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With the rate of femicides having more than doubled in the last five years, and the number of shelters and refuge spaces for women decreasing in Mexico, its female population are constantly struggling against a looming threat. Fashion designer Sabrina Olivera’s latest collection raises funds for domestic abuse charities helping to battle femicide in Mexico. Her inspiration? The Soldaderas – women who fought for the rights of the people during the Mexican Revolution.

Through vibrant colours and contrasting textures, Olivera’s Soldaderas is a reinterpretation of Mexican history and identity, in which women are allowed to visibly and actively become part of the tale, expressing a unity between the domestic and the strength of femininity. Today, she speaks of politicised fashion, the autonomy of domesticity, and gender protests.

First of all, what made you decide to study and pursue fashion?
I had a friend who studied fashion at Parsons and she would sneak me into the studios and teach me how to sew and a little about pattern making. I kind of always knew that I wanted to make clothes but I was afraid, so in the beginning I didn’t take it seriously. I would just say I wanted to learn the craft and eventually I accepted that it was the thing that I wanted to do.
You moved from Mexico to New York to study fashion at Parsons, and you’re now based in Brooklyn – is that right? How was it adapting to a new place and way of life?
Yes, I live in Brooklyn. Honestly, I didn’t move to NYC to study at Parsons; I moved to NYC when I was 19 with a friend from Colombia that I had met in Paris the year before and we applied together to a small school. We just really wanted to be in New York. Adapting is still really hard sometimes.

Your latest collection, Soldaderas, is inspired by the women who fought bravely for the emancipation of the people during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. Could you tell us a little bit more about these women and the crucial role they played in Mexican history?
The problem is that they didn’t really play a crucial role according to Mexican history. This is why I wanted to pay homage to these women soldiers, because apart from leading important fights during the Revolution, they were also in charge of the domesticity, which was just as crucial during the war.
The collection consists of three different pairs of trousers: the Produce, the Pocket, and the Tablecloth, each holding different significance in terms of the history they are portraying. Can you explain the different choices for each one?
The tablecloth and produce pants are inspired by the domestic role of the Soldaderas and women today. The pants are trying to not only pay homage but also resignify domestic work. The fighter side of the Soldaderas inspired the pocket pants, so I wanted to simulate mobility and strength. The seams across the pants were inspired by the medieval armor, and for the big pockets, I wanted to create a game of proportions while making a statement about pockets in women’s clothes.
Where did the idea to use non-conventional fabrics for the tablecloth pants stem from?
Last summer, when I was in Mexico, I had very few resources available there, so I had to start looking at fabrics that were not exactly for clothing but that were used to cover things up – like tablecloths and curtains. This same exercise that I was doing had a lot to do with domesticity. I started thinking about women in Mexico and how some of them dedicate most of their lives to housekeeping: the house comes first, and themselves, their bodies, are secondary.

The shapes are quite simple but imbue an element of practicality – is that a direct reflection of the clothes the Soldaderas wore in battle?
Not really. The revolution was in 1910, so women were limited to what was accepted to use back then, taking out the element of practicality completely. The functionality definitely comes from a contemporary view of how I want people today to reinterpret the essence of the Soldaderas by wearing the pants.
Did you have to research the shapes and styles of the Soldaderas in great detail before beginning your collection? How did you go about conducting this research?
I found a book named Soldaderas by Elena Poniatowska, one of the few sources to learn about the female soldiers of the Mexican revolution in 1910. After that, I found some more resources online and people who knew I was on the lookout for more imaginary would send me more pictures. My dad even sent me pictures of my great grandfather in the revolution and told me stories about the female soldiers.
You yourself grew up in Mexico City, which makes this collection a personal one, as you return to your roots to create. What was it like returning home to create this work?
It was a nice process. I always feel more inspired when I am in Mexico.

All the proceeds made from Soldaderas will be donated to the Red Nacional de Refugios and Adivac, both charities offering women suffering from domestic violence support and refuge. This is such a crucial cause. What was it that made you decide to support it with this collection?
Because I am getting inspiration from women and raising awareness about femicides in Mexico with the project. I felt a natural urge to direct the profit to the cause because this issue personally worries me.
So, your collection is only available for pre-order, which is a choice made to avoid overproduction. The charges facing the fashion industry in terms of mass production and wastage are immense. It is refreshing to see designers changing the way they create. What do you think the implications will be in terms of the increasing pressure to become more eco-aware?
I think everyone is doing what they can. As an independent young designer, it is really hard to be able to meet everyone’s expectations from the start. However, I hope that as the brand grows and I have more economic freedom, I can make decisions that can differ from the fashion industry’s linear product lifecycle and implement a circular system in the way I make my clothes.
There is a resignification of domesticity inherent in your work, particularly with the use of the tablecloths and the practicality of the shapes, what do you think the importance of that is for women of today?
The idea of talking about domestic work is to resignify it. Instead of expressing an obligation or exploitation that many women are subjected to, I want to express strength, autonomy and perhaps, the equitable distribution of unpaid domestic labor.

Your work surrounds the concept of the female body and identity, and seems to be somewhat of a reclamation of both Mexican identity and the feminine itself. This shift of agency is powerful in terms of emancipating women from the epidemic of gender violence, and the work you’re doing is incredibly reflective of the necessity to change this. Do you think fashion should be centered upon making a political statement?
The more my brand develops, the more I understand why other people don’t get political when talking about fashion. There are so many broken chains in the fashion economy that it can be hard to stay consistent and true to your values. However, I do wish more people in fashion, especially the larger brands, would implement an element of activism in their work, not only when they feel pressure because of a social movement but at all times. Some people say everything is political, and I agree, but if so, why not also talk about it and open the conversation?
There’s something about the collection that evokes a rebelliousness – fighting against the enslavement of gender violence through a vibrant and bright spirit –, which is something the Soldaderas themselves represented in their choice to join the rebel armies. Would you say your Soldaderas is your way of fighting back?
Yes, I think the pieces are loud and very inspired by women in the protests against gender violence in Mexico today. This idea of unity and color, these women are splashing glitter on the police in Mexico and putting makeup on historic paintings during the protests this month, where they took over the Humans Rights Commission building and proclaimed it the new shelter for victims of violence.
After releasing this collection, what are your future plans? What can we expect in the upcoming months?
I am actually really excited about what’s coming. I have a few plans, a fashion video dance that will take place in Mexico City next month, and a t-shirt collaboration in the making.

Polly Neill
Meghan Marin
Margaret Galvin
Aria Puga (New Pandemics)

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