Warhorse

Thrift Generation Are Reclaiming the Playboy Bunny

20 April 17 interview: Lucy Manning

Madi Wallner is the woman behind independent clothing company, Thrift Generation. Having recently launched their brand new t-shirt design, and with their upcoming Girl Power Networking event, we had a natter to find out more,

Tell us a bit about Thrift Generation – what was the inspiration behind the clothing company? 
Myself and a graduate friend set up the label in 2002 in response to living on a student budget, yet wanting quality clothes that expressed our individuality; mixing high street and ‘thrifted’ items. It was an emerging trend then. We found we could source some really decent pieces, mainly from charity shops, and started building stock and customising some of it. We mainly sold to other students, but it was when we took some of the collection to the Laden Showrooms, London, to sell on the London Fashion Bus, that I realised we’d be better off targeting time-short Londoners. 

I thought the word ‘thrift’ was a nicer way of saying ‘charity shops’ or ‘second-hand’. The Girl Power T-shirt is our first design, which is very exciting. I now want to take Thrift Generation’s grown-up sister in a new direction with ThriftGVIP; taking our higher end pieces and putting them into a standalone website, with themed collections and creating a personal profiling concept as our USP. We’d love to have a concept store eventually, but for now being online means less overheads. 

You used to be a dance teacher, but your ongoing health condition, fibromyalgia, stopped you being able to do that. What impact has that had on you as a person? 
I’d only been qualified as a dance teacher for seven months, so it was a massive blow. It totally changed my life. I went from being an extremely active, physical and sociable person, to being more or less paralysed and bed bound. I was basically housebound for two years, then slowly over the last nine years I’ve managed to strip away at some of the most debilitating parts of the condition. Invisible illnesses are very hard for others to understand. It did spur me on to apply for funding for a project called Canary Studios, which I’m still hoping to set up, for those like me who are creative and want to do something but are isolated at home due to a long-term condition.

I’m constantly testing my boundaries and pushing my body. I’ve experienced some improvements and am in a transitional phase, which feels amazing. It’s the reason I’m able to organise the Girl Power Networking Event and do my first range of t-shirts. After so long being isolated, I want to get back out in the world, meet people and network again. It’s taken nine years of hell to get back to something resembling me again, but it’s taught me to slow down and work smart. I’ve fallen back on my fashion degree and rekindled my passion for styling and fashion – it feels good to be busy again.

Tell us about the Girl Power Networking Event – who is it for and why is it necessary? 
The event will be the launch of the t-shirt, and it’s both for myself and for other women and girls who are perhaps in a similar position to me, and those who are working like a boss – often several jobs and being self-employed, just to stay afloat. It’s a chance for small local businesses to network and showcase what they do in an inexpensive way.

It’s accommodated by Minor Oak, a co-working space in the Sneinton Market units, and it’s about meeting potential customers and collaborators in similar industries – industries you might not expect to collaborate with. There are no limits. We showcased our label last year as part of Nottingham Fashion Week at Sneinton Market, so it made sense to be there again. 

Have you got guest speakers at the event?
We have Debbie Clarke of debbiedoodah, a branding and marketing coach. I love what she does; social media opens up a whole new world of contacts and it’s about using those contacts wisely. Toni Jarvis from Tiger Textiles will also be speaking -- her projects are phenomenal – as is Isi Dixon whose blogging seminar I found so insightful. Fan Club have made us a mix CD for the day and we’ll be showing the Reel Equality trailer – unfortunately both groups are busy on the day so can’t make it down in person. I found out about Fan Club through the Girl Power screening that Anti Gallery put on at Rough Trade last year. That was also where I met Alanna  from Brave Kids Club, once again & purchased one of her pins (the first time we met, Alanna was a customer of mine at Minor Oak’s Ethical Market), who I’ve since worked with on my design. Networking is brilliant – when you give something, people will usually give back. 

Was it important that you collaborate with other women who are working locally? 
Absolutely. Being connected means you can collaborate at a niche level that some big companies miss out on. Pooling resources and being able to meet up can make all the difference to how you progress and move your business or enterprise forward. Creating a collective of talented people is paramount, and it’s what brands like Platypus, MIMM and Genius are doing. One BC Clothing are also a great example of a local business supporting others in the fashion industry. 

