Fashion week isn't interesting to anyone, but amid the heavily consumerist mainstream shows, there are enclaves of creativity untouched by commercialism. These are real independent designers, whose work is more raw art than ready-to-wear. One such faction is known as Women's History Museum (WHM), an avant-garde, deconstructionist line in its third season. The brand is designed by an underground set of pseudo-sisters who met in college and create magnificently perverse costumes for an anti-male world of feminine magic—a world that might exist within an alien-puppet's 90's slumber party, but one that definitely is not our own.
Rivkah Barringer and Amanda McGowan are feminist millennial punks. They learned how to sew via YouTube videos, and their work has intentionally never gone into production. The pair have acquired a cult following and notice by publications obsessed with youth culture. On Wednesday night, they gathered with their cast in a vintage ballroom within the Ukrainian National Home, a decades-old East Village restaurant trapped in time, where stuffed cabbage and stuffed eggs are served in a room with wood paneled walls, under gaudy chandeliers. Naturally, there is a large ballroom behind a set of doors on one end of the restaurant. This is where a couple hundred audience members squeezed in to see WHM's latest collection last night. Old Ukrainian women craned their necks to peer between the doors, as a soundtrack of obscure electronic music blared, youths ran about in shreds of silk, and a grungy young man replaced the white light bulbs in the chandelier with blue and red.
"They're so removed from the fashion system," said Reba Maybury, an editor and publisher of alt-kink and feminist art. She had invited me to the show and greeted me when I arrived. Maybury was wearing a WHM thong of glimmering white material that exposed her vagina and cut between her ass cheeks. I offered her a pierogi from my plate, but she'd eaten the same dish for lunch. "They're creating a vision of womanhood which is desperately missed," Maybury explained. "They're using trans girls, they're using girls who don't identify with being trans, they use girls who just do whatever the fuck they want."
Maybury is part of the broader collective that WHM exists within. She produced a zine to document the collection, which was given to attendees, and she was modeling the clothes too—which explains her avant-garde outfit. Diversity, Maybury tells me, has been "fetishized" by the fashion industry, "to the point where it just kind of means nothing." That isn't true for WHM. This is the world that big designers try to replicate on mood boards—it's authentic and inaccessible to the mainstream. The models and the guests all seemed part of a big, underground network of artists, feminists, and queers. While Women's History Museum is incredibly diverse, that diversity is organic to the line, not put together to appeal to a trend.
The show was personal, with a crowd that was obviously part of the culture of WHM. Gogo Graham's attendance is a good example of that. The transgender designer has been slowly building an alt-empire for trans girls with her eponymous brand for the last few years. Her work, like WHM, isn't owned by any market, and the outside world is barely welcome to it. It is so easy for outsiders to gawk, to misunderstand, to try and distort or control such work. "We all so easily forget that women's history hasn't been documented properly because all we ever do is document the male genius," Maybury said
Amid the chaos intrinsic to any fashion pre-show, I managed to grab Barringer and McGowan, who told me that their work is partially about asserting its own significance and iconizing the feminine without apology. "We were two people who felt really alienated from New York and fashion as a whole, but wanted to participate in it because it was something we bonded over so intensely," they said.
"We were thinking about the limits of clothing and fashion. It can be a source of pain, and confusion, and darkness—because clothes are fun," they told me, as dazed friends and models hurried by. "But it's also not so simplistic as the narrative of Clothes are fun and liberating, period, because they're not."
Barringer told me that clothing can be a way to become apart from one's body, to create an identity or version of one's self that otherwise might not exist. But there are limitations. "It's interesting when clothing stops being able to express identity," they said. "I think that's what this collection is about—what happens when you feel like your clothes aren't freeing to you anymore?"
All photos by Leah James. Some photos NSFW.