“The City Is a Catwalk”: Women’s History Museum Conquers NYFW
Last Thursday, the duo behind Women’s History Museum, an art collective-cum-fashion line, sent a parade of artists and it-girls including Rowan Blanchard, Fashion, and Club Eat’s Ren G., down a spotlit runway across from the The New York Stock Exchange in Tribeca. In the front row, fellow New York designers including Andre Walker and Miss Claire Sullivan cheered as a series of vintage-inspired athleisure looks including tails, deflated cone bras, and screen prints of the Empire State Building floated down the runway. These softer pieces were juxtaposed by sultrier looks including painted furs and updos adorned with porcupine quills, a commentary on the beast that is life in the Big Apple. Yet unlike most NYFW shows which tend to emphasize spectacle over storytelling, Women’s History Museum knows how to do both. Below, we called up Mattie Barringer and Amanda McGowan, the designers behind the brand, to hear more about the inspiration behind their beastly collaboration.
TAYLORE SCARABELLI: Hi. Last night was so fun.
MATTIE BARRINGER: Thank you.
SCARABELLI: Sometimes you go to events where you see everyone you’ve ever met on Instagram or downtown or whatever, and you’re like, “Ugh, I feel gross.” But last night felt very warm and friendly. This word usually feels so meaningless when it comes to fashion, but there really was a community vibe.
AMANDA MCGOWAN: Cool!
SCARABELLI: I also love when people are cheering for the runway. The casting was really fun for that. Everyone was like, “Ooh, who’s next?”
BARRINGER: The casting was mostly Amanda’s picks, and people that we worked with on our shows for years. So it’s a lot of OG friends. We also worked with modeling agencies.
MCGOWAN: Because we had to find male models, which was a whole new thing. I also think having the vintage store really helped because one of the male models was just someone that had shopped there. But a lot of our younger customers think that we just sell vintage, so they don’t know anything about our art and design practice.
SCARABELLI: Last night seemed a lot bigger than anything you’ve ever done before. Everyone was really surprised by how many looks there were.
MCGOWAN: Yeah. It got a little crazy. We cut looks because a few models dropped out.
SCARABELLI: It’s always better to edit it down anyway. I loved SK’s walk. They did such a good job.
MCGOWAN: They did. Also, their look—I feel like we did it like old ’90s runway shows, where there’s more than one theme in the collection—and SK’s look was the boxing, athleisure—
BARRINGER: We did a lot of research of antique athletic wear for the collection, so that was a major reference throughout. But it’s almost like mini collections within a larger love letter to New York City. There were themes of resilience and triumph over the harshness of the environment. The collection is titled “Enfer,” which means hell in French, and it’s basically about how New York is hell but also how much we love it.
MCGOWAN: We were just talking about how people now are really shady about New York Fashion Week and how it sucks. So many people are like, “I just go to Paris for Fashion Week and don’t even come to New York anymore.” So we really felt an obligation to—
BARRINGER: Show them what’s up in New York. The city is a catwalk, and that’s what makes it so fun living here. You’re on display constantly. But the harshness of the environment doesn’t allow what Paris or London allows in terms of actually supporting artistic designers.
SCARABELLI: I think even having the Empire State Building on a dress is very that. You’re literally pointing out the reason why the city is so inaccessible to so many.
SCARABELLI: I loved that opening look. I thought it was really interesting how the two models were attached. Can you tell me what it said on that scroll?
MCGOWAN: The dress is basically just a physical representation of our collaboration, and us being two people that are tied together so closely. All the text is basically words that relate to codependency and being two people in one entity. So it really encapsulated what the show is about and what our working relationship is.
SCARABELLI: And codependency as a means of survival in the city. I think that’s something that a lot of people can relate to.
SCARABELLI: We also have to talk about the glove shoes. They reminded me of glove shoes giving the finger—
MCGOWAN: Those are by Miguel Adrover. I felt inspired by that a hundred percent. I love his work, and I feel like he also has a very theatrical, tongue-in-cheek approach to fashion shows. We wanted to do menswear and we wanted to do more butch looks, because in the past we’ve done a lot of very glamorous or just very feminine clothes, and it never felt a hundred percent like, “Oh, this is everything that we would wear.”
BARRINGER: This is more of a representation of our fashion identity, how we actually dress in real life.
