The Utah youth upcycling fashion for the future

A crew of young designers in Salt Lake City are building a conscious, DIY fashion community that merges art, thrifting and skate culture.

by Sara Radin; photos by Blake Lewis
12 August 2021, 4:02pm

This story originally appeared in United States of i-D, a series in celebration of diverse communities, scenes and subcultures across America.

Smack dab in the middle of the American West and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, Salt Lake City has a history of drawing people in. For many, the Utah city is known as a destination for skiing and winter sports, but in recent years, the arts scene has flourished. “The SLC creative scene is definitely getting bigger and stronger,” says Mario Cartes, a 22-year-old artist and fashion designer. “There are new creatives showcasing their hard work and talent, whether they make music, clothes, pottery or host events,” adds Akouya Johan Sapoye, who upcycles thrifted Goodwill garments. “What I love the most is the diversity in the creative scene.”

Since he was young, Mario has had a fascination with drawing, graffiti and painting — especially on clothes. As he got older, he taught himself how to sew. Akouya got into thrifting through a friend in 2019, and started making patchwork pants, hand-stitched durags and hoodies from his spoils. The pair are now part of a tight-knit community of young folks in Salt Lake City — most of whom met on social media — that are passionate about thrifting and upcycling eco-conscious garments. “I think that we all have an interest in upcycling because we see something that others don’t in unsung recycled garments and fabrics. And it allows us to express our creativity in a way that we couldn’t with non-recycled garments,” says Giles, who taught himself how to screen print at 16 and now sells his designs on Instagram. “I think it also allows each piece to be unique in their own way, which is a big thing for me.”

teens laying on the grass in salt lake city utah by blake lewis
teens laying on the grass in salt lake city utah by blake lewis

Aside from the unique designs on the clothes these artists craft, what makes Salt Lake City’s creative community so special is it’s size. It’s small enough that everyone knows everyone, and within this crew specifically, there’s constant collaboration. “We ride for each other,” Akouya says. “We help each other with styling, modelling, promotions and photography. If somebody needs ink to screen print but can’t get it, somebody in the community has your back. If you need materials to continue making clothing, somebody in the community has extra material and will gladly bring it to you.”  

Pop-ups with local markets, or even in artists’ own garages, where the whole community comes together to sell their art, upcycled garments and to host skateboarding contests, have become an important part of the scene too. “After meeting some of my friends, we decided to make some of our own events to help push this culture to the best it can be,” Evan Erickson, who started doing monthly drops of original screen-printed goods during the pandemic, tells i-D. “Last year, we had three full-experience pop-up shops in my garage where we fully painted the walls, made several paintings and created T-shirts for each event.”

a group of teens in upcycled clothes standing in front of a cement wall by blake lewis

Photographer Blake Lewis went out to Utah to capture Akouya, Evan, Giles, Mario and their whole crew of friends — decked out DIY pieces by the young designers — hanging out in Salt Lake City. Get to know them and what inspires their art below.

evan erickson walking down the sidewalk by blake lewis
evan erickson with a camo backpack and upcycled clothes he designed by blake lewis

Evan Erickson, 24

How did you get into upcycling?
I started making clothes in 2019 after learning how to screen print in a college class. That summer after I graduated I made some tees here and there, but it wasn't until I moved to Salt Lake City in January 2020 that I started to really get on my game. With Covid running amok, I was like most young people and didn't want to work, so I started doing monthly drops of new screen-printed designs on a variety of clothing. I didn't have the overhead to buy all new blank clothes to print on, so I found myself going to the Goodwill Outlet and finding blanks in all kinds of sizes and colors. The number of wasted clothes in the world is unreal, so I try to reuse and recycle clothing when I can.

How would you describe your process?
First I start off with a drawing or painting that I base my graphics on. Then, I bring it into Illustrator and digitize and finesse where needed, and after that's all 100 — I print out my transparencies and burn it onto a screen. I upcycle thrifted tees, hoodies, pants, hats or anything that I can see having a second life with my graphics on it. Recently, I started getting into sewing custom pieces using old T-shirt graphics, my own custom embroidered patches and making fleece beanies. 

tattooed hands drawing on a pair of jeans by blake lewis

What do you love most about the medium?
I love being able to fully create the graphic from scratch, then physically making the screen and seeing the graphic on a piece of clothing. Not every screen I make comes out perfect, but I embrace that imperfection and roll with it, creating more of a raw outcome, and hopefully, my customers can better relate to the process knowing that it was 100% handmade.

Seeing my pieces out in the world is a great feeling as well, whether that's through an Instagram video of someone skating while wearing Mane, or just running into one of your customers in the street and they are rocking their piece with a fully developed outfit. 

What do you hope people take away from your upcycled designs?
I want them to feel confident that they are supporting an independent artist and the culture of independent artists of Salt Lake City. I want people to be inspired by my work, to feel a feeling of creativity and have them think that they can make something with their own art if they want to. When people wear my pieces, I don't want them to treat them like expensive designer clothing, I want them to get my garments dirty, full of paint and be able to do their thing in them while looking fresh.

two boys walking on a trail in front of mountains in utah by blake lewis
akouya johan sitting in the street with his legs open by blake lewis

Akouya Johan Sopoye

How did you get into upcycling?
I got into upcycling when I lived in Rancho Cucamonga, California with my older brother. I would go to the Goodwill and get clothes that I liked and rework them. I never knew what I was doing was ‘upcycling’, and at that time, I was hand-stitching everything I made — from patchwork pants to durags and custom hoodies. 

