In Conversation with fashion designer Alicja Czarnecka


I met Alicja over a decade ago. As far as I could remember, she was an open minded, determined and passionate individual. So when I heard that she has started her own fashion line, I said to myself – I have to have a chat with this young lady about her fashion line, called DRESSI. Within a year Alicja has become a very successful clothes designer. She has appeared in prestigious Polish magazines such as Gala and Newsweek and on a well known Polish TV channel TVN. She also had her first catwalk organised in the capital of Poland, Warsaw, which is seen as the heart of Polish fashion. She is a mother to two wonderful little girls. I can’t imagine how she manages to combine both jobs! Full time mum and a designer, impressive if you asked me.

View of the Arts: First of all, could you tell me how DRESSI was founded and what was behind the project?

Alicja: I launched DRESSI to show that casual style can be combined with an elegant one. I have always enjoyed mixing these two styles, it’s comfortable and convenient for me as a mother. I remember I stood in front of my closet, full of clothes, however, I came to the conclusion that I did not have anything useful to wear. Nothing that would fit well and be comfortable at the same time. And then I wondered what I would like to wear that would make me feel great and fashionable so I came up with DRESSI.

View of the Arts: What inspires you when you design skirts, dresses and jackets?

Alicja: My main inspirations are European celebrities who show off their fashion style at big commercial events. By observing them, I think of my customers and how I would like them to look unusual and stunning. I want their style to have something of a stars’ elegance.

View of the Arts: Do you think you ought to have a formal education, e.g. a diploma from a fashion school, to design clothes?

Alicja: I do not think it’s necessary, I am the perfect example! However, I believe, at least in my case, that you should listen, take advice and suggestions from those who are professional in their field e.g. seamstress and other designers. You have to learn how to analyse each and every piece of advice that is given to you.

View of the Arts: What is so special about being a fashion designer?

Alicja: The nicest feeling of being a fashion designer is that when I see my lovely customers in my designed clothes my heart beats faster with an excitement. Also, satisfied customers make my work easier and more pleasant.

View of the Arts: Running your own fashion line must be hard. It involves primarily design, manufacture, sales, finance and advertising. Which of these five aspects, according to you, is the hardest to achieve?

Alicja: I can not really say which of these factors are harder to achieve. Each aspect is important and difficult, all you need to do is to plan and implement it consistently in your fashion line. You have to take each step into consideration very carefully if you want your company to prosper perfectly.

View of the Arts: Do you think that women have started to dominate the fashion world?

Alicja: I am not sure about that to be honest with you. It would depend on the country you live in. Eastern Europe has changed drastically in 1990s. We have opportunities to become someone big in the fashion world dominated by men. Now, in the 21st century, we are more independent and creative. Which definitely allows us to do significant things in our lives.

View of the Arts: In addition to DRESSI, you are also busy raising your two wonderful daughters. Tell me how do you cope? Is it all possible, being a designer and full time mum?

Alicja: This is probably the most difficult aspect of running the business, I must admit that it is really difficult to reconcile the responsibilities of running DRESSI and being mum to my lively little girls. Nevertheless, I always find strength, thanks to it my dreams are coming true.

I, personally, found Alicja’s designs super comfortable. I have a coat, which is wonderful and beautifully sewed. And it is the most cozy and fashionable thing in my huge wardrobe! Please do not ask me what else I have got in it. Have a look at Alicja’s website. It is in Polish, however, it can be easily translated into English by using Google translator. It is worth visiting!

Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler

Edited by Roxy Simons





Pictures courtesy of Alicja Czarnecka, and Newsweek


Women and the Olympics

It’s only a few weeks now to the start of the Olympics and how women perform and are represented should be interesting.

Team GB have some incredible women competing and medal hopes are high for women like Jessica Ennis and Rebecca Adlington. Unfortunately, for Adlington at least, her performance is sometimes overshadowed by abusive tweets about her appearance. It’s amazing that some choose to judge her on how attractive they think she is, rather than how amazing she is as an athlete but I really respect her for speaking up about it, and in one case retweeting an example to her 50,000 plus followers. Jessica Ennis has had to laugh off comments about her being ‘fat’, made by a ‘high-ranking’ official. The only appropriate response to that is laughter, as it’s so far from reality.

Femininity and sport is something that comes up time and again however. The ruling dictating that women badminton players must wear skirts was rescinded after an outcry last year but attempts were made earlier this year to do the same in boxing. 2012 will be the first year that women have been allowed to compete in boxing at the Olympics, but apparently there was concern that female boxers were indistinguishable from the men – as if people would be confused about what event they were at or, god forbid, actually enjoyed the match irrespective of who was in the ring. Again, this ruling has not gone ahead but it just goes to show how concerned the moneymakers in sport are that women don’t look ‘feminine’ enough (ie attractive to men).

