread. My creative process started with those memories, and required having the guts and confidence to transform someone’s precious treasures into a contemporary piece of art while maintaining a connection to their historical significance.
 
Bette, you were in retail PR for a long time at Macy’s. What was the reason for the philosophical transition to this new approach for you?
 
Bette: The essence of retail is to encourage consumption, and my role in retail was to help entice and create the desire to shop. We were very successful with giving product life and purpose, getting women to buy more than they really needed. Now, I want to have those same women see that it is important not to discard, but to help find another life for all those things hanging in their closets and sitting on shelves that are not being worn.
 
Lisa, you also come from a retail background. How do you think the mass retailers could support this movement in creativity, creation, production in SF?
 
Lisa: Having worked for the Gap for many years I had the pleasure of working with talented designers. They were always pushing the envelope for new ideas. Retailers today are always looking for new talent and ways to reuse. Look at the athletic wear fleece – a lot of that fabric has its genesis in plastic bottles. Smart retailers and designers would find this event eye opening in terms of supporting new talent. I, for one, would love to see a whole movement of recycled denim.
 
Connie, you are working with the next generation of the talent pool everyday at SF State on the academic side. It’s great that the training for tomorrow’s designers and retail execs embraces the values of renewing, reusing, revitalizing.

Connie Ulasewicz: What motivates me to contribute is the goodness that SVDP-SF provides to the lives it touches coupled with the exploration of methods to extend the life of discarded textile products. A continuing benefit of Discarded to Divine is the heightened consumer interest in and demand for purchasing products with a perceived environmental impact that correlates with their true impact, and the knowledge that they are contributing to the lives of others with their purchases. Those important outcomes will keep this event growing.

Bette, can you speak to the fascinating wealth of talent that Discarded to Divine elicits from people when they are given the challenge and opportunity to create?
 
Bette: We are seeing more and more artists like Sue Friedland. This year there is a new fiber artist and teacher, Tina Maier who is an amazing quilter and contributed a piece called "A Beautiful Cage." Tina created a lined, sleeveless, multicolored dress with matching jacket made from hundreds of small pieces cut and sewn together. She used interlocking shapes that are sewn on muslin pattern pieces, then cut out negative space and finished by using appliqué stitch. Her inspiration comes from Jean Paul Gaultier’s “Les Vierges Collection,” which is currently highlighted in the exhibition at the de Young Museum.
 
Sue, has this project for Discarded to Divine influenced your approach in your other work - in the way you consider materials, impermanence, the fluidity of the process, etc?
 
Sue: Discarded to Divine has significantly influenced my choice of materials. I really appreciate the fact that, in a throw-away society, reuse of materials is almost a revolutionary act, and in that sense the event provides a great platform for artists to express their ideas of transformation.

Where do you see this going next?

Lisa: I think that the excitement around Discarded to Divine is growing.  We have added new categories in the past two years like home and decorative accessories so I would love to see a whole category that is very specific, like denim. We have one spectacular dress this year made out of denim that takes its inspiration from the great works of Gaultier.  So imagine what could happen if we really pushed the envelope.

Click here for more information about the organization and the event. Tickets available for the April 26th Gala at EventBrite. VIP tickets $195, General tickets $95.