Interview: Women's History Museum

Women’s History Museum is a fashion label based in New York. Its co-founders, Amanda McGowan and Mattie Barringer, met as students, their shared interest in—and recoiling from—the conventions of contemporary fashion sparking a friendship that turned quickly collaborative. From the outset, the pair has positioned their work as counterpoint to their field’s perceived limitations, ranging from the reductive constraints of beauty standards and binary coding to the moral implications of outsourced production and the potential tokenism of “diversity.” Eager to foster an alternate narrative, McGowan and Barringer have approached each of their three collections to date with a counter-structural impulse, an overt fluidity found not only in their handmade garments—anarchic, non-assigned compositions of found and repurposed materials, layered in methods akin to collage—but also in their runway shows, each featuring an intimate circle of collaborators who don’t “model” the clothes so much as activate them, the presentations unfolding as organic, unbridled performance. Questioning (and, it would seem, confirming) fashion’s potential for both creative fantasy and political subversion, Women’s History Museum is exciting precisely for its serving as antidote, its pursuit deconstructive in every sense of the word.

As you began working together, were you focusing on clothing projects? Or did you make other kinds of work and then transition into garments?

Our friendship was initiated on the basis of clothing and self-presentation. Even though we both worked with other mediums, clothing was always the focus in our collaboration.

How would you describe the dynamic? In developing your ideas, do you tend to agree with each other straightaway, or is it more a process of compromise and finding common ground?

We don’t always agree, but we do share the same brain.

How early into the project did you arrive at its moniker? What was the thinking behind it?

We wanted to have a name that would allow space for whatever the collaboration would become. We also wanted a name that didn’t take itself too seriously and would confuse people.

Neither of you has formal training in making clothes—you simply taught yourselves to sew by watching YouTube tutorials. As things have progressed with WHM, though, has your craft evolved in turn?

We feel like we learn to sew every time we make a new garment, which is how it should be. We need to take power away from technicians and mathematicians.

Your design strategies to date have focused largely on an interaction of found materials. What kind of sources are you looking to for your fabrics?

Our fabrics are given to us by secret donors from around the world. We also often find things on eBay and in scrap bins.

From the start, the label’s output has been grounded in institutional critique—an active subversion of received standards of representation, of classification, of fabrication. Consequently, and maybe inevitably, this has led some to label your work “anti-fashion.” Does that tag resonate with you, whether as an impulse, an aesthetic, or even a historical reference?

No, we’re not anti-fashion. We’re hoping to forge a new pathway for what fashion can accomplish.

But to the extent that you do see yourselves as outsiders, I wonder if there have been any labels you’ve admired, or have looked to as reference in founding your own imprint?

We’re more influenced by makers outside the realm of fashion. Fashion production has become extremely industrialized and is the antithesis of anything we’d be interested in. We look towards a more historical, artisanal relationship to clothing rather than the contemporary process.

How have those principles guided you in approaching the label as a business? Particularly when it comes to bringing your collections to production—or, as it sounds here, deciding not to do so—I wonder how you’ve navigated the challenges that come with building a self-sustained brand.

That’s not necessarily true—we’ve gone into production with mascot items, for example. But we’re not interested in exploiting other people’s labor to further our brand.

Beyond the ethics involved, this emphasis on handwork seems to have allowed you a certain freedom in your designs; the pieces often feel liberated by an unconcern with functionality, let alone wearability. To me, that’s part of what’s made your collections so exciting—but then, I could be mistaken as to your intentions. Could you envision your pieces being worn on an everyday basis, readily integrated into people’s wardrobes?

We hope to makes things that are wearable but also unattainable.

What’s been your approach to casting? What are you typically looking for in a model?

Our approach to casting is intuitive. Usually, we reach out to friends and artists we admire. Traditional ideas of beauty are one of the most boring parts of fashion, and we do not want to perpetuate them within our imagery. It’s more about creating a context where people have the possibility to express their identity while wearing the clothing.

To that last point: with much of your output, you seem intent on engaging your models as collaborators. I was struck, for instance, by your presentation at St. Mark’s, where the models traded garments on the runway and re-styled one another as desired; equally striking was the zine you published for your third collection, where you invited the models to invent fantastical alter egos around your pieces and then interviewed them in character, highlighting their contributions to the process. Throughout, there’s been a real sense that the project functions on a level not merely of cooperation, but of community, be it one you’re confirming or actively creating.

Community is incredibly important—it was one of the main impetuses for starting the project. Our collaborators and participants breathe life into the things that we make. We’re inspired by them directly. We want to create their avatars.

But in terms of design, then, I wonder how much of it is preconceived—sketched out, assembled from pattern—as opposed to discovered, invented on-site or realized in the process of fitting. Generally speaking, how intuitive is that process? What’s the role of the accidental, the unexpected?

We are uncomfortable with the pairing of intuition and femininity as it often lays in art narratives. Intuition is borne from lived experience, so even if an aesthetic decision is described as “intuitive,” it bears more significance than that adjective really allows for. A complex history can thrive and live within a single patch.

Interview originally published in Office Magazine, March 2017