Femininity has taken on another dimension for women in South Africa, especially in the aftermath of the publicity surround Caster Semenya. When Semenya won the World Champtionship in 2008 allegations were rife that she was a man. Much public speculation followed and she was subjected to testing, while suspended from competing. Although the results of the tests were never made public she has been cleared to compete and all previous results stand. It’s an issue which continues to come up in South Africa in particular as ‘an estimated 1 per cent of the 50 million people [there] are born “intersex,” meaning they don’t fit typical definitions of male or female’. For more on this issue, I recommend this fascinating article on The Toronto Star’s website.

Of course, all of the above is about women who will be competing at the Olympics. For some, that remains a pipe dream. The IOC have been under pressure to sanction Saudi Arabia who have now ruled out sending any women to the Olympics at all.  This is in direct violation of the Olympic Charter, but no action has been taken against them. Women’s rights there may have come a long way but there is still clearly reluctance to treat them as equals, especially in a public arena such as the Olympics. It’s a real shame the IOC haven’t followed this through and prevented the men from competing as a result, as it would have sent a very clear message that they take this kind of issue seriously. The Saudi Olympic committee did leave it open for women to compete on their own, not endorsed by them, but they have also been refused permission to compete under the Olympic flag as officials claim there is still some hope in resolving the issue. Time is running out however.

For those of us attending as spectators instead of competitors, we can only hope that the directors of the television footage think us attractive enough for those lingering shots of women that we’ve seen during the Euro 2012 competition. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Huffington Post has assembled a gallery of the 82 most attractive women captured by the cameramen (I’m assuming men here).

In spite of my cynicism, I am really looking forward to the Olympics in London. I have tickets for events at both the Olympics and Paralympics and hope it will be an amazing few weeks in London. I will also however have a keen eye on the issues surround the women taking part, hopefully celebrating quite a few of them in the process.

Can feminists wear engagement rings?

I recently came across a blogpost (dating from 2010) written by a woman who had recently got engaged but was not going to wear an engagement ring. The post had been linked to on a Facebook group, where quite a lively discussion had developed about the tradition of wearing them. I found it pretty interesting, so linked to it in the Sharing Thoughts & Taking Action forum where a similar debate broke out, which I’ll admit surprised me.

The original blogpost was fairly reasonable. Rather than having strong feminist objections to wearing an engagment ring, the writer seemed to feel a) that it was too much money to spend on a ring, and as a couple they could do more interesting things with it, b) she didn’t like to wear expensive jewellery in general and c) she had ethical objections to diamonds – all of which are fair enough. However more feminist arguments against rings were made on the forum.

In the interests of disclosure, I’ll first state I wear an engagement ring. When it was given to me, I didn’t debate whether to wear it or wrestle any feminist demons. My excitement about it, and love of the ring, may have been coloured by the fact that my (now) husband had spent six months designing it to be something to give me as a token of how much he loved me. I love it, and it’s a daily reminder of how happy I am to be with him.

Not long afterwards a work colleague, who was fairly new to the company and barely knew me personally, asked me if I felt uncomfortable wearing it and did I not see it as a symbol of my fiance’s ‘ownership’ of me. I dismissed the comments at the time and told her that because my fiance could never view me that way, it wasn’t an issue in my relationship. But it niggled. Inside, I was pretty pissed off that someone viewed my decision that way and I felt like she was calling into question my feminist credentials -who did she think she was? She didn’t even know me well enough to know that I would identify as a feminist. I thought it was rude.

However, as a teenager I’m sure I viewed things differently. I used to say that I wouldn’t get married at all. The phrase ‘legalised slavery’ may have been uttered (embarrassing) and I would probably have been horrified by the idea of wearing an engagement ring. But that was at a stage when I’d never had any relationships, let alone serious ones, and didn’t understand that your relationship with your partner is what you both make it. The roles you adopt, whether traditional or not, are up to you. If you feel like someone’s property, or feel like a domestic slave, then that’s because the role you have in that specific relationship has left you feeling that way – not because you wear a ring.

Engagement rings were traditionally given as a symbol of a promise of commitment. It marked the woman out as being off the market and the money spent by the groom-to-be meant that they were not given lightly. It’s in this light, that some of the objections to engagement rings are made now. Only the women wear them and the men are expected to spend a lot of money on them. The woman wears it as a symbol of being ‘taken’ (which could be perceived as belonging to someone else) and the man shows his provider credentials by flashing cash. It’s old school, no doubt. But is it really anti-feminist to wear one? Is it, as one of the forum members claimed, an attempt to ‘cherry pick’ the things we liked about traditional female roles and while fighting against the rest?

