Opening up the world of design doesn’t just mean more adding more women to the mix, but creating an equal playing field across the spectrums of diversity.
As a young Asian woman, Fey noted that she doesn’t often see herself reflected back in the field, and emphasized that it is important to be aware of diversity, in terms of race, as well. “At the bottom rungs, it’s white women,” she said of the museum hierarchy. “And as you move up, it’s all white men. I don’t have a quota I check off as a feminist, but it is something I am constantly, even unconsciously, mindful of.”
Semman Vernon also works to this end by using “plus-size” models at the Slow Factory. “Well, that’s what they are called, but of course, they are normal,” she explained, gesturing to her own frame. Growing up in Lebanon, she struggled to fit into a societally prescribed ideal, and she sees it as crucial to widen the span of images that women are offered, or, as she put it: “The campaigns that we work with are trying to empower by telling a different story around women.”
Design can be a powerful tool for creating meaning...
Part of Abdel Malak’s work centers around the keffiyeh, a Middle Eastern headdress, which she has worked to recontextualize for a western perspective. She engages with the plurality of identity by studying what the traditional male garb means when it is made accessible in women’s fashion. (Of course, this requires a sense of reverence, which she contributes from her upbringing in Lebanon. “I’m sure you’ve seen the keffiyeh at Urban Outfitters,” she joked. “It doesn’t really belong there.”)
Reappropriating can also happen within a single culture. Semman Vernon brought up Tavi Gevinson’s aesthetic, and its quiet subversiveness. Gevinson’s use of sparkles or just the color pink works to take back a reductively “girly” space. As a designer, Semman Vernon says it’s a reminder that part of feminism is letting women be who they want to be by making their own meaning out of cultural symbols. She used to reject more typical gendered symbols, but has over time learned to embrace them. “Wear pink if you want to, put a unicorn on your head,” she said. As she sees it, style should be a way of being whoever you want to be, not another means of succumbing to societal judgment.
… and simply making use of it can be a feminist act.
Wass discussed the way she thinks about her work being used to help consumers express themselves. “I do think there is something empowering about building characters,” she said, “Jewelry has this power, and it’s had this power historically, it lets you define yourself through something symbolic that is explicitly nonfunctional.”
With WXYZ designs, she often contemplates stripping away identity or building it out. She thinks accessories’ lack of practicality makes them crucial for that process. “Some people want to define and some people want to remove the definition,” Wass said. “Those are both ways that we can think about evolving our identities as individuals in this world or making our own world [outside of that].”
That statement contains the most striking takeaway of the panel: Design creates meaning, and even just being aware of that, may be the start of a feminist shift in the industry. “Look at the art world, the design world, look at fashion designers,” Abdel Malak said. “We’re still dressed by men, we’re still told by men what we can be and what we can do, when really we should decide those things.”