18 Mar A Poet Goes to Fashion Week
I’ve been so historical and serious in these posts recently that I thought it was time to move into the present—but only after this quick postscript to my previous three-part meditation on Suffrage(s): Check out MonumentalWomen.org to learn about the women—a diverse group—who have already committed themselves to creating a Women’s Rights Trail in New York, building (literally) on the completion of their previous campaign for the Stanton-Anthony monument in Central Park.
Now back to the present—and while this isn’t quite about What I Did Over Spring Break, it could be subtitled What I Learned Over Spring Break. Or relearned.
It all started with an email out of the blue, from someone at the great haute couture institution of fashion, the legendary House of Dior in Paris. I am not generally your haute couture fashion type—although I clean up pretty good and can be presentable if required. But then this email arrived.
It was from someone I had read about: the first woman ever to become the artistic director of Dior, the old-world bastion of fashion, Maria Grazia Chiuri, an Italian designer who had worked her way up at the atelier of Valentino and whose craftship and radical approach to fashion had landed her in this position of power at the great French house. She wanted me to collaborate with her on feminist T-shirts.
And so began a journey culminating in a real journey to Paris a few weeks ago, for the runway show that kicked off Paris’s fashion week, held at the Rodin Museum no less: the Dior autumn-winter collection 2019–2020—featuring words I had written.
Now, regular readers of this blog know that I am a creature of words, that words—as the late Ursula K. Le Guin phrased it—are my matter. But this particular iteration of the words Sisterhood Is Powerful, Sisterhood Is Global, and Sisterhood Is Forever, was a whole new territory. Chiuri is serious about her feminism and wants her work in fashion, which is her own art, to reflect something greater than simply itself. She chose the titles of my three anthologies to carry that message, and to do so in a way that bestowed mainstream influence on a genre of clothing—political T-shirts—which already were iconic in a totally different way. She also wanted to honor me as a poet, she wanted me to come to Paris for the debut of the collection, and the nonprofit NGO The Sisterhood is Global Institute, which I cofounded with Simone de Beauvoir and women from 80 countries when that anthology was published in 1984, would profit from this collaboration—with a donation and with a percentage of the profit made from each T-shirt sold.
Vous êtes kidding.
Now you need to understand that we poets are honored, if ever, only by a few other poets in a coffeehouse and by the wider society only when we’re safely 6 feet underground, if then. Almost comparably, we feminists who establish institutes that manage to survive 35 years and counting, working with grassroots women around the world on such issues as FGM, economic survival, prostitution/trafficking, violence against women, and reforming laws on forced and child marriage—well, we spend a considerable amount of our lives fundraising. Furthermore, in the US, at a time when supporters are understandably pouring their donations into political campaigns to unseat fascism in our White House, fundraising for NGOs has become all the harder.
In other words: Incroyable!
So, somewhat like Cinderella at the ball, vigilant that everything might turn into pumpkins at the last minute, off we go to Paris.
Maria Grazia herself, mid 50s, is unpretentious, warm, funny, with a sharp intelligence and a fierce dedication that must have served her well when she marched into that venerable institution to transform it. She surrounds herself with women colleagues (a good sign), especially younger feminists, including her own 22-year-old daughter—and what’s more, she listens to them when they advise her. She has a great laugh. It felt as if we were old acquaintances, not strangers meeting for the first time.
And so it came to be that I sat in a front seat beside the runway set up in the Musée de Rodin, and watched an exquisitely diverse palette of models walk by proudly wearing shirts affirming that Sisterhood is Powerful, Global, and Forever. The shirts were the hit of the show, and later were proclaimed the hit of Fashion Week; the Institute can put the donations, present and future, to excellent purpose, profiting women the world over; I made a new friend and got a trip to Paris into the bargain; and I learned all over again two things I had known but forgotten (merde).
One: Women having power and influence—if they commit themselves to using it on behalf of other women as well as of themselves—are a very good thing, indeed. Don’t we want there to be more, not less, women having power and influence? Have we been powerless so long we don’t know how to recognize Yes for an answer?
Two: Stereotypes are always bad things, revealing a poverty of imagination. We recognize their evil and denounce them accordingly when they are about those suffering from oppression—which is right but frankly costs us little and feels smugly self-congratulatory. Yet a stereotype about a designer being necessarily superficial and obsessed with trivialities is as invidious as any other stereotype. Especially if that designer, after a lifetime of work practicing her craft is, unlike so many before her, hell-bent on using her success to very practically benefit women.
There is, naturellement, an ironic afterword to all this: the media coverage, on and off line, about the T-shirts and my attending the show in Paris was stunningly broad, from the Hindustan Times to Vogue, from the Zimbabwe News to The New York Times and Harper’s Bazaar—and I don’t think the word ”poet” has been uttered or printed or posted so frequently and widely in global media in a very long time—possibly ever. That’s pretty satisfying, too. Fantastique.