Many women I know bought their fiances a gift in return, like a really nice watch for example. The symbol may not be as obvious to everyone else, but it redressed the balance in their relationship in a way that made them happy. I suppose for me, this is what’s key. How you view an engagement ring is coloured by the context of your relationship. Because I feel like an equal partner in mine, I didn’t strongly feel that wearing a ring threatened that. Also, it was only for 10 months that I wore a ring and he didn’t – by last July we were married and both wearing wedding rings. In any case, I think my evolving sense of myself and my views on feminism have left me just not feeling that strongly about this issue. What I do in my relationship is up to me, and how I choose to express my position in that relationship is my own business. I am a feminist. And a wife. With two rings.

The case for and against pornography

I’ve been blogging about feminist issues for just under a year now but there’s one topic I’ve studiously avoided in that time – pornography. In some ways it’s because I can convince myself that it doesn’t affect my life. I don’t watch it. I don’t purchase it. I’ve never been with a partner that, to my knowledge, consumes it. However, I know it’s an area of contention and debate in feminism and have always thought I should at least put it out there for discussion.

My big problem is that I don’t know where to start. I’m confused about it and the issues surrounding it. I don’t believe that just because I don’t enjoy it, everyone who does is wrong. I believe in people having healthy sexual appetites and if watching other people engaged in sex is something that works for you, go for it. However I’m not blind to the fact that what was previous soft porn is now just the front covers of mainstream ‘lads mags’ like Nuts and more worringly what was previously considered hardcore, niche-interest is now mainstream. And what is mainstream is more easily available than ever before – online and on mobile phones – which means that instead of passing around copies of Playboy in school, young men are seeing quite skewed versions of sexuality and believing it to be what ‘normal’ sex is supposed to be like.

On a gut level my feelings about porn have always been that it tends to subordinate women. Porn is largely created for and by men and so has little regard for how women are portrayed. As an industry it makes billions from the objectification of women – so much so that when the US government was bailing out the car industry, the porn industry argued that they should receive help as well as they were one of ‘our nation’s most important businesses’. On the flipside, I don’t believe in banning things that I’m uncomfortable with. I’d rather people were educated about an issue to the extent that they choose, by and large, not to participate in things which adversely affect others so badly.

With all this in mind, I was really disappointed to miss the WOW Festival session on Mary Whitehouse – Prude or Prophet (there was so much I wanted to see that weekend that some sessions just clashed). Fortunately for me, the session was one of the ones filmed and uploaded to the site afterwards. I was interested to hear that the prime reason for holding that particular debate was that Jude Kelly was as confused as I am. She had grown up in an era of censorship. As the world became more liberal the mood of society became one where people should feel entitled to learn about things on their own, and that nothing should be hidden from them. Mary Whitehouse became a lone voice, and a figure of fun, in the way she argued that women would be debased and disgraced by the way they were beginning to be portrayed and would rue the day that they allowed this to happen. Jude Kelly hated everything she stood for. But now? She was beginning to wonder if Whitehouse had had a point all along. The portrayal of women in mainstream porn, and in fact in much modern media has in fact left us feeling objectified and judged. So now, Kelly said she didn’t know what she felt and wanted to learn more.

The panel was made up of Kelly, Rachel Morris (Cosmopolitan‘s resident sex therapist), Amina Doherty (co-ordinator of the Young Feminist Fund) and Julia Long (feminist activist involved with the London Feminist Network and Object) and was chaired by Helena Kennedy QC. It was a lively and really interesting discussion with plenty of input from the floor.

Amina Doherty really impressed me with her confidence and her assertion that what young women need is space to talk about and develop a healthy, sexual identity. Being aware of the good and bad that’s out there is okay as long as they have space to talk openly and freely about it and be educated about what it all means to them. Encouraging critical engagement was key.

Julia Long probably took what I would interpret to be a more expected, feminist line. She quoted examples of what is considered mainstream in porn these days and the mere descriptions brought tears to my eyes and prompted me to cross my legs. She also made the good point that discussions of porn have, as Jude Kelly pointed out, been often painted as good versus bad morality. The common ground on both sides of the fence be they pro-sex, freedom of expression, liberal views or anti-porn, repressive, moralistic views is that women are oppressed – they are an economic commodity to be bought and sold. Food for thought.

