As the eagerly-anticipated referendum on the Eighth Amendment looms, a number of designers have embraced the cause, raising awareness and donating money from the sale of their creations.
In early 2015 the Repeal Project launched in Ireland. In stark monochrome, women all over the country and beyond, made their feelings heard, by sporting one word on one garment. Repeal.
A simple request to a convoluted situation, the Repeal Project speaks of the Eighth Amendment, a law which restricts women’s right to bodily autonomy in Ireland.
This fight has been fought – and regretfully lost – by many, for many weary years, with unbelievable tragedies unfolding, both publicly and privately, along the way. While the more overt of these instances happened under the glare of national scrutiny, the Repeal Project drove the momentum for reform that gained considerable traction two short years ago. Suddenly, in place of a shared silence, the word ‘Repeal’ was communally spoken with increasing demand.
It made a difference. It also made a statement, something designers, advocates and everyday humans have been doing through their wares for years. Speaking to three such humans, two designers and artist, we come upon a wonderful mesh of fashion, feminism and a continued fight.
Shubhangi Karmakar, originally from India, came to Ireland from the U.K to study medicine. “Trinity has always been held in such high esteem as a place to study [medicine], with a reputation like that it seemed so strange that it would have these restrictions about educating its students on what should be a basic human right and a straightforward procedure.”
Upon her arrival, Shubhangi immersed herself in the culture of change as an active member of the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union and volunteer for the Repeal Project, in which she found her inspiration for her label, the Repealist, set up in August 2017
Fluorescence and feminism crafted into statement jewellery, Shubhangi’s creations differ in style to what her comrades offer. Shubhangi assures us of her adoration and respect for the Repeal Project, but when it came to expressing her own advocacy for the cause, she felt an injection of colour was required. “The jumpers give people the chance to confirm their stance on the subject, my pieces are more of a conversation starter. People see them and are intrigued and usually want to find out more.”
These icebreakers were made on a small scale initially using a variety of sustainable resources. Laser cut wood and acrylics were fashioned into 4x4cm to 5x5cm shapes, painted in watercolours, a familiar technique to the self-taught artist, who has been creating portraits since she was a child. The designs themselves, a defiant scrawl, first came to fruition while she was volunteering with the Repeal Project, selling the signature jumpers. Between shifts she found herself doodling. “I showed them to Anna (Cosgrave, founder of The Repeal Project) and she thought they were cool. From there I began thinking about how I could create something that could help raise money for the coalition.”
Shubhangi continued to sketch while revising for her exams and in that time created the brand’s signature style. “After sketching them out I’d digitise them with some free-to-use software I could access online, then I’d have them made up and uploaded them onto Redbubble. I didn’t really know what to expect, to be honest. To my humble surprise, they sold.”
Humbling as it may have been, Repealist was no modest move, with the designer making €200-300 a month for the coalition from her jewellery sales, an experience she simply described as “grand.” Grander still, Shubhangi’s designs have been promoted on an international scale with Labour MP Jess Phillips sporting an electric blue bauble on Sky News.
“It’s very overwhelming, the fact that people put so much faith in my designs and that they choose them to make a statement, to be their conversation starter. After all, when the referendum does happen, I can’t vote myself, but I can sure as hell educate people about the matter and encourage them to do so.”
Starting conversation seems to be the aim of the game when fashion and feminism collide. Nessa Finnegan, artist and creator of idiom-clad Fear Mná sweatshirts, believes statements like hers are a way of getting the ball rolling in terms of introducing gender and inequality issues into everyday conversation. “It’s always a good starting point to make people laugh; it tends to break the ice for further discussion.”
And for the artist, this is what it is all about. “Once it’s made, the message leaves me and becomes the wearer’s own statement. It’s empowering to consider that somebody can spread the message to their communities with something as simple as wearing a jumper.”
Fear Mná started off as art rather than attire. “I am an artist as opposed to a designer. All of my pieces come from works of art, in the past or at that moment. Originally, this was a lino print that I made to contribute to an exhibition in my old school. I wanted to make a piece that had feminist values in it. I often use text and humour in my work. I will use words that have a different meaning, crossing cultures and crossing languages. I like them, firstly, to work in general, and then to disrupt the everyday, expressing ideas of feminism and femininity.”
Fear Mná in its original medium was received extremely well, with her former Irish teacher purchasing the artwork. “The print was later moved onto a jumper with a screen printer. Then, due to the demand, it was put on badges and bags. It’s important to me to make the message accessible – in essence, I want this to be a message that you can promote even if you only have a Euro to spare.”
The designer and owner of Irish online jewellery store, The Temple Wolf, knows all too well the worth of a single Euro, with her donating one from each and every sale she makes to charities such as The Rape Crisis Centre. “I know it might not be much, we’re not talking thousands here, but it’s good to know my money is making a difference.”
And it is making a difference along Emma’s label as a whole – The Temple Wolf, the home to new-age national treasures. A recognisable piece from her collections, donned by wearers both home and away is the small structure of Ireland, an emblem which many wear proudly, close to their heart.
“The Eire design definitely came as a result of my living away. I taught abroad for two years and, while there, I found myself becoming more and more Irish by the minute. Every time I would return back from a holiday or break, my patriotism levels would soar. I even bought a tin whistle in the airport one time and brought it to some of my classes. While abroad I always felt so proud of being Irish. The reaction I got as an Irish person around the world was always so warm. I think that’s why the piece is so popular, it symbolises that pride, especially for those away from home.”
The other most striking designs sold by The Temple Wolf are necklaces with the glimmering words ‘Feminism’ and ‘Repeal’ brandished across them, something which, in the country’s current situation, could be seen as incompatible with, the ode to Ireland of, Emma’s Eire design.
“Obviously, through my creations, I am pinning my colours to the flag, but I don’t want to go totally political with the shop. I love Ireland but we have to move forward. It is already happening; the power of women rising can be felt around the country. Hopefully, soon enough our futures will no longer be a decision for someone else – and that’s very exciting.”
Words: Sinead O’Reilly
Repeal Necklace worn by Jamie Canavan of Galway pro-Choice photographed at the ARC March, Dublin 2017. Also pictured is Withne Browne of Galway Pro-Choice. Photo: Saibh Egan
MP Stella Creasy wearing a Repeal sweater by The Repeal Project and necklace by Shubhangi Karmakar. Photo: Tristan Hutchinson