The t-shirt’s design is inspired by the over-sexualized image of Playboy Bunnies. Do you think this representation of women is harmful? 
Some people don’t agree with the iconography I’ve used, even though I’ve reclaimed it and made it my own. The image is an illustration of a photograph of myself in my mid-twenties, dressing up and feeling confident with my body. For a start, the girls don’t have faces which should say something straight away, and it’s just an outline of two ‘female’ bodies. The figures are facing in towards each other with hand on hip, which I believe to be a strong statement and represents unity, rather than leaning backwards as the Bunnies did in the ‘Bunny Dip’. I did some research and asked several feminist friends their opinions. They understood the concept and what I was trying to do. 

People are very quick to be offended – which highlights a problem we have in society; to judge straight away and not really consider what’s being said. It’s an emotive subject, one that’s very close to my heart. I’ve been at the receiving end of sexual violence myself and have often felt uncomfortable growing up in a male-driven, often sexist society. The t-shirt is about trying to turn a negative into a positive. I’m a feminist, and I’m trying to be playful about a serious issue. I want to use the power we have as females to attract attention and then surprise others with a new message. It is about reclaiming our sexuality, and it’s very important that this message of female strength and sexuality is not dictated from a sexist perspective as it was through the Playboy icon.

How would you address the argument that there’s a discrepancy between women owning their sexuality and women conforming to patriarchal stereotypes? 
With an open mind. There's a quote I found on Reel Equality Film Club’s page, from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Do you think there’s a stigma surrounding the word ‘feminist’?
I didn't like the term as it annoyed me that we have to have it at all – we don't have homonists, so why not just humanists? But after researching and listening to many feminist views and looking back through history, I see that we owe it to the women who put their lives on the line for us, to keep fighting and standing up for what we believe in. Feminism needs to become the norm, not the dirty word it is so often seen as by some. I recommend everyone to listen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists TED talk on YouTube. Feminism is a beautiful word.

Your t-shirts use modal, a breathable and CO2 neutral fabric. How important do you think being an ecofriendly business is these days? 
We’re all responsible for our resources and should start thinking more about our environment and less about profit margins. I’d rather save up for something a little bit special that is going to last. It’s hard to compete with cheaply manufactured high street goods,  and a lot of small fashion business, like mine, undersell themselves to compete. The tables are slowly turning, though, and I feel the fashion revolution gaining momentum. It’s about being informed. With regards to packaging, I’m trusting my customers will cherish the packaging as much as the T-shirt. 

You say that you want your t-shirts to give a positive message to women...
‘Know Thyself’ is the message on the t-shirt’s swing tags and rosette which can be used to adorn the T-shirt, bag or whatever. It’s saying it’s okay to feel good about your body, to wear the T-shirt & rosette to help spread the message that we won't purely be judged visually, but on the words from our lips, and the actions created by our minds. Our body is a vessel for self-expression that words cannot always communicate. It’s okay to dress up as whatever you want, but think about why you’re doing it and who for. It’s a lot to expect from one t-shirt, but I think packaged as a whole concept, it comes through.

I really like the idea that the swing tags have empowering messages on them. What kind of messages will they be?
Strength: strength through knowledge. The conscious mind fuses with our instinctive animal natures. Facing fears together, joining forces through love. Triumph over hatred. Generous loving hearts. Courage and Certainty. I researched both Playboy Bunnies and tarot. I picked out some key words that resonated with me from an illustrated book of tarot, and made several edits to come up with each word and meaning. The history of tarot is also very interesting in terms of women being goddess-like and highly revered. I also researched ex-Bunny girls and collected over twenty then and now stories. Each package comes with a different story, which pays homage to one of these women and champions their success story. 

Thrift Generation’s Girl Power Networking event takes place on Saturday 22 April, 3pm, Minor Oak, Sneinton.

Thrift Generation website
www.thrift1generation.etsy.com

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