London Fashion Week just took a stand on FGM and women's reproductive rights

The five-day event is one of the world’s biggest international fashion showcases, and it’s the perfect platform to get social issues front and centre.

Image: Mario Bertieri at Moderne Lab

Image: Mario Bertieri at Moderne Lab

Already we’ve seen climate change activists from Extinction Rebellion launch road blocks to protest unsustainable “fast fashion”, some of the country’s leading models stand with Grenfell survivors, and the first-ever London Fashion Week that’s gone entirely fur-free.

Irish-born Natalie B Colman is the designer behind the Autumn-Winter 2019 collection Sisters, created in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), with the aim of using fashion to help spread the message of universal sexual and reproductive rights.

Colman has — since establishing a design studio and launching her label in 2011 — become known for collections that play on feminine silhouettes and her sometimes subversive illustrative prints and motifs, that have developed a strong female rhetoric.

“We’ve got a wedding dress … that’s got the whole reproductive system handmade on the sleeves, and then remade in a different kind of texture on the front.”

Splashes of red on white dresses symbolise the fight to end female genital mutilation; black early 18th century wedding dresses represent the harmful practice of child marriage; and a repeating shield motif inspired by the basic meaning of the Latin word “vagina” being “sheath.”

The collaboration with the UNFPA first began last year, and was inspired by Colman’s collection Guaranteed to Bleed, which was “basically about periods,” she says.

The collaboration sees 10% of the profits from the Sisters collection go towards supporting the work of the UNFPA — but it’s about so much more than a financial link, and throughout the development of the collection Colman was “deeply engaged” with the UNFPA’s work to meet the critical need for family planning, to prevent maternal deaths, and to end harmful practices against women and girls.

“With fashion, it kind of filters through, so it’s a way of people engaging, of telling a story, and [one] that they can also become a part of,” continues Colman. “People are making a conscious decision when they’re buying something, and the commercial line is also all sustainable, organic cotton.”

The collection, she says, is highly influenced by the powerful bonds that exist between women and girls in our contemporary global society, and the partnership between Colman and the UNFPA aims to emphasise the importance of sisterhood in “times of rapid and turbulent change.”

It works to highlight the collaborative power of sisterhood, the “coming together of women to mobilise and build support systems — to fulfil the promise of rights and choices for all.”

The date of the show was also highly significant.

Feb. 17 marked 25 years since the ground-breaking International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo in 1994, and 24 years since the Beijing Women’s Conference — both landmark events at which sexual and reproductive health became a fundamental human right, according to the UNFPA.

Even now, 25 years on from ICPD, there are still numerous challenges in the fight to make sure that everyone has the right to sexual and reproductive health.

According to the UNFPA, both women and men around the world are facing barriers that mean they aren’t able to access timely, respectful, quality care, and the information they need to ensure their sexual and reproductive health rights are met.