MCGOWAN: So we were doing a lot of old athletic wear research. Also, even the platforms that some of the models were wearing, that were the big, white, chunky platforms were made using antique weightlifting shoes. I don’t know if you saw the guy wearing the meat section.
MCGOWAN: He had a hat that was based on also a—
BARRINGER: Old ski hat. Also, there were a few hats based on old motoring hats, which, in the early 1900s, cars were open, so you would have to wear a veil.
MCGOWAN: So shit didn’t get in your face.
BARRINGER: And that was considered athletic fashion for women because women driving cars were considered athletic. Also, the boxing glove thing—I feel like violence or aggression is a theme of the collection, what it takes to create a city like this and what it takes to survive in a city like this.
SCARABELLI: Right. It felt like a juxtaposition between these pieces that were more like armor, and then the softer take on athleisure, the pieces that you could potentially produce and sell. There were also a lot of upcycled items, like the furs. I also saw on Instagram that you had live butterflies under one of the veils. I was like, “Oh, bold move after the Undercover criticism.”
MCGOWAN: Wait, I don’t even know about that.
SCARABELLI: Jun used live butterflies in those bubble dresses last season, and some people got upset about it, even though they set them free after. It was a whole thing.
MCGOWAN: We used vintage fur also because it was cheaper to buy vintage coats and cut them up. But, also, we bought real fur. We kept being like, “I feel like PETA’s going to come for us next season.”
BARRINGER: We don’t care. I support anybody who’s into animal rights in a real way, but I think a lot of it can be extremely performative. There’s no good faith behind the whole conversation about sustainability in fashion. I think people should care more about the dehumanizing things that happen to people because of the economy that we all participate in.
SCARABELLI: I think you’re also saying that within the collection, particularly with the onesie or the two-piece look where body parts are labeled like meat at a butcher shop. You’re essentially pointing to the exploitation of people within the fashion industry, and the commodification of the body as a result of it.
SCARABELLI: I was really impressed with the long silk gown with the fetus printed on top.
MCGOWAN: That dress was a brain-bender. It was Maddie’s design entirely, and it took us months to make. She ended up using a puppy fetus to create the print, because its face was actually cuter than the human fetus.
BARRINGER: I feel like it also fits the theme of nature interwoven throughout a theme of violence and mechanized labor. New York is this man-made place, but there’s an animal within everybody, or how you almost become more animalistic as you live here.
SCARABELLI: It’s the clout demon growing inside of everyone. [Laughs]
BARRINGER: Yeah, and it also goes back to the codependency theme, how attachment works. Even in a non-maternal bond, you begin to mother one another. Also, I grew up in the Mormon church where there’s a huge emphasis on childbearing. It goes back to the exploitation of marginalized genders and the expectations placed on people’s bodies or turning bodies into a commodity. I feel like it’s very partially a critique of pregnancy but also a celebration.
MCGOWAN: And the model’s hands are tied in the dress, so it’s also critical of pregnancy in some ways.
SCARABELLI: The slavery of motherhood.
SCARABELLI: I also wanted to ask about the hair. Sonny [Molina] did a great job. What were the spiky things coming out?
MCGOWAN: Porcupine quills.
SCARABELLI: Wow. Where did you find those?
BARRINGER: Actually, during our first call about hair, we were talking about the theme of animalistic references and imagery throughout the collection, and she was like, “Is this weird? I have quills at my house and I really want to use them in the hair.”
MCGOWAN: Initially, the only hair that we did was the pill wig, which only got finished minutes before the show.
BARRINGER: That’s something that Amanda’s been working on for over a year.
MCGOWAN: We wanted to do more wigs and hats and stuff, but then Sonny was bringing so much to the table with hair that we were like, “We don’t even need to do that.” It was a perfect synthesis. Sonny and Nat [Carlson, the makeup artist] got the themes immediately and just were able to go with it and create amazing things. And Nat made a whole book, basically, of the different makeup looks for the show. That, in itself, was a work of art.
SCARABELLI: I think it works really well when you just open up the space for people to be creative and without a lot of boundaries. Who did the soundtrack? I loved the gabber vibes.
BARRINGER: Our friend Amber Bradford, she’s an ER nurse in Tennessee, but she’s an amazing musician and has insane style. She brought what needed to be brought, for the looks.