From popcorn bags to old VHS tapes, The Paper Dress Code’s Matthew Richmond designs one-of-a-kind dresses from everyday items.
By Ashley Zlatopolsky
Old VHS tapes, empty movie theater popcorn bags, tissue paper — these items are often discarded, yet designer Matthew Richmond finds a use for these seemingly useless materials. They become an alternative to fabric, the building blocks for one-of-a-kind chic dresses, a unique style of avant-garde fashion found through his creative outlet, The Paper Dress Code.
The idea was an accident. When Richmond, 38, moved into his first apartment as a student at Washtenaw Community College, he needed decor to furnish the Ann Arbor space. His mother had a bust form in her basement, so the young college student, who was pursuing a liberal arts degree with an interest in television production and radio, transferred it to his new home where it sat in a corner, mixed in with other furnishings.
One day in 2006, Richmond decided the bust form could use a dress. “I started grabbing what I had around the home, which was paper and tissue paper,” he recalls. With no prior fashion experience, he draped the bare form with a handmade silver and white dress, modern and futuristic. Judy Jetson from the cartoon “The Jetsons” could have worn it, he laughs.
It was the first dress Richmond ever made, and from that, The Paper Dress Code — an outlet that turns ordinary materials like paper into mediums for dresses — was born in 2010. “Once I moved from Ann Arbor to the Royal Oak and Ferndale area, it blew up,” he explains.
Richmond began crafting more and more dresses, and even hosted an ambush runway event on the streets of Royal Oak, where models paraded around in his creations. This, he says, brought a lot of press.
“That’s when people wanted to commission me for pieces,” he says, “so I knew I had to create the business.”
Now, The Paper Dress Code is entirely commission-based. Dresses start at $550 and go up in price depending on materials used and time spent constructing them. They can take anywhere from a day to several weeks to complete in his Hazel Park home studio. “What I do is a cross between fashion and art,” says Richmond, whose style bridges classic with modern. “I manipulate unconventional materials to look like what I want (them to). That’s something you can’t do with fabric.”
His clientele is a mix: On one side, he sees businesses looking to market themselves through custom-made dresses displaying their logos, and on the other, art collectors. His roster includes the Forbes family, who owns The Somerset Collection, and Art Van, among others.
“Art Van Furniture is synonymous with fashion, which makes a perfect partnership with Matthew,” says Karen Gilbert, special events manager at Art Van. “Matthew has created over-the-top Art Van paper dresses for our grand openings, catalog celebrations and holiday events. He tends to outdo himself with each design with more details and finesse.”
Thanks to his eye for design, attention for Richmond’s dresses has traveled far. Supermodel Cindy Crawford has posted photos on Instagram of his creations. He’s partnering with renowned fashion photographer Nigel Barker on a project, which he can’t share details for just yet. Once, Richmond even created a Stevie Nicks-style dress for a fan of the singer-songwriter to place by a piano in her home. This ever-changing variety, he says, is what makes his work so motivating.
From growing up in a household where his sister put on Barbie fashion shows, to working on craft activities with his mother as a child, the designer has found a way to weave his life story into his art — and into the dresses that look unlike any others on the market.
“I was a kid of the ’80s and ’90s,” Richmond explains. His home life was highly creative and centered on culture. “I grew up watching old reruns of ‘Bewitched’ and watching the old black-and-white movies. I’ve always been a huge fan of that midcentury, modern look.”
He found inspiration in classic ’60s couture, full-skirt and trapeze dresses that were common of that era. The Dior look drew him in, especially the gowns and outfits worn by movie star Audrey Hepburn. “I love old Hollywood glamour,” he says. Today, his dresses follow a similar style: mod and classic yet fanning out with gift wrapping instead of velvet — his own flair on that look.
Some days, he finds himself creating outfits for themed wedding receptions. On others, he’s crafting a walking billboard for an advertiser. With each piece of art, Richmond continues to find new ways to think outside the box. “I’m always working on something different,” he says.