April 6, 2018 / 3:57 PM / 16 days ago

Crisis chic: bottles linked to Flint's toxic water are refashioned as clothing line

NEW YORK, April 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - F ashionistas can put the Rust Belt city of Flint, Michigan, on their radar when a hip clothing line makes its debut on Sunday, the result of local residents and artists turning discarded water bottles into fabric.

The “Made in Flint” women’s collection will go on show at New York’s Queens Museum - a breath of glamour aimed at infusing hope into the impoverished city whose tap water became poisoned with lead in 2014 after cost-cutting by local authorities.

The former car manufacturing hub, whose decline was chronicled in Michael Moore’s documentary “Roger & Me”, has since been drowning in plastic bottles of drinking water.

Conceptual artist Mel Chin, the brainchild behind the fashion project - dubbed “Flint Fit” - said his visit to the city of 100,000 residents in 2017 left him wondering where the bottles went.

Fast-forward a year, and seven bottles make a yard of fabric, which is cut and sewn by a handful of Flint residents into improbable khaki-tone greatcoats, rain hats, cerulean blue retro swimsuits and other garments.

“I hope that I can buy some Flint Fit-wear someday,” said Chin during a media tour of the collection at the Queens Museum, where it will be exhibited until August.

“Art is about options that don’t exist yet.”

The heavy emphasis on protective rainwear is not accidental, said Flint Fit’s designer Tracy Reese, who is best known for outfitting former first lady Michelle Obama.

“People of Flint need to be protected from this toxic water,” she said.

A native of Detroit, a city about an hour’s drive from Flint and that also suffered from the car industry’s decline, Reese said she was “offended” by the mismanagement behind Flint’s water crisis.

“I wanted to do something of service,” she said.

In 2014, the city authorities of Flint, whose residents are predominantly African-American, switched the public water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River.

But the more corrosive river water caused lead, which stunts children’s cognitive development, to leach from the pipes into the drinking water.

The city switched back to Lake Huron water in late 2015, but lead levels remained above federal standards until early 2017. Municipal authorities continue to advise residents to use water filters and bottled water.

With the city still in recovery mode from the crisis, Chin said plans to turn Flint Fit into a social enterprise were being sketched out, and a fashion show that would bring the collection to a Flint runway was also in the works.

“It’s got to go back to them,” Chin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Flint Fit should be owned by the citizens of Flint." (Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)

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