In the #MeToo and Time’s Up era, the fashion industry has been grappling with conversations around female identity and the runway has been replete with feminist statements.
Seismic societal shifts have spurred many to make feminism a commodifiable trend. Before that, there was Natalie B. Coleman, a Dublin-based Irish fashion designer who trained under the tutelage of the late Professor Louise Wilson OBE. Her career is built on pointed feminist statements. “Having been involved in the fashion industry for over 18 years as a student, a fashion lecturer, establishing and running my own business and as a consultant, I have always felt that there is a deep systemic inequality between the sexes,” explained Coleman, in an email. It’s a cultural observation like this that has formed the basis of her work since she founded her business in 2011.
Women’s rights in Ireland is a subject worthy of a thesis. In May, the country legalised abortion in a landmark vote which explains why Coleman’s designs for AW18, entitled ‘Guaranteed to Bleed,’ were charged with passion, cardinal reds, and bold graphics.
The collection was released prior to the abortion referendum in May and based on the emphasis of Irish fabrics (tweed, boiled wool, rendered in charcoal, ivory or red), Coleman was examining the conflict between traditionality and rebellion, two dominant themes in Ireland throughout the campaign stages. The couture piece she designed for the Repeal charity fashion show in May could easily have been borrowed from this collection with its red heart embroidery, positioned like a scarlet letter.
Fashion and activism are interwoven concepts for Coleman, and they are in service to one another, rather than disparate ideals.
I hope you enjoy 5 Questions with… Natalie B. Coleman.
What were the AW18 collection's influences?
It was very much influenced by the change that I feel is happening in Ireland and other countries, we are in a time of multiple feminisms, and I wanted to reflect this. The title, ‘Guaranteed to Bleed,’ is straight to the point. I wanted to celebrate women's femininity and fertility, women's periods should not be an embarrassment or something to be ashamed of, the culture around menstruation needs to change to women and girls feeling empowered and celebrated. There has to be an end to period poverty; sanitary products should be free in all secondary schools. I appreciate the work that Claire is doing for Homeless Period Ireland to highlight these issues and help women that are directly affected.
Also, the collection is influenced by the vulnerability and heartache of the slow dismantling of a relationship; the heart bleed, the bruised heart, the aching rebel heart, it has always been a fascination to me through art, poetry, history.
Can you tell me about the fabrication?
We have Irish linens, tweeds, silk taffetas, boiled wool embroidered with messages in French knots. The collection is mainly focused on Irish fabrics inspired by tradition, nostalgia, rebelliousness and romanticism. The materials are unique to the label, the softest textured Irish linens and heritage Donegal Tweeds that are woven by sixth-generation weavers. Our embroidery, crochet and beading are all hand embellished and knitted in our Dublin based design studio.
You were one of the first designers to design with a distinctive, recognisable, and pointed feminist slant to your work, predating feminism becoming part of pop culture, what drew you to this area of design?
I had been reading research on workers in the arts and culture sector, examining how social inequalities connect to the development of creative economies. Having been involved in the fashion industry for over 18 years as a student, a fashion lecturer, establishing and running my own business and as a consultant, I have always felt that there is a deep systemic inequality between the sexists, I also believe that what we need to do is transform the image of business itself which for so long has been the exclusive territory of men. This led me to start studying Gender and Women's Studies in the philosophy department of Trinity College so I can join women that are weaving a better narrative for women in the creative industry. I also grew up in Ireland, which thankfully is changing but I found it quite repressive and patriarchal.
Something that I find interesting about your work is how the fashion is in service to the activism, and the activism is in service to the fashion. Is this a conscious decision and is it tough to find this balance?
I express myself visually through my collections, so I guess it was a natural progression for me and one that informs the other quite quickly. I feel like I am only getting started!
At the Natalie B. Coleman studio, we are all about female empowerment and solidarity, which is why in the past we had teamed up with Plan International on the Because I Am A Girl campaign. Because I am a Girl is a global movement to transform power relations so that girls everywhere can learn, lead, decide and thrive. As part of the label’s social enterprise, we had a casual line titled ‘Support Your Local Girl Gang’ of printed sweaters and t-shirts. €5.00 from every sale went directly to the foundation.
Having worked in the fashion industry in different roles for many years and been a wife, sister, daughter and mother I am acutely aware that gender parity is an elusive goal for many areas of life and industry, and fashion is no exception.
Can you comment on the role of women in the industry?
It is especially ironic for an industry where 70% of the workforce are women and less than 25% hold senior management roles, and the majority of primary consumers are female. As is the case across many industries, the expectations of motherhood and childcare, which even today remain a female responsibility primarily, continue to create barriers to female success in the fashion world. We are working on an interesting collaboration for AW19; just at the beginning stages which hopefully will feed into my thesis, it has all started connecting quite seamlessly.
Photographed by Aidan O’Neill. Courtesy of Natalie B. Coleman.