Debra Rapoport, a 73-year-old artist from New York’s West Village, has talent for turning trash into treasure.
In a New York Post feature, where she is seen digging through garbage for new materials, Rapoport detailed how she turns paper towels into custom hats that sell for $450.
Rapoport has been working with “recycled and sustainable materials” since the late ’60s. However, her signature paper towel hats are relatively new. About five years ago, she saw a roll of Viva brand paper towels sitting on the table and felt a calling to use them for something. She touched the roll and realized the paper towels were cloth like, instead of your standard textured paper towel. She knew right away she would be able to use the towels like she would cloth or yarn and it has since become one of the primary materials she works with.
Beyond paper towels, Rapoport also uses packing material, egg crates, pieces of metal, and cardboard toilet paper roll tubes as material for her famous hats. Her hats have become so signature that people will just send her stuff to make things out of. It’s part of the reason why her brand name is now “Gifted and Thrifted.”
Rapoport’s work has been featured all over the internet and in museums, like The Smithsonian, across the globe. Her art even caught the eye of fashion blogger and photographer of Ari Seth Cohen of “Advanced Style,” who has since introduced her style to a broader audience. Cohen and Rapoport are now frequent collaborators and even did a Ted Talk together in 2014.
When Rapoport’s hats started becoming more and more in-demand, Cohen suggested she should get into the e-commerce game. Of course, Rapoport objected and said, “No, Ari, I’m just going to do me-commerce. And I’m gonna walk down the streets in my hat, and people are just gonna buy them off me.”
People are so enchanted by Rapoport’s designs, they often stop by her apartment so they can see her whole collection.
Rapoport says the prices of her hats range from $250-$450. Yeah, it’s basically a repurposed roll of paper towels you could find in a dumpster, but the price isn’t that bad when you think about the fact that not only are you getting a unique design that nobody else has, but also people would spend the same amount on any other designer hat.
As an artist, Rapoport’s intention has always been to be able to live off of her art. “It’s always a challenge to live off of what you make,” she says, “but it’s worked for me for 73 years.”