Natalie B Coleman on her collaboration with UN population fund

Natalie B Coleman.

In fashion there often seems to be something in the ether - whether that’s a trend for a colour, or a shape that determines a space in time - the trend for beige this season, for example, or the instantly recognisable silhouette of the 80’s power shoulder.

A glance at the international fashion week catwalks reveals that AW19 looks set to be characterised by protest as design houses Dior (under its first female artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri) and Viktor & Rolf utilise fashion to make declarations of protest or intent.

Closer to home, Irish designer Natalie B. Coleman has become known for the strong feminist rhetoric which runs through her work, and, in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), this feminist sensibility and this call to sisterhood pulses through the body of her AW19 collection, SISTERS.

Unveiled at a powerfully emotive show during London Fashion Week last month, the collection, and its presentation using several models of various ages, including a mother and her three daughters, has received critical acclaim, prompting coverage in international publications including fashion bibles Women’s Wear Daily, Vogue Italia and Fashionista.com.

“It was wonderful to have Aisling Farinella, Rebecca Knox, Ena Quinn and Celina Bassili on board to help create the presentation,” says Coleman of the London Fashion Week show.

“Once we had all the right women the energy was really great between them.

"The models we chose were all beautiful but their strong personalities also shone through.”

“The older model was such a strong mother figure that even those models who weren’t her daughters had a great affinity with her,” she says.

I was really open to whoever came along to the model casting on the day and it worked out really well in terms of the ideas of family and sisterhood running through the collection.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development and 24 years since the Beijing Conference - two landmark events which resulted in sexual and reproductive rights becoming fundamental human rights.

Coleman’s SISTERS collection is inspired by the powerful bonds that exist between women in an increasingly globalised digital age and the power that sisterhood can have in mobilising social change for women across the globe.

Working with a team of skilled craftspeople including Carrickmacross Lace makers Marion Egan and Theresa Kelly, embroidery expert and designer Jill de Burca, and knitted textiles designer Katie Hanlan, Coleman has produced an extraordinary womenswear collection of exquisite beauty but one which also strikes deeply at the heart of issues such as female empowerment, reproductive rights and female genital mutilation (FGM).

Traditional techniques such as lacemaking, weaving, knitting and hand-embroidery are given an entirely new treatment in the collection through the creation of lace collars featuring the female reproductive system. There’s the designer’s ‘Vagina Cake’ sweater and the exquisitely embroidered bridal gown featuring Carrickmacross lacework on the sleeves which was inspired by statistics on child marriage.

While the rate of child marriage i.e. marriage under the age of 18 years, is declining, UNICEF states that approximately 650 million girls and women alive today were married before their 18th birthday - a situation that violates the fundamental human rights of girls and young women and which often leads to limitations on schooling, early pregnancy and increased risk of domestic violence.

One of the women who helped Coleman to realise her creative vision for SISTERS is lacemaker and artist Theresa Kelly who was approached by the designer to produce the lace sleeves for the wedding gown in the collection.

A renowned artist in her own right, Kelly takes the traditional techniques of Carrickmacross Lace and updates them for a new era resulting in skilled and intricate contemporary art pieces for a modern audience.

“My background is in art and design and when I first came across Carrickmacross Lace (being taught by a woman called Kathleen Flanagan) I felt that there was a wide open perspective to be found in the lace. That has been what has kept me going for the past thirty years,” says Kelly, whose contemporary artworks often incorporate other materials such as stone and wood.

Natalie B Coleman x UNFPA.
Natalie B Coleman x UNFPA.

“Carrickmacross Lace is alive - it can be very vibrant and exciting and has amazing potential. I usually don’t collaborate with people, but when Natalie contacted me about her collection I saw straight away that what she wanted - the high relief, 3D work - fitted in so well with what I was doing with my own work.”

“I loved the theme of the collection and I love Natalie’s quirky sense of humour. No matter what she does I know it’s going to be good as I know the quality of her design work. Carrickmacross Lace has an expressive quality within it and it can have a most dynamic quality - which fits into what Natalie wanted,” says Kelly.

“Plus it has the edgiest message of anything I’ve seen in lace making for ages - that is definitely the reason I was interested in working with Natalie,” says Kelly.

That tension between working within the tight technique of the lacemaking whilst it being limitless in terms of what you can do with it is something I enjoy exploring. The lace allows the lacemaker to interpret the design - anyone who knows my work would recognise it in the SISTERS piece.

The sleeves Kelly produced for Coleman have all the traditional techniques of Carrickmacross Lace - the “pops”, the appliqué work, the guipure work and the loops - but they also have a contemporary 3D element which Kelly has developed over time using traditional techniques.

Coleman’s mainline SISTERS collection featuring these time-consuming and intricate methods of embellishment will be complimented by a collection of printed hoodies, t-shirts and scarves which are ethically produced using organic cotton - ten percent of the profits from the sale of which will go to UNFPA.

These garments are emblazoned with bold, powerful motifs depicting the sword. It’s a depiction which represents both the practice of FGM and the etymology of the word “vagina”: “the scabbard or sheath for a sword” from the Latin root of the word.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 200 million women alive right now across the globe have been cut in the practice of FGM. This practice is usually carried out between infancy and the age of 15 and includes several different methods of mutilation of the vulva, clitoris or vagina in a practice that has no medical benefit and is decreed a violation of human rights by the UN and the WHO.

While the theme of London Fashion Week this season may have #PositiveFashion, for Natalie B. Coleman using fashion as a conduit for powerful statements is nothing new.

“For me it’s not a trend - it’s something I’ve been working towards. I was really happy to partner with the UNFPA on this collection and we are going to continue working together,” says Coleman, whose “Guaranteed to Bleed” sweaters caught the eye of a UNFPA representative at last year’s Wearing Irish event in New York.

It’s not the first time Natalie B. Coleman has produced collections in a feminist vein, and she is informed, not just by her design background, but also by her studies on the Master of Philosophy program for Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College, Dublin.

“It sounds naff to say it but I’ve always been a feminist - long before it was part of the context of my work,” she says. “But now feminism really informs my design process.”

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