MIA’s Big Sis Has Big Ideas, Bigger Jewelry

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Published February 22, 2010

 

Last summer, Raffi Nernekian was jailed by Dubai officials for wearing a certain T-shirt in public. Never mind that Nernekian was a brand manager for the shirt’s designer, Marc Jacobs, in the Emirate-let alone a Lebanese national. His offensive garb featured an au naturel Victoria Beckham posing for skin cancer relief awareness (a fundraiser for NYU’s Medical School) behind a strategically placed slogan, hence violating local decency laws.

For all its absurdity, the incident was a reminder of the political poignancy left in fashion, at a time when Che Guevera ringer-T’s are a staple of non-revolutionaries, the keffiyeh has adorned the likes of 30-minute-meal-maker Rachael Ray, Henry Holland just wants you to (acronymically) chill the f*** out, and an inspired Bono has almost single-handedly re-branded Africa. How many-now perhaps too-ironic-statement T-shirts will it take to heal the world?

Enter Kali Arulpragasam, the London-based, Sri Lankan designer whose brand, Super Fertile, has taken the art of the sociopolitical statement to heart each season since 2006. A former advertising creative director, Arulpragasam claims she was able to retire from the industry when her kid-sister finally got a steady job (Yeah, that sister). Central St. Martins-trained Arulpragasam thereafter turned her attention to high-concept jewelry-the most traditional form of raiment, before cotton was mass-produced-imbued with political messages. Championing everything from still-undiscovered bird species of the tropical rainforest to the inventor of the ATM (John Shepherd), captured in various shapes and constellations often constructed from heavy metals, Super Fertile jewelry can’t exactly be worn lightly. Fancy parrying the question: “Hey, are those Hasids on your earlobes”?Arulpragasam came into her own in 2008 with the captivating and plenty blogged-about collection Terrorism affects Tourism (“See—I was thinking about Haiti before all this happened!” she jokes) and recently treated the economic crisis with info-graphic bling, iced in faux diamonds and chilly statistics [“50 million people without Healthcare (USA)”]. A would-be enfant terrible of the London fashion scene, Arulpragasam is more of an outsider to the Topshop set. But if her election to the Royal Academy is any indicator, the designer’s political earnestness has sparked broader interest. She has her sights set further afield, too, and is dying to send a belated 90th birthday present to Nelson Mandela (some Super Fertile jewels, naturally).

When I caught up with Arulpragasam at her local pub a few weeks ago, she was wearing Alexander McQueen pants in the same shade of red as Super Fertile production manager Zohra Rahman’s primly set lips. The pair joined forces for AW10/11 on a limited-edition collection of mostly below-the-navel necklaces produced entirely in-house, in Islington. “It’s the first time we’ve attempted to make everything ourselves, since we started,” Arulpragasam sighs, almost incredulously producing hands spackled here and there in bits of plaster. Rahman, Arulpragasam and a handful of female friends labored on the collection (28 limited-edition pieces including bracelets and brooches) almost non-stop during weeks leading up to tonight’s launch, in a sometimes quilting-bee like environment that also ethnically resembled the U.N., Arulpragasam remarks. “It’s like I turn around for a second and someone’s on the phone with her boyfriend; someone else is talking to Pakistan.”

This season’s MAN-KIND collection is a meditation on the power of collectivity, but Arulpragasam and Rahman break it down more pithily: “If MAN is the root of all problems, MAN-KIND is the solution.” What this looks like is an energetic assortment of sculptural, miniature-sized men that draw unwitting Keith Haring comparisons, caught in the act of climbing over, across, and up along the wearer’s body. Each variously flesh-toned “man” (they’re non-gendered, Arulpragasam affirms) is hand-made and hand-painted, with its own characteristic form, posture, surface-and dare I say, occasional lumpiness. “We wanted to describe the jewelry as ‘delicate,'” Arulpragasam says, “because each one is precious, but then they’re not really that small.” Nevertheless, she insists they’re just like us: individual, breakable.

And of course, by extension, valuable. Super Fertile’s one-of-a-kind pieces certainly aren’t cheap. But perhaps that’s what makes Arulpragasam’s project so exciting each cycle-her ephemeral “jewels” fluctuate unceasingly against the gold standard. It’s a pertinent reminder that value is often user-determined, and not only contained in the eye of the beholder. (There are ramifications always.) If anything can properly characterize Super Fertile’s contemporary take on current affairs via spunky statement jewelry, it’s a lack of fear of global postmodernism combined with a joyful testing of the value of ornament: in other words, neo-eclecticism with a purpose. As a result, their message—not smoothly screenprinted into soft cotton-can sometimes be difficult to wear.

SUPER FERTILE’S FALL 2010 COLLECTION LAUCHES TONIGHT, FEBRUARY 23, AT THE CONVENIENCE STORE, LOCATED AT A HAZELWOOD TOWER, GOLBORNE GARDENS, LONDON W10 5DT.