As Abortion Vote Nears, Irish Fashion Designers Choose a Side

Protesters during a Strike 4 Repeal campaign march held in Dublin in 2017, seeking a referendum on the repeal of the eighth amendment. Some protesters wore Repeal Project sweatshirts, right, provided by the group founder Anna Cosgrave.

Dublin is not a city known for its fashion extravaganzas. But last Thursday, inside the vaulted atrium of the upmarket Powerscourt Centre shopping arcade, models took to the catwalk clad in one-off couture creations by a dozen of Ireland’s best known designers.

One model wore a knit navy sweater with neon yellow trim, covered in prints based on the number 8, by Pearl Reddington. Another wore a trilby hat by the milliner Margaret O’Connor; it was bedecked with colored sequins and black ribbons emblazoned with the word “Repeal.” A third woman modeled a black shift dress with puffed sleeves, finished with chiffon ruffles and a large scarlet heart, by Natalie B. Coleman.

It was a visual statement, but not solely of the fashion kind.

Titled “Fashion Is Repealing,” the event had been organized by abortion rights advocates, two weeks before a vote on Ireland’s strict abortion laws, with every garment then offered for sale to benefit the Together for Yes campaign.

Just as designers from across the fashion world have, increasingly, been speaking about their political beliefs, including voices of support for Hillary Clinton and an anti-Brexit push by London fashion, this is a newly vocal stance from the Irish fashion community.

On May 25, voters will be asked if they want to repeal Article 40.3.3 (known as the Eighth Amendment), which since 1983 has effectively enshrined a ban on abortion in the Irish constitution.

Now, after decades of fierce debate and news last week that Google and Facebook had suspended all advertising connected to the abortion referendum in a move by the tech giants to protect what they called “election integrity,” fashion has decided to exercise its muscle.

“The abortion issue is primarily a women’s issue, and until recently I noticed a lot of women’s media here hadn’t really broached the topic,” said Andrea Horan, a Dublin-based nail bar owner. “So making Irish fashion a focus of our campaign was partly a bid to draw that media spotlight in on us, and get more voices heard.”

Ms. Horan was the driving force behind the “Repeal” show and is the founder of the women’s rights discussion platform Hunreal Issues, which she describes as “throwing glitter on issues without minimizing them.”

“A lot of the time, political conversations can be academic, highbrow and exclusive. And fashion can act as a great leveler in terms of welcoming a bigger audience who may not be politically minded,” Ms. Horan said. “This abortion vote is going to be the most important we’ve ever had in this country. It was great to see so many Irish designers felt they had something to say about it.”

Ms. O’Connor, the milliner, who lived in Britain for eight years before moving back to County Clare in western Ireland in 2017, said: “I can look back at this and see that I spoke out, created some art and at least did something. I’d hate to look back 20 years from now and think I was one of the people in the corner who said nothing because it felt safer.”

That the established fashion community, predominantly populated by left-leaning social liberals in Ireland as it is in many countries, overwhelmingly landed on the side of abortion rights is not surprising to many observers. (In the United States, the Council of Fashion Designers of America has supported Planned Parenthood, handing out pink pins during one fashion week.)

“Wearing what you believe is more apparent with this debate in Ireland than ever before,” said Deirdre McQuillan, the fashion editor of the Irish Times newspaper. “One of the most powerful symbols of the entire pro-choice movement has been the Repeal Project sweatshirts, which you now see out on the streets at the moment almost every day.”

Black with the word “Repeal” stamped in a slogan-like graphic across the front, these sweatshirts were the brainchild of the activist Anna Cosgrave. She founded the Repeal Project after attending a vigil for Savita Halappanavar, an Indian-born woman whose death in 2012, after her requests for an abortion were refused by a hospital in Galway, Ireland, prompted widespread outcry across the country.

“I wanted people that otherwise felt nervous about the political and academic rhetoric around reproductive rights to be able to wear a jumper and be like, ‘I care,’ without necessarily having any of the linguistics or technical terms,” Ms. Cosgrave said of her sweaters.“By choosing these clothes, wearers are silently screaming. By seeing the jumpers over and over again out and about, it normalizes conversations about abortion, while showing that there is support there for the women who have had them and suffered in silence.”

Similarly, an alliance called Abortion Rights Campaign has been selling popular T-shirts printed with “Free Safe Legal.” And Repealist, a brand that specializes in clothing and housewares, has created a dress that reads, “Our Bodies Our Choice,” with a print of an upside-down hanger, emblazoned with “Hanging in the Balance.”

“At one level they are just garments,” Ms. Cosgrave said. “But now they are also a rallying cry.”

It’s a call that has been heard by several young Irish fashion designers living and working across the sea in Britain. More than 4,000 Irish women leave home for England every year to get an abortion, according to data from Marie Stopes, an organization that provides sexual and reproductive health care.

“Repealing the Eighth Amendment is incredibly important and a necessary change for Ireland,” said the designer Simone Rocha when contacted by email last week, though she has not yet used her brand platform for the cause. “I am pro-choice, as a woman and a mother.”

Even more vocal is Richard Malone, a 26-year-old from County Wexford and a rising star on the London fashion scene who was nominated for the LVMH Prize last year. At the end of his most recent catwalk show in February — which opened London Fashion Week— Mr. Malone took his bow wearing a Repeal the 8th T-shirt. In a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, who met with young designers on the final day of London Fashion Week last season, he wore a Repeal sticker on his chest.

“Coming from a working-class background and being brought up by strong women, the debate around abortion is one I’ve been having for as long as I can remember. At root, it’s not just a women’s rights issue, it is a human rights issue,” said Mr. Malone, who has been back and forth between London and Ireland in recent months to canvass for the Yes campaign. “My work is all about what it means to be a woman and making statements about femininity. This issue, for me, is impossible to ignore.”

Dedication to the cause landed him in hot water with the department store Selfridges last month, which removed unauthorized Repeal the Eighth slogans from a window put up by Mr. Malone as part of a pop-up exhibition exploring the nature of luxury.

For Mr. Malone, luxury meant an unfettered freedom of expression: He drew hearts and slogans in red across the glass panes, and had organized a number of speakers to read from Una Mullally’s “Repeal the 8th” book, along with dancers and music as part of his installation in the window. The store’s management was not amused.

“Selfridges is a politically neutral safe space for everyone, and it’s regrettable that a platform for celebrated creative talent was commandeered in this manner,” a Selfridges spokesman said in a statement after the event.

Still, Mr. Malone remained unrepentant. “It was disappointing, but sometimes as a designer there are more important things than working with stores — you have to stay true to your voice,” he said. “Fashion is so concerned with image making, or faux politics for an Instagram post, which means nothing. You have to physically get out there and do it. All I can do now is raise awareness and use my platform within fashion and beyond. Ours is a battle that hasn’t been won yet.”

Paul McLauchlan contributed reporting from Cork.

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