Can fashion change the world? The designers of Billy Porter's uterus-shaped red carpet look, Celestino Couture's Sergio Guadarrama and Orel Brodt, say yes

Time for change

Text: Ryan Sng

Image: Instagram

Fashion is getting more political than ever. And we're not just talking about the Game of Thrones-level (read: occasionally cutthroat and fraught) musical chairs at the top seats of the world's biggest houses. With the advent of the internet and social media, fashion's traditionally insular bubble has popped — meaning that no slight, gaffe, or failure to take a stance on important current affairs goes unnoticed. Social conscience is hot currency in 2019, which is cause for concern and celebration in equal measure.

One unambiguous bright spot of recent times was actor Billy Porter's turn down the 2019 Tonys red carpet, where he wore upcycled curtains from the Broadway production of Kinky Boots in which he starred. Porter's Celestino Couture jacket train was uterus-shaped — a beautification of the reproductive organ that Republican legislators in the United States seem chronically horrified by. The overt femininity and flamboyance of the look was a powerful reminder that for Porter (who is LGBTQI+) and other queer folk, Pride is an everyday affair, and has to be in a still-intolerant world.

Celestino Couture's Sergio Guadarrama and Kade Johnson (along with designer and illustrator Orel Brodt, who customised the shoes for the look) were a smart choice of collaborators by Porter and his stylist, Sam Rattelle. Celestino Couture is a size-inclusive, queer-friendly occasion and bridal wear label with an interest in sustainable fabrics and upcycling, while the designers belong to some of the most increasingly targeted groups in, ironically, the land of the free — Guadarrama is Mexican-American, while Brodt is of Jewish faith.

As Pride Month 2019 draws to a close, and the debate over reproductive rights roils on across the United States, we spoke to Guadarrama and Brodt about the importance of activism, the power of positivity, and how to channel J. Lo levels of swagger.

What are your earliest memories of fashion? 

Sergio Guadarrama (SG):
Fashion’s been something that I've wanted to do ever since I was a little boy. I have always appreciated it, and remember asking my mum once for a three-piece suit that I had seen on sale at a store. I begged and begged until she bought it for me, even though we didn’t have much money.
Orel Brodt (OB): When I was a child, my parents would take me and my siblings to Barnes & Noble where I would sit on the floor of the magazine aisle and devour the images in them. I couldn’t stop flipping the pages and staring at those images that were filled with glamour and fantasy.

What was the first thing you ever made? 

The first item of clothing I ever made was a pair of high-waisted elastic short shorts, from a gorgeous red floral cotton.

SG: I don’t have a photo of it, but I had a hand in creating my date’s dress for our senior prom — she looked fabulous!

What references do you return to over and over? 

Being a proud Mexican-American, I get a lot of inspiration from my Mexican heritage. I also draw from ‘40s to ‘60s fashion; I like giving classic styles new and modern twists.

OB: I love referencing the shapes of the ‘50s. Designer-wise, Josep Font’s work for Delpozo was always inspiring.

What in your closet sparks the most joy? 

Any pair of shoes. They make my outfits, and add a little personality to anything I wear.

OB: Nothing makes me happier than texture and colour. My favourite wardrobe piece is a three-tone faux fur coat. It gives me unbelievable amounts of confidence every time I put it on.

What least-used item in your wardrobe can’t you bear to get rid of, and why? 

I’ve had this gold velvet, bodycon mini-dress since I was 14 that makes me feel like J. Lo. I could never wear it out of the house… and yet, somehow, it’s followed me to every city I’ve ever moved to.

SG: I really don’t have a least-used item, I enjoy them all and try to wear everything as much as I can. I avoid filling my closet, because that would just be wasteful.

What was it like creating for Billy Porter? How did the reproductive rights symbolism of the outfit arise? 
Billy Porter was a dream celebrity client, he and his entire team were so kind. He knew exactly what he wanted, but was happy for us to incorporate our signature aesthetic. The reproductive rights symbolism came about because as a company, we believe fashion can be a voice; it can make an impactful statement without verbalising anything at all. We are a company for the people, by the people, and want to defend any marginalised groups that are having their human rights wrongfully taken away. In the United States, women belong to one of those marginalised groups, and we need to stand up for them.
OB: Sergio and Kade brought me into the fold to customise the shoes for Billy’s look, and I worked with them closely to make sure they really complemented the garments. After showing Billy and his stylist Sam multiple options — from comfortable flats to stilettos — they chose the glamorous, sexy mules of course! From that point on, they gave me free reign to do my thing. I felt a huge surge of pride when Billy put the mules on after the last fitting, and poured himself a glass of champagne because he was feeling himself. I loved that my shoes played a part in how fabulous he felt in that moment. As far as my illustrations go, I’ve been painting this character for a while now. She is a wide-eyed, quirkily fabulous girl who’s ready to take on the world. Billy wanted his look to be a statement about women’s reproductive rights, which is currently a hot button-topic in American politics, so throughout my character, I wanted the shoes to show women blossoming.