Rachel Morris approached the discussion from the perspective of someone who’s not an academic or expert on this, but who does deal with the effects that porn and the objectification of women has on our culture. The letters she gets from women are laden with expectations of what their sexual experiences should be like, which are directly taken from porn culture. Women think their vaginas are hideous, their labia too big or malformed. Men don’t ‘do’ pubes anymore and so women feel pressure to be hairless. She strongly felt that if she was a young woman, what she would need is for someone like her to be teaching sex education in schools.

Needless to say one of the big points discussed was censorship. We’re all nervous of it and for those of us who are liberal, it feels wrong to censor what consenting adults want to see or engage in. However, Julia Long felt that women were being censored anyway, as their voices are not being heard (she quoted women’s disappearance from mainstream media as a related issue). Amina agreed that women are silenced and that porn is produced from the male gaze. However, she really wants young women to engage in the discussion and embrace positive sexuality. Claire Short’s campaign to end Page 3 was raised, along with her subsequent vilification in the media. All the panellists agreed that this had contributed to women feeling fearful to speak out.

A question from the floor supported Julia’s stance on possible censorship – we already have rules that limit what we can see as well as rules against racial hatred. Why did rules like this not apply to gender hatred? Why could the more hardcore content, which could be construed as torture, not be restricted or banned completely? The simple answer, from Helena Kennedy, is that it’s an industry that makes an awful lot of money and needs to be tackled on that basis.

Another question from the floor raised a real crux of the debate – consent. If women do want to be in these films, or engage in these acts, who are we to stop them? Of course, ‘choice’ is informed by our culture and life experience but some women really do choose these actions. Julia Long felt that consent and freedom of expression dialogue is usually brought out as a ‘get out of jail free’ card to silence criticism. I thought this was an interesting point. Choice is not always about personal rights but personal responsibilities – we need to view our choices in the context of how our actions affect society at large. The power relationships and submission of women in our society is normalised and played out in pornography. Choosing to be in, or even create, these films may have a detrimental effect on many other women – and our society restricts individual freedoms all the time to protect potentially vulnerable people in our society. Incitement to racial hatred is an example of this as we restrict people’s ‘right’ to say what they like, for the sake of protecting ethnic minorities in our culture.

There was so much more in this discussion and more themes to come back to. The possibility of feminist pornography – created for and by women – was not raised, as an hour was just not long enough to cover everything. Did I leave this session clearer about what I thought? I’m not sure I did really. I take on board everything Julia Long said about power relationships and the silencing of women. I’m also personally horrified by the idea of young men viewing some of what’s now mainstream and pressurising young women to engage in these acts during their early sexual experiences, as they convince them that it’s ‘normal’ sex. However, I really respected Amina Doherty’s view of the need for education. We need to give young people the space and the language to openly discuss healthy, sexual appetites and to create a positive idea of what sexuality means to them. I’d like to think that this is what will ultimately change people’s appetites for pornography. I’m still uncomfortable with banning certain pornography as it’s difficult to draw a line between what’s acceptable and what’s not and I worry, as Jude Kelly does, about it opening the door to repression. I would love to find ways to limit young people’s access to it however and I think parents need to be much more involved and in control of their teenagers access to the internet. There’s so much more to say and I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the issue. Let’s keep talking about how this affects us as adults.

Things I learned this weekend

I came home with my head spinning after the final day of WOW 2012 so thought I’d share some of my reflections from the weekend.

There is no shortage of wonderful role models for women and girls – I developed massive girl crushes on Jude Kelly, Baroness Helena Kennedy, Shami Chakrabarti and Bidisha but also heard Ruby Wax and Rosie Boycott talk about the awful lows in their lives, Rosie Boycott (again) and others discuss global economics, all of the panel at the Arab Spring session, Sali Hughes and India Gary-Martin on body politics, Dr Kiran Bedi on the criminal justice system and many, many more. There are inspirational women all around us.

Strike a woman, strike a rock – The recent protests and strikes were largely lead and run by women. When we get together we can be magnificent (with thanks to TUC Deputy General Secretary Frances O’Grady)

Women need to get into power to change things – Quotas came up in several discussions I attended and I’ve written another post about it. India Gary-Martin was also asked at the Body Politics session how things will change with regards to ‘acceptable hairstyles’ if people like her are still afraid to come to work with dreadlocks. Her answer was that her recruitment practices were changing the culture of the organisation and in time, what’s acceptable will also change. Great answer.

Find your people – The best way to recover from the hardest times in your life is by finding support from those who truly understand what you’re going through. I think the same is true of feminism. Finding support from other women and feminists is crucial. The WOW festival certainly helped address that and I met some amazing women.

There is so much more to be done for women in the world – from Shami Chakrabarti’s breakdown of what is still going on worldwide at the Women, Power and Change session, to the emotional discussion at the Arab Spring session and the panel about the Criminal Justice System it’s clear that we still have a lot to do to bring about equality for women worldwide.