When I moved back to Utah the summer of 2019, I moved in with my friend Josh’s family. Josh sews as well, but at the time he was just upcycling accessories, so we started bouncing ideas of what we could make together. Josh introduced me to the Goodwill bins and taught me another way to get materials to work with. After the first trip I fell in love with upcycling. The fact that I could take a pair of vintage pants and turn them into backpacks and various items was so fun to me and it made me so happy doing it. Josh and I got to work ASAP and made a ton of custom watches from Gucci bags and OG bags, as well as vintage Dior bags, we even started getting commissions to do watch bands. 

I ended up moving out of Josh’s house and into my dad’s and continued to make clothes. I started making patchwork pants; I even started making chest rigs and more complicated pieces. When I did my first event in Salt Lake City I got to meet many other upcycling designers and the love grew even more. Now I sew everyday and am booked out for events. It’s safe to say that upcycling saved my life, because I was getting in a lot of trouble before I took my passion for clothes seriously. 

a photo of two hands with flames tattooed on them by blake lewis

How would you describe your process?
My process isn’t too complicated. Sometimes I have a dream about a piece and I wake up and instantly get on the machine and turn that into reality. Sewing and creating calms my nerves to the point where doing this is first nature, though I like to have things written on paper so I can hold myself accountable.

What do you love most about the medium?
I love how it gives everyone that has a passion for their craft an outlet to go crazy and express themselves. [Our community is] literally building a foundation and it’s a strong one, the support is insane and the love we have for each other is unspoken.

What do you hope people take away from your upcycled designs?
What I hope people take away from my clothing/art is to never hold back and to be confident with everything you do.

giles standing in front of a chainlink fence with his hand on his head by blake lewis

Giles, 18

How did you get into upcycling?
I first had an interest in making clothes because I wanted to screen print a drawing I made in preschool onto one of my shirts. I taught myself how to do that when I was 16 and my love of sewing and creating just expanded from there. From that first shirt, I was hooked on the feeling of wearing something that I had made myself.

How would you describe your process?
My process always starts from an idea. What I love to make specifically, is fully cut and sewn garments made from fabric that would typically get discarded after the manufacturing process. My favorite fabrics are denims and off-dyed French terry cottons in interesting colors. Besides that, I really enjoy doing prints onto vintage garments, especially when the garment has some kind of fading or wear. I just love clothes that tell a story, and sewn by hand and vintage clothes speak to me in a way others don’t. 

three girls wearing upcycled clothes standing in front of a chainlink fence by blake lewis

What do you love most about the medium?
Every stitch has many hours of work behind it; every design has hours of thought behind it. You can tell when there has been love and special touch put into a garment, and you can only get that feeling when a person is truly passionate about their craft. 

What do you hope people take away from your upcycled designs?
That you don’t have to go to a luxury brand to get something interesting, and you don’t have to shop at a mall to get a well-made garment. I think that there's too much of an obsession with something being perfect [as opposed to] something being original. In my eyes, everything that myself and my bros make is more fulfilling to wear than a piece from a large-scale brand.

a portrait of mario cartes smoking a cigarette in front of the mountains in utah by blake lewis
mario cartes sitting in a chair and holding a coffee cup by blake lewis

Mario Cartes, 22

How did you get into upcycling?
As a little kid, around the age of 12, I was really into graffiti, doodling and painting my clothes, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve been interested in sewing garments. I enjoy reconstructing old pieces, giving them a new look or vibe. I got my first sewing machine two years ago, and haven't stopped since.

How would you describe your process?
My process varies depending on the medium — from screen printing vintage tees to sewing garments from scratch out of old fabrics that I thrift. 

a boy wearing a knit balaclava with a face on it by blake lewis

And what do you love most about what you do?
The process — watching it come to life. I try to take my time on each project and love every minute of it. I enjoy mixing art and upcycling, bringing something unique and mine into the world.

What do you hope people take away from your upcycled designs?
I want people to wear my pieces because they enjoy [them] as much as I do. I want them to learn about them, to understand the process and hopefully get some inspo or motivation out of them.

mario cartes standing in a closet holding up a shirt he designed by blake lewis
a side profile of a girl wearing a handpainted shirt in salt lake city utah by blake lewis
two teens standing in front of a chainlink fence wearing graphic sweatshirts by blake lewis
a girl with red hair wearing silver chain necklaces and an orange graphic sweatshirt by blake lewis
two girls with spiked hair smoking a cigarette at night in utah by blake lewis
portrait of a boy in a bucket hat standing in front of a chainlink fence by blake lewis
portrait of a girl in a handmade graphic hat with ears by blake lewis
two boys running through a trail in salt lake city by blake lewis
a boy lying in the grass in salt lake city utah by blake lewis
a group of kids in salt lake city walking down the sidewalk in upcycled clothes by blake lewis

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Photography Blake Lewis.

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