Glitz, glamour and garbage — three words not typically used in the same sentence, especially not to describe a formal dress. But for Cara Isdell Lee, they were a perfect fit.

As co-chair of The Captain Planet Foundation Gala, a program that funds and supports hands-on environmental projects for youth, Lee advocates living an eco-friendly lifestyle. So when it came to finding a dress for the 2013 Gala, she wanted something eco-chic.

The only requirement? “It had to incorporate Coke,” Lee said.

And it did… 70 cans to be exact.

Sharing a Vision

Why Coke? While many consider the brand a part of their life, Lee says it is hers.

That may have something to do with the two leading men in it— her father Neville Isdell, former chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, and her husband Zak Lee, a district sales manager for Coca-Cola Refreshments.

Whether it’s the fact that she was practically born into her own World of Coke or because she married into the company, Lee knew she wanted her special dress to incorporate her love for the brand and for bettering the environment.

Coke dress look book

Coke dress design board

To turn her eco-chic vision into a reality, Lee reached out to SCAD Atlanta. The design school connected her with sewing expert and pattern maker, Rachel Henderson. The two were a perfect match.

A third generation seamstress, Henderson says she has always been resourceful.

“Growing up, I didn’t have that much money… we had to improvise a lot which leads to my talent of being able to see things and reuse them in a different way,” she said.

Like Lee, Henderson shares the same environmentally conscious design esthetic. And also like Lee, her love for the world’s best-loved carbonated beverage flows deep.

“It’s one of those things that is ubiquitous with growing up in Atlanta,” Henderson explained. “The red can and the logo… its home to me.”

A Labor of Love

When it came to designing the dress Henderson, said she "wanted it to be recycled but not look recycled.”

The idea: to make a sequined dress made entirely of Coke cans. For the designer, that meant becoming best friends with her hole-puncher. For Henderson’s boyfriend, it meant a free pass to indulge in his favorite drink.

Out of the 180 cans gathered, he finished 60.

“Drink the soda, punch the can” became Henderson’s daily routine over the next three months. It took a month and a half to make the sequins and another month to sew each one on by hand.

Roughly 25,000 sequins later, the top portion was complete.

The sequins are not only recyclable, but they’re also reversible. The master seamstress sewed them so each sequin can easily flip over. When they flip in one direction, they show the silver from the inside of the can. But run your hand along the sequins in the opposite direction... and voilà! The Coke can red exterior is revealed.

Cara Isdell Lee

Lee shines before the Gala

At Lee’s request, the bottom half of the dress also met the eco-chic requirement. Henderson constructed the silhouette with a blend of naturally grown hemp charmeuse and tussah silk, a unique silk that lets the silkworm live, turn into a butterfly and fly away. And fortunately for this seamstress’ sewing fingers, it only took about six hours to finish.

“The whole time I was sewing it, I was dreaming of what it could be,” Henderson said. “I wanted it to be beautiful, I wanted Coke to love it and I wanted it to represent what I had in my heart.”

When Henderson saw the pictures of Lee wearing it, she knew her dream had come true. “She looked fabulous,” said Henderson.

The labor of love exceeded Lee’s expectations as well. “I think she did an amazing job,” she exclaimed, “the dress is just fantastic.”

A Dazzling Display

It was the first and last night Lee would ever wear “the Coke can dress,” but she’s not hanging it up for good in her own closet. Instead, she is donating it to the Coca-Cola archives in Atlanta.   

“Of course, I would love to re-wear it over and over again, but I thought it would be fun to show people that there are different ways to use Coke cans,” she said.

Although it may never have a red carpet moment again, it will have another chance to shine. The dress will soon be featured at the World of Coke.

As for Henderson, she hopes this dazzling display will send a message to all.

“There’s beauty in everything… even when it looks like trash. The world needs to change their mind about categorizing things and I hope this dress will be a part of helping people realize that,” she concluded.

Click here to see more of Rachel’s work.