Fashion and Feminism: A chat with Ana Marcela Villa of AKV

Three women of color, looking straight into the camera, chins up, wearing bustiers by AKV

Bustiers by AKV

Most of my life, my gender presentation has been pretty feminine. I’ve always been interested in makeup, always interested in clothes. But there was a period of a few years when I toned it down: when I was first being introduced to feminism. I thought that if I was going to be a Serious Feminist, I would have to give up my “oppressive” eyeliner and outfits. It wasn’t until years later that I would come to realize exactly how misogynist that was, how deeply the devaluation of the artistic elements of fashion is actually due to its proximity to the feminine. And yet, even within queer and feminist community, this attitude persists. So in an effort to further the dialogue on fashion, adornment, and feminism, I’m doing a series of interviews with feminist designers and artists that create beautiful things to wear. First up: Ana Marcela Villa of AKV!

“We knew we didn’t want to use traditional models” || Grlz of AKV, some of whom you might recognize from Feministing Jamz

I first met Ana Marcela while doing reproductive justice work, and in the last few years she’s become a self-taught designer and has been making beautiful things. I stopped by the AKV studio in Brooklyn to check out their space, meet Anna (Ana Marcela’s collaborator on AKV), and talk the intersections of fashion and feminism. They told me that AKV celebrates girl culture, and when talking about feminism and fashion Ana Marcela framed the conversation with some questions of her own: Who’s getting famous? Who’s making a living? And who’s getting exploited? For real, talking feminism and fashion with her was so much fun. Read on!

VBF: I feel like fashion design, like a lot of art that is thought of in the collective imagination as feminine, isn’t always taken too seriously as an actual art form. Like the way feminine forms of art, or art traditionally being done by women being known as craft (vs. art). Can you talk a little bit about that? 

AMV: I think [the topic of Art vs. Craft] is not often brought up in fashion because many won’t argue that most fashion is not art or even good design. To me, there is no differentiating the art from the craft in my work. I place a high value on my technical proficiency which allows me to design and create freely.

I have always gravitated towards traditional women’s crafts such as embroidery, dressmaking, and knitting, and have always had strong political convictions; this juxtaposition has brought me to a place in my work as an artist where I can push the boundaries conceptually, create well-made beautiful pieces, and feel like my integrity as a feminist remains despite often being challenged.

I’m interested in the ways that cultures of resistance can be integral to any form of art, including design. Do you see elements of feminism, queerness, etc. in your art? How do you incorporate those things?

I absolutely do. My specialty is in making bustiers and working with leather. To me, the bra is a very politically charged item. I don’t see it as an oppressive garment, but rather a signifier of femininity and obedience to traditional gender norms – and thats ok on your own terms! To use the bustier as a starting point for my work is in itself feminist since I am creating for women from the perspective of wanting to empower, not just profit off a market. I think to create feminist, subversive fashion it’s vital to work with integrity, work through becoming jaded and treat everyone you collaborate with with the utmost love and respect. I don’t just think about the final pieces, I think about how the design process I share with my collaborator Anna is shaping her as a designer and how I have the chance to share my experiences and values with another young designer. I approach my work holistically because while fashion is a business, it’s my art and I have to treat it with the respect that it’s something therapeutic, powerful, and personal, not just a money game. Since I have been able to find my footing in fashion as an artist, I am then free to be as political and subversive as I’d like, which to me means being subtle yet strong and creating pieces that are colorful or totally muted, out of anything I want.

How do you see gendered dynamics playing out in the industry?

I have been lucky to work with other queer and feminist designers, as well as in more heteronormative settings; the biggest divide I have seen in the industry is among classes played out between design and production teams. Domestically, there is a huge community of immigrants and working-class folks who do all the heavy lifting for the industry (sewing, sample-making, production, etc) for very little pay, in cramped working conditions and often under abusive clients and bosses.

I have also been reading this book about sweatshop labor that outlines the history of the globalization of the garment industry. On a global level, the industry is made up of 80% women workers who not only get paid less because of a lack of accountability and regulation in the garment industry (rampant capitalism under the guise of neoliberalism) but also because historically, women’s work such as sewing has never been valued the way men’s work has despite being just as highly skilled, labor intensive work.

At the end of the day, the most personal experience with gender dynamics in the industry is in picking up freelance work and having to negotiate the worth of my work and time to just break even, where friends in male dominated work start out at higher day rates for a fraction of the work. I also have accepted that my work isn’t valued as art or considered meaningful by some simply because it’s fashion.

You’re in a desert island and you get to take one food, one beverage, and one feminist. Your picks?

This is a great question. Manhattan Special espresso soda, Patti Smith, and whatever her favorite food is.

Marcela’s current project is the fashion line AKV, with Anna Karpman. You can follow her on instagram, and you can contact her here!

Afropunk fashions: bodies as resistance
I can’t decide if I care about fashion
Fat Girls are still being ignored by fashion companies

1bfea3e7449eff65a94e2e55a8b7acda-bpfullVerónica is excited to bring you more interviews with feminist designers! Stay tuned!

New York, NY

Verónica Bayetti Flores has spent the last years of her life living and breathing reproductive justice. She has led national policy and movement building work on the intersections of immigrants' rights, health care access, young parenthood, and LGBTQ liberation, and has worked to increase access to contraception and abortion, fought for paid sick leave, and demanded access to safe public space for queer youth of color. In 2008 Verónica obtained her Master’s degree in the Sexuality and Health program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She loves cooking, making art, listening to music, and thinking about the ways art forms traditionally seen as feminine are valued and devalued. In addition to writing for Feministing, she is currently spending most of her time doing policy work to reduce the harms of LGBTQ youth of color's interactions with the police and making sure abortion care is accessible to all regardless of their income.

Verónica is a queer immigrant writer, activist, and rabble-rouser.

Read more about Verónica

Join the Conversation