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Women's History Museum AW16 presentation
Women's History Museum AW16 presentationPhotography Thomas McCarty

The anti-fashion label bringing back NYC’s radicalism

With an AW16 presentation set to a ‘hyper-matriarchal’ soundtrack, Women’s History Museum are refusing to bow to the fashion industry’s standards

To mark the final weeks of the Dazed 100, we’re inviting a selection of the list’s talent to spotlight the creatives that inspire them. Here, publisher-slash-dominatrix Reba Maybury writes on Women’s History Museum, the outsider fashion duo who recently staged a presentation off the schedule in NYC. You can vote for Maybury in the Dazed 100, and read more about WHM here

Saint Mark’s Place in Manhattan’s East Village is one of the most iconic streets in the world. It’s a place where endless counter-cultural moments have evolved and flourished – where William Burroughs lived and wrote, The Ramones frequented recently-closed punk store Trash and Vaudeville, Basquiat tagged the buildings, Thelonious Monk played the Five Spot jazz club, and Warhol premiered his Exploding Plastic Inevitable show.

Now, however, Saint Mark’s Place resembles a parody of subversion. Consumerism has engulfed the street – much like the rest of the world – and played with the area’s rich legacy of rebellion. It’s littered with patronising street art, vendors selling faux rockabilly sunglasses and tourist-ridden tattoo parlours.

Of course, this isn’t a problem limited to New York City – the increasing gentrification of the world’s capitals is making it more and more impossible for young creatives to survive in places once deemed cultural hubs. So, how can we understand what terms like ‘subversion’ mean when the environments that were once the birthplace of subculture are only becoming more commercialised?

Enter emerging label Women’s History Museum, who earlier this month presented their second collection in Saint Mark’s Church on the west side of the street, going against everything that is expected of the fashion industry and instead creating something more exhilarating and raw than the sanitised fashion week period. For the presentation, Mattie Barringer and Amanda McGowan – WHM’s two designers, neither of whom studied fashion – conjured the energy of the street’s lost history, choosing a selection of their friends and New York’s most radical individuals to walk for them. There was trans activist and designer Gogo Graham, noise musician Esra Padgett, artists Donna Huanca and Ser Serpas, photographer Serena Jara and performance artist Marcelline Mandeng, who began the show with a monologue. 

“The presentation involved the models walking in circles around a set design featuring various natural elements, cinnamon sprayed on the floor creating the path for them to walk with lit candles and chopped flowers”

The presentation involved the models walking in circles around a set design featuring various natural elements, cinnamon sprayed on the floor creating the path for them to walk with lit candles and chopped flowers. Once all the models had rotated around, they met in the middle, playing with each other’s hair, lighting matches, applying lipstick to one another. A sense of organic anarchy was evident, and there was no particular direction to how the models were supposed to act. To accompany this almost cultish set-up, the assured voices of Dazed 100 musical duo Odwalla88 were played through the PA and mixed by Xe8iXe with the songs of t.A.T.u and Lydia Lunch, creating a hyper-matriarchal environment. 

While diversity is a conversation that is unfortunately still ongoing in fashion, Women’s History Museum refused to acknowledge it. Not for the reasons you might think – that their selection of models was genuinely diverse was something that simply didn’t need to be discussed. For these designers, this is their world – why would they need to explain themselves for having trans, gender non-conforming, African American, Hispanic, Asian or white models of all different body sizes? Isn’t having a show with 90% white models actually the ‘normality’ we’ve been force fed to the point that we now consider that normal?

On Saturday the future felt optimistic, as Barringer and McGowan forced us to reconsider how narrow the fashion world is by making something incredibly authentic. It was a fashion show with its ideals based in concepts of compassion and acceptance that refused to please the fashion industry, and relit New York’s desperate need for revolt.