Upcycled Fashion Shows in St. Pete

"A Third Chance to Live"
Upcycled Fashion Shows in St. Pete

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“They had a bus load, like, a legit bus load of thrifted clothes.”


Only 15% of used textiles get reused or recycled. The rest — millions of tons of bedding, towels, and most prevalently, clothing — are tossed into landfills. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the fashion industry is as prolific as ever, and its growth isn’t slowing.

But in the ever growing mountains of waste, two St. Pete artists are giving new love and purpose to garments previously discarded.

Artists Donny Kyoto (L) and Ivan Castro (R) – photo by Hudson Sloan

Earlier this year on March 29, Donny Kyoto and Ivan Castro came together to put on an upcycled fashion show at the 2D Cafe in St. Pete. Against a backdrop of black and white doodles, models flaunting Donny and Ivan’s pieces strutted the expanse of the cafe, stopping to pose in front of an LED sign that reads, “be the art.”

In Donny’s words, upcycling is “when you take an already existing material or product and then you repurpose it into another product.” Originally from Richmond VA and now based in Riverview, he began upcycling clothes during his freshman year of high school, when a fellow classmate drew an obscene figure on his leather jacket.

“So I just kept adding onto it,” Donny says. “I was really into punk at the time… So I wanted to do something, I just didn’t know what. I was worried the jacket didn’t look punk enough, if it was a poser thing, too. There’s a lot of intention into the jacket or into the fashion.”

Endemic to punk is a call to be authentic – and as a corollary, to not co-opt the style, especially as pop culture continues to commercialize the aesthetics of punk. As such, to avoid the implications of being seen as a “poser,” Donny takes an abstract approach to his designs.

“A lot of the textiles and the painting techniques, it’s very nonlinear,” he explains. “There’s not a lot of perspective going. To me, it’s superficial, because it’s just style over any substance, because I don’t know what substance I’m putting on. But when I show the finished product to people, they see a lot more than I did when I was making it.”

Bianca Barber modeling an upcycled dress designed by Donny Kyoto – photo by Hudson Sloan

His favorite piece from the show was an American flag dress, appreciating the subtlety of the design. “I didn’t have to use a lot of textiles for this, just one piece onto one.” He does note, however, that the dress has potential for more depth. “You can add more outlines to different sides. If anything, that’s the perspective concept, just brought into textiles.”

Over the years, Donny has had a variety of sources for acquiring materials. While volunteering for the Food Not Bombs chapter of Richmond, Virginia, a global anti-war organization focused on feeding unhoused people, he was encouraged to take as much as he wanted from a heap of donated clothes the group had no means to transport.

Likewise, while living in the Czech Republic for college, Donny put on a fashion show for a women’s cultural center that aimed to help Ukrainian refugees and other minority groups assimilate. He and other creatives were given access to items in the organization’s donation closet.

Now he often receives clothes from his mother’s friends, whom he refers to as “tantes,” the Indonesian word for “auntie.”

Upcycled jeans designed by Donny Kyoto – photo by Kyle Kurkowski

Aware of the environmental tragedies brought on by wastefulness and overconsumption, Donny aims for his art to have a positive, broader impact. He described to me the state of sustainability in the Global South, and it’s precarious.

For years, western countries have shipped their trash and recycled items to countries in East and Southeast Asia, leading to global tensions. Similarly, Ghana has become inundated with used clothing from western nations, much of which is unusable and piled onto a landfill reaching 20 meters high, a catastrophe driven in no small part by fast fashion.

“It’s more about the impression than the sales aspect,” Donny says. “I’m worried about making art only a career and not helping other causes, so this is just bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors, so people can see what this actually invests in.”

Ivan Castro modeling an upcycled jacket designed by himself – photo by Kyle Kurkowski

“I create to fail. But I have fun with it.”

This is the motto of artist Ivan Castro, who aims to inspire people to create without judgment. Originally from Sarasota, he describes art as a “manifestation of your emotions” and has long found creativity to be a means of self-expression.

Music also plays a key role in his creative process, with his visual art often channeling the sentiment of what he listens to at the time of creation. For instance, in a project for a class at USF where he’s obtaining a BFA in Studio Art, he used pictures of clouds as a blueprint for drawings influenced by different genres of music – such as vivid colors and celestial imagery for synthwave, or Renaissance and biblical themes for classical.

Ivan became interested in fashion when a friend of his smeared paint on a pair of jeans and then drew unique patterns on them. Since then, Ivan has explored different forms of printmaking, such as sublimation and DTF, as well as hand painting clothes.

Sourcing materials from friends, thrifting, or what he already owns, Ivan finds upcycling fashion to positively impact the environment, given how much is discarded.

“By doing what I’m doing with fashion, it basically gives it a third chance to live,” Ivan says. Moreover, amid a rapidly changing fashion industry, adding a unique twist to existing items gives the pieces a certain timelessness. “It’s like an original painting, so just add your own style into it and it becomes a one-of-a-kind piece.”

Ivan first acclimated to the St. Pete art scene through placing his art in local galleries and vending at Populoum, a now-retired monthly art exhibit at Coastal Creative. His work began to receive recognition and validation, and he formed connections with other artists, fostering his own style and a sense of purpose within the community. He then went on to start his own brand called “Living Failures.”

“The whole concept of it is that in order to succeed, you have to fail – in order to fail, you gotta succeed… It’s just a reminder to everybody that you can create, you are an artist, regardless of if it’s just organizing clothes or displaying your room or whatever. That’s still a form of art, you know?”

Justina Serpentelli modeling an upcycled dress designed by Ivan Castro – photo by Hudson Sloan

One of Ivan’s goals for 2024 was to put on a fashion show exhibiting his work. Coincidentally, a couple weeks later, Donny reached out to him after seeing one of Ivan’s pieces at the 2D Cafe and suggested doing a show together. With Donny’s prior experience organizing a fashion show in the Czech Republic and Ivan’s connections to the St Pete art scene, they were able to combine their resources and knowledge.

“I reached out to all my friends, which I’m really grateful, like, I’ve met so many amazing people – they’re all willing to support me… I think it’s a good reminder, just to remember how you present yourself to people.”

On the importance of building community, Ivan adds, “This is not a man-made world, you need people to get where you want to be. This is a group thing. Nobody has ever made it to the top by themselves.”

On Friday, May 17, Donny and Ivan will be joining forces again at St. Pete’s Imagine Museum to put on a fashion show during their monthly Sunset Market. The free event takes place from 5-9 pm, and the fashion show is from 6-6:30 pm.

Instagram @donny.kyotoast

Instagram @ic_livingfailures

Photography by Kyle Kurkowski

Photography by Hudson Sloan



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