Rena Niamh Smith

Mary Quant

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For their latest exhibition, the V&A invites the viewer to “discover how Mary Quant launched a fashion revolution on the British high street”. The R-word features heavily throughout, used to describe everything from her use of coloured tights to a prescient view of the sweeping social change which characterised the 1960s.

Women of the World Festival 2019

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The Women of the World Festival will mark its 10th anniversary next year. The event has been so successful that Jude Kelly has quit her day job as artistic director of the Southbank Centre to head up the venture full time. The festival has since been expanded into 17 countries around the world with 65 festivals in countries from Nepal to Finland to the US.

The festival aims to “celebrate women and girls, taking a frank look at what prevents them from achieving their potential, raising awareness globally of the issues they face and discussing solutions together”.

Karl Lagerfeld, 1933–2019

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“Those social networks, there’s something sad about them. It’s like a talkative mirror where people talk to themselves.” So Karl Lagerfeld told Women’s Wear Daily in 2014. When the designer died in February, there was an outpouring of grief on social media from across the fashion industry for the self-styled pope of fashion.

Lagerfeld was known to hold contemptuous views of the same world he profited from. And social media was key to the promotion of both his businesses and highly recognisable personal image.

Dressing for the revolution

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From the gilets jaunes to the sans-culottes, clothing might not be the central question when considering radical movements, but there is more to it than you might expect, writes Rena Niamh Smith.

When I titled a recent talk on the politics of fashion “What will you Wear to the Revolution?”, some queried if a consideration of what we wear may be beneath the serious politics of the Marxist tradition.

Yet if the revolution were to happen tomorrow, we know exactly what we would wear. The once anonymous hi-vis vest has proved such an electrifying feature of the French anti-establishment protests, that their sale was banned in Egypt, site of serious revolution in recent memory.

A whiff of change in the air

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Rena Niamh Smith continues her series of columns with a hopeful look at how the desire for a better world is feeding into the fashion world — but a more fundamental shift will be required for lasting change.

Flick through any fashion magazine and you get a taste for the current mood of change in fashion. Features on gender fluidity, the renaissance of slogan tee shirts, models of size and colour, shopping guides to the growing sustainable market suggest a brighter future led by Gen Z. Even the trend for baby pink has been linked to renewed interest in feminism.

Donald Trump’s model agency, founded in 1999, quickly went out of business following his election as the industry dropped connections to the odious mogul-turned-president.

Eco-fashioning a toxic trade

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Recent trends for “sustainable fashion” will not be sufficient to transform an industry inherently tied up with polluting practices and wasteful mass production from its inception, writes Rena Niamh Smith.

Fashion is a product industry, and as such, requires enormous amounts of resources to produce, distribute and dispose of what is sold. Typically, textiles and garments are mass-produced in the Global South, shipped to Western countries for consumption, and vast quantities of those which are not dumped in landfill are shipped to Africa and beyond to the vast second-hand market.

The world’s second most polluting industry after oil, fashion’s specific crimes against the planet are too numerous to list here, but cotton production provides a snapshot.

The ugly truth about beauty

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Rena Niamh Smith unpicks fashion’s ambiguous relationship with gender, revealing how it relies on the labour of poor women, while both exploiting people’s insecurities and claiming to celebrate “empowerment”.

Every fashion show I’ve ever attended names “strong women” as inspiration in the show notes, whether the collection was conceptual art pieces, or micro dresses and four-inch heels.

Style can be empowering. Angela Davis’s afro was a bold, beautiful middle finger to the Eurocentric beauty standards imposed on black women, symbolic of systematic oppression of black people. Like music, style is an art and individual garments, or hairstyles, both hold aesthetic merit and operate in a wider, often political, trend.

When hypocrisy’s in fashion

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A handful of significant appointments of black designers and cover stars marks something of a change for the fashion industry, but racism is rooted in much deeper structural problems.

This year is being hailed as a breakthrough year for black figures in the fashion industry.

Virgil Abloh was appointed creative director for menswear at Louis Vuitton. Ghanaian-born Edward Enninful, who took over as editor-in-chief of British Vogue in late 2017, made Rihanna the first black woman to star on the all-important September issue. A record number of other major magazines had black September cover stars, from Beyoncé for American Vogue to Slick Woods for Elle UK.

Behind the cloak of glamour

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In a new series of columns Rena Niamh Smith will look at aspects of the fashion industry, from ideology to racism, sexism and the environment. She begins with Fashion Week and how it conceals the system beneath.

This month, Spring/Summer 2019 Fashion Week swaggers into New York, followed by London, Milan and Paris. The carnival of shows is one of the most visible elements of an industry which cloaks itself in mystery. It is a multimillion-pound charade masking practices typical of capitalism: worker exploitation and artificially high consumption of the world’s resources.

Kahlo’s stature on display

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As the world-leading V&A opens its Frida Kahlo exhibition, Rena Niamh Smith looks at the complex life of this iconic artist.

Frida Kahlo’s image has become a pop cult touchstone. With the crown of flowers, monobrow, dark eyes and the sometimes-omitted moustache, this disabled bisexual Mexican communist’s image is eclipsing Che Guevara’s as the in-the-know poster child for rebellion with a zeitgeist feminist update.

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