Salem artist fashions colorful clothes from whiskey packaging

Carlee Wright keeps thinking about trash.

Especially the extra packaging around our consumer goods – or, to be even more specific, the cloth bags that encompass each bottle of Crown Royal, a midrange brand of Canadian whiskey.

“They make 50 million bags per year. It’s a lot of bags, when you think about what’s happening to them,” Wright mused. “What do people do with them? They’re potentially going into the garbage, or just sitting there.” 

A few hundred, at least, will be housed at local art gallery Salem on the Edge this month. Using discarded Crown Royal bags, Wright designed and constructed several articles of wearable, functional clothing. Her collection “The Circus of Upcycled Fashion: A Look at Wearable Waste” will remain on display at the gallery for all of April.

It’s a fitting collection to recognize Earth Day, Wright added.

“They are an environmental statement as much as they are a fashion statement and an art statement. So people see them in three roles,” Wright said.

She sourced the Crown Royal bags from a bartender friend, who goes through bottles fast enough to keep the material coming (as a thank you, Wright said, she made him a smoking jacket for his personal wardrobe). Word spread, and a few more bartenders hopped on the project.

“One of the jokes I hear is, how much did you drink to make that sew?” Wright laughed. “I drank nothing to make it.”

First, she assesses the fabric – not all Crown Royal bags are the same. Depending on the type and manufacture date of the bottle, it could feel like a velvet or a flannel-polyester blend.

Then she embarks on the labor-intensive process of deconstructing the bags, assessing their shape and condition, and designing articles of clothing aimed at minimizing the amount of scrap fabric waste. For this collection she built two dresses, two skirts and a jacket. 

“The idea is to use up everything so nothing goes back into a landfill, and to make it all functional,” Wright said. “It’s kind of like a puzzle.”

This isn’t her first foray into wearable art, nor is it her first piece to make a commentary about waste and consumerism. Wright previously constructed a festive, knee-length party dress out of more than 400 defunct store gift cards.

She cut the cards into pieces tiny enough to sparkle in the light, almost like sequins. The dress isn’t part of her latest wearable art collection, but it will be on display tonight between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. – Wright plans to wear it for her First Friday Salem Art Walk appearance at the gallery.

Salem on the Edge is a natural home for an art exhibition with such a pointed message. As the name of the gallery might imply, founder and owner Melanie Weston deliberately seeks out artists who push the envelope.

“I opened up in the middle of Covid, and my vision that I had was to have all kinds of art in the gallery. Music, poetry, performance art, things that are maybe a little bit edgy. I’ve had the erotica show for two years now,” Weston said. “I always like to push it a little bit.”

If nothing else, Wright – who’s best known to the general public as the publisher of culture magazine Press Play Salem – hopes the collection will “put in people’s minds to rethink how they use something,” she said. 

“And also what their consumption is. So much of what we buy, there’s packaging.” 

“The Circus of Upcycled Fashion: A Look at Wearable Waste” will be on display at Salem on the Edge, located at 156 Liberty St. NE., between March 30 and April 30. Gallery hours are 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays.

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