Celestino Couture aims to champion inclusion, eco-friendliness, and ethical business practices. Do you believe that all companies have a social responsibility?

Absolutely! Fashion is one of the most wasteful industries, and it’s destroying Earth. Although things are improving, we still have a long way to go; more companies need to make an effort. It’s honestly not that hard to make sustainable practices part of their brand. We need to encourage it wherever and whenever we can.

And what about you, Orel?

I believe we all — and that means designers, stylists, celebrities, companies, you name it — have a responsibility to our communities. We have the power to effect change, particularly celebs who are looked up to by the public. That's why I admire Billy, because a lot of famous people are satisfied with being adored just for being beautiful or talented. But he wants to challenge and change the world, through his positivity.

We live in cynical times, where activism — whether it’s environmental or social — is often used as a marketing tool. How should corporate responsibility be handled? 

Recently, I listened to an amazing Ted Talk by Hamdi Ulukaya — the founder of Chobani Yogurt — titled The Anti-CEO Playbook. I think it makes many great points about how business can help communities thrive, and how they should have a social responsibility to do good in the world. We need to reconnect with our humanity, and to realise that money isn’t everything. Businesses of any kind can and should add value to their community and strengthen relationships within it.

SG: Consumers should be more aware of how much fashion is damaging our world and society. However, it’s up to business owners to fix these problems because they’ve benefited so much from the destruction they’ve wrought. We’re only an up-and-coming brand, but we’re doing our best to make it happen; like I said, all it takes is the willingness to act.

Is fashion an appropriate medium for unpacking complex social issues like LGBTQI+ issues and environmentalism?

Fashion is a form of expression that every human being partakes in and uses to define their public persona; fashion is directly linked to performance, and is used in film, photography, and stage to tell stories. So, as designers, we can help shape the narrative, and more importantly how we choose to tell it. We have an opportunity within the fashion world to be educational leaders in various social, economic, and environmental issues.

SG: Totally. Every day when you walk out of your house, you are sending a coded message to everyone you encounter. Use it to make a statement that counts.

As an LGBTQI+ person or as an ally, what does pride mean to you? 

Pride means unity.

SG: Pride has always been about strength and pushing forward no matter how many walls have to be knocked down. LGBTQI+ people are some of the strongest fighters ever; they make big things happen in the world. There have been so many incredible individuals who suffered to get us where we are today.

It’s 2019 and cancel culture is rife. What are your feelings on the subject?

Our world is a failing at communication, and can’t understand how to successfully express an opinion without antagonism; as a result, people are unwilling to speak their truth unless they’re hiding behind a screen. We all have to learn how to communicate better, and to listen to each other even if we might disagree. It’s okay to disagree.

What piece of internet ephemera — e.g. YouTube video/Tweet/meme etc. — deserves a place in the history books? 

Memes. All the memes.

You’re at a social gathering and are trapped with an unfamiliar face who you’d rather not converse/mingle with further. What’s your exit/salvaging strategy?

I don’t know if I have one. Just act like an adult, a simple and polite “bye” will do.
OB: “Excuse me, I have to use the restroom.”. Classy and hard to argue with...

With no further context, what’s the best reassurance or word of wisdom you can offer someone who is, as millennials say, really “going through it”? 

Learn from what you’re going through. We are all given obstacles in life to teach us a lesson for which there will be a future need. Pay attention, otherwise you’ll have to keep retaking the test.

OB: When I’m "going through it", I put on sweatpants and my highest heels — the ones I could never walk in, but for some reason own — and eat guacamole while staring at my feet in these amazing works of art. Somehow, it makes me believe everything will get better. If that doesn't work for you, I suggest an exercise that I did when I was at my lowest, called 50 days of gratitude. Every morning a friend and I would text each other something we were thankful for, no repeats allowed. You slowly realise how much good you have around you, and that always helps.

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