Cami James and Nadia Napreychikov of DI$COUNT UNIVER$E developed their collection WOMEN in New York against the backdrop of the #Metoo movement. It is a body of work imbued with the brash spirit of the new era of women finding their voices and speaking out against assault. Debuting at the New York Fashion Week 2018, their models – including cisgender and transgender women – marched down the runway in flat velvet slippers, rather than high heels, and wore garments emblazoned with the glittering words ‘not for sale’ that bluntly denounced the objectification of the female form. Ten of these outfits now belong to the national collection – a generous gift from James and Napreychikov – and featured in the exhibition Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now – Part One.
REBECCA EDWARDS: The WOMEN collection is your most overtly feminist body of work to date and speaks about womanhood in the twenty first century with an uncompromising voice. You were based in the United States when it was designed, during the height of the Me Too movement. What can you tell us about how this shaped the collection and what you wanted to say?
DI$COUNT UNIVER$E: Our work has always been laced with social, political and feminist ideology. Of course, each collection is thematically different but the messaging in the work is less about that particular time in history and more about our overall experience as women, throughout our lives. Our work has been coded with political and social messaging since its inception and long before the Me Too movement gained global traction (thanks to Tarana Burke and other incredible female activists). The feminist messaging, sense of empowerment and ownership of identity and sexuality in the punchy language and bold imagery has been woven in since day one. The work is cyclical in that way, we started in order to empower young women like ourselves who couldn’t afford expensive fashion, who were sick of being told what luxury was or that their bodies weren’t good enough. As designers we have been empowered and inspired by representing these women.
REBECCA EDWARDS: Many of the garments are brandished with terms that have traditionally been used to belittle women: ‘hysterical’, ‘crazy’, ‘sassy’, ‘emotional’, ‘whore’. What was your intention in using these terms?
DI$COUNT UNIVER$E: We created oversized woven labels usually used for branding the inside of a garment, with large typographic text displaying ‘labels’ saved for women and used by men. Or in worse cases, used by women against women. We felt that having the platform to showcase these words in a format that utilizes them in a more poetic, meaningful way could shine a light on the power they can hold. These words still hold their power on a day-to-day basis. Men don’t care if you’re a feminist; the words still hold the same negative power. The fact we had a place to use them in a beautiful, whimsical and public way felt necessary because they couldn’t be misconstrued or ignored.
REBECCA EDWARDS: did you look to any feminist heroes in particular when you embarked on this collection?
DI$COUNT UNIVER$E: Our audience, our mothers – all the mothers out there – our women friends, our communities, the artists working alongside us, the girl being cat-called on the street, the sex-workers, women who have worked against all kinds of work-place resistance, victims of abuse, activists, transwomen, and all those who have paved the way before us. We are standing upon the shoulders of giants!
“We hope that this moment in time, like other historical times of significant social upheaval, will positively reflect upon and commemorate the women on the frontlines. Over generations we have learnt that we have to fight, on a day-to-day basis. It’s not new to us, but there is still a ton of work to be done. And being well-behaved certainly doesn’t get you anywhere when you want real change.”
REBECCA EDWARDS: The WOMEN collection debuted at New York Fashion week in September 2018 and was particularly not able for your selection of both cisgender and transgender women models on the runway. the collection obviously celebrates womanhood, but was it also important to you to be able to question and interrogate the concept of gender and gender binarity itself?
DI$COUNT UNIVER$E: We’re super proud of the casting we had for the WOMEN collection which was done by our long-time collaborator and good friend Alexis Gross. The right casting was imperative to represent the narrative of the collection and our brand as a whole. From the beginning we have always championed inclusivity with regard to ethnicity and gender and that is reflective in our customers and fanbase. As a brand, we feel we have a certain responsibility to our audience as it has always attracted such an incredibly diverse and creative group of individuals. We understand that they need to be able to look at our work and casting and relate, see themselves in it, know that their beauty is appreciated and celebrated.
“As a brand, we feel we have a certain responsibility to our audience as it has always attracted such an incredibly diverse and creative group of individuals. We understand that they need to be able to look at our work and casting and relate, see themselves in it, know that their beauty is appreciated and celebrated.”
REBECCA EDWARDS: The Covid-19 pandemic has made this an exceptionally difficult year – but especially so for the two of you. You’ve been living in New York and in lockdown for several months. How has this affected your practice and what has this meant for the two of you?
DI$COUNT UNIVER$E: The pandemic has definitely made this year a challenging one across the board. Experiencing the situation in New York, which was arguably one of the worst hit places on the globe, probably gave us a pretty unique perspective on everything that was going on – when you’re living in a place which in its peak saw 800 deaths a day, portable morgues on the street, temporary hospitals built out of desperation, your focus definitely shifts off your practice. New York was ‘ambushed’ by the virus, whereby the time they realised it was here it was already so widely spread, the purpose of lockdown was very much an emergency measure. So while we can imagine the experience of lockdown as more of a preventative measure might give room to thinking of it as more of an inconvenience, here it felt very militant. So many people were sick and dying, it was just what we had to do whether we liked it or not. Being around so much uncontrollable loss really makes you count your blessings, be grateful for your health, it teaches you humility and patience and makes you see yourself as part of a whole rather than just an individual. In terms of our practice, it reminded us of the importance of being adaptable and there are much greater forces out there beyond our control.
REBECCA EDWARDS: How do you think this event will impact the future of the fashion industry?
DI$COUNT UNIVER$E: Fashion by its very nature as both an industry and a creative practice has always reflected the social and economic blueprint of the current time, so whenever there is a huge worldwide shift of any kind it is inevitable that fashion will follow by default. It’s hard to say exactly how and what the effect will be as no one actually knows the outcome of this situation, how long it will last or what greater effect it will have on society. So yes, there will definitely be a shift – you’re already seeing it with major events and Fashion Weeks around the globe being cancelled, the increase of online shopping, and the closure of many brands, from small to very large.
REBECCA EDWARDS: Cami, you’ve stated in the past that the collection reminds you of a well-known quote made by American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: “a well-behaved woman never made history”. I think this sums up the collection perfectly. But could you reflect on what that means to the two of you – in terms of the collection and yourselves as fashion designers?
DI$COUNT UNIVER$E: If we take the definition of ‘well-behaved’ in a traditional, patriarchal sense with regards to how it’s been used to silence and reduce women, then no truer words have been spoken. Black women, who led the Black Lives Matter protests here in New York City, are changing the course of history as we type this. And their very own President [Donald Trump] is calling them “angry mobs”, “looters”, “thugs”. This perfectly exemplifies the Ulrich quote. We hope that this moment in time, like other historical times of significant social upheaval, will positively reflect upon and commemorate the women on the frontlines. Over generations we have learnt that we have to fight, on a day-to-day basis. It’s not new to us, but there is still a ton of work to be done. And being well-behaved certainly doesn’t get you anywhere when you want real change.
Dr Rebecca Edwards is the Sid and Fiona Myer Curator of Ceramics and Design at the National Gallery of Australia. This interview was first published in the Spring 2020 edition of Artonview.