By day, Matthew Richmond does social media and promotions for L'Esprit Academy beauty salon in Royal Oak. For the past eight years, he's made dresses out of paper on the side, and some big names have taken notice of his work. More on that later, though.
Why paper? "Because if I did it out of fabric no one would even care," Richmond laughs. The real reason, though, is more practical: Richmond doesn't know how to sew.
Richmond says that despite his dresses are only made out of paper, his models have never had a "wardrobe malfunction." He builds his dresses on top of a sort of plastic slip that his models are taped into. He even says he gets more than one use out of his dresses. "Obviously paper fades and I don't treat it by any means, I just keep it in its natural state," he says. "It lasts as long as you take care of it well."
Richmond also uses other materials like plastic shopping bags, which he says are the most durable. "I have one that's like almost as old as I've been making dresses and it's still in perfect shape," he says.
He's been making the dresses since 2006, when he was going to school for liberal arts. "I had no background in fashion or anything like that. I had not been to school for fashion by any means," he says. "I had a bust form I dug out of my parents' basement and I put it in my first apartment in Ann Arbor while I was going to school there. I was bored one day and I was thinking, 'I think I can make a dress on that.' I had no idea why I would even think that. But I just grabbed some old wrapping paper and tissue paper and made this futuristic Judy Jetson-looking dress."
Richmond moved to Ferndale in 2009, and the next year a friend suggested he should pull off an "ambush." "I didn't even know what that was," he says. "She said that you just dress a bunch of models up and parade them in the street in a crowded area." So Richmond staged his own guerilla fashion show — and it paid off, making the rounds on social media.
"People have been doing it in New York city for years," Richmond says. "That's basically how I got recognized." He started getting attention from bigger media outlets. "I did an NPR station, and CBS did an online story, and then CNN picked it up and put it on their website," he says.
Recently, Richmond has a dress for Hour Detroit magazine, a dress made out of condoms for Planned Parenthood, and an exhibit for the Somerset Collection. He even provided some models dressed in old issues of Metro Times for our Best of Detroit party back in April. One of his biggest and most steady clients has been Art Van, who consistently commissions dresses made out of their bags for their store openings.
"You put a girl in a paper dress made of Budweiser labels and that's going to get you a little bit more attention than a girl in a Budweiser T-shirt," Richmond muses. "Art Van recognizes that."
But the biggest opportunity came when Forbes magazine came knocking — and Richmond admits he blew it. "Oh my god! That's actually an embarrassment. I'm now comfortable telling the story," he says. Last year he got a vague email claiming to be from someone at Forbes. Richmond initially wrote it off as a prank from his friends.
"It was something like, 'We're interested in putting one of your dresses on a famous model,'" Richmond recounts. "I got it on a Monday, and checked my email Wednesday and didn't believe it. Then I Googled the person's name and they turned out to be totally legit." In the high-paced world of publishing, by the time Richmond responded to the initial email it was already too late.
Sure enough, the holiday issue of Forbes came out with supermodel Petra Nemcova wearing a dress made out of wrapping paper — that Richmond didn't design. "That was a very depressing time in my life. I fell into a little bit of a depression for about two months," Richmond admits. "That probably was my calling right there." But Richmond remains optimistic, and continues to do what he does. "I still have my contact there, which is fantastic," he says. "The fact that they've been watching me over the years is a little bit of an honor." — mt
Learn more about Matthew Richmond and see more of his paper dresses at thepaperdresscode.com.