Education of girls is key – The winning idea at the WOW Den was about creating an empowered girls’ network, educating girls and boys about how to relate to each other in a respectful way, and addressing the curriculum of all subjects in school to ensure the role of women is properly taught. It’s an exciting project. In addition, one of the WOWsers stood up and presented her idea about the need for black women to be better represented in careers such as the police force so that they could be role models for young black girls like herself. It was really tough for her to stand up in front of this room of women and speak but with the support of the panel and fellow students she did it. She’ll learn a lot about herself from having done so.

We’re not ladies – After a long and hilarious discussion on the meaning of the word lady, we ditched it. It’s gone. Forget it.

Feel the fear and do it anyway – I did one of the speed mentoring sessions and met some fantastic mentors. A key message from all of them? Go for it. Whatever it is, whatever I want to do, embrace my skills, let them bring me confidence and go for it.

I learned an awful lot more than this but these were some of the key themes which emerged for  me. I look forward to talking about them more on blogs, forums and twitter. Let’s keep the #WOW2012 hashtag going and keep chatting about what we know and what we can do.

What WOW means to me (and is it 2013 yet?)

I’m sure I’m not the only one experiencing a bit of a comedown after the three days of non-stop feminist fabulousness that was WOW 2012. When I woke up this morning, I gave serious thought to rocking up to the Southbank Centre in my Wonder Woman t-shirt and acting like it had never ended.

It’s been an intense few days, not least because it included my very first experience being on a panel instead of in the audience. Body Politics: What’s wrong with you? was chaired by the fantastic Catherine Mayer and my fellow panellists were fat activist and academic Corinna Tomrely, fashion designer and boutique owner Jan Asante, journalist Katherine Baldwin and actress and writer Harriet Walter.

Early on in the panel, we were all asked if we were comfortable in our bodies. I’d arrived primed to rave about those extra few pounds I can’t quite shift (because that would require eating less cake, and who wants to do that?), but was surprised to hear the words ‘Um…no, not really’ coming out of my mouth. What we discovered was the sliding scale of body acceptance as we moved up the age range of the panel. By the time we got to Harriet, who is in her 60s, we’d discussed fat positivity, eating disorders and fashion, and she opened by saying “Well, not much IS wrong with me.” If you’ve never heard a room full of women cheering a 60+ woman whose just announced that she’s happy with the way she looks – well, I recommend it. Harriet has very kindly posted her talk on her blog, and it’s well worth a read – as is her book Facing It: Reflections on images of older women.

I started the panel working out how to hold my notes in a way that would disguise my stomach, but I left reminded that there are an infinite number of ways to be attractive, and they have nothing to do with how old you are, or what parts of your body still work in the way they’re ‘supposed’ to. And when I looked in the mirror this morning and saw the first signs of crow’s feet around my eyes, my reaction wasn’t horror – it was excitement.

One of the highlights of the weekend was the chance to share our experiences, both in the Body Politics panel and in Undivided Attention: Having no children or grandchildren. As a confirmed fence-sitter when it comes to either passing on my genetic material or raising someone else’s, it was wonderful to express my fears and ambivalence in a space where my eventual choice would be celebrated rather than questioned.

Possibly the most emotionally-charged part of the festival for me was the speed-mentoring session. 15 minute conversations with four different women, where I bounced ideas around, confessed my deepest desires and most debilitating fears – it was challenging, terrifying and the most uplifting experience I’ve had in a long time. I left bubbling with ideas, full of confidence in my abilities as a writer, and dying to get started on the countless projects on my to-do list.

No celebration of women’s achievements and struggles would be complete without that classic anthem, Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves. I think it might be enshrined in law that when a group of feminists get together to put on a festival, this song has to be played at least once. At WOW, it was the conclusion of Mirth Control: March of the Women 2012. Sandi Toksvig guided the audience on a whirlwind tour of female composers – some relatively well-known, like Clara Schumann and Hildegard von Bingen, and some undeservedly overlooked like Amy Beach. The WOW orchestra – who, to the audience’s amazement, had only met the day before at their first rehearsal – was the largest all-female orchestra in the world, and all 73 of them were amazing. Sue Perkins helped out with the conducting, and Sandi was joined by the ever-hilarious Jo Brand and West End star Sharon D Clarke, whose voice gave me goosebumps. She’s that good. As a theatre critic, I’m all too used to seeing performances like these dominated by men – Mirth Control was a rare treat, but I wish it was a regular occurance.

So that’s it for another year – next year will see the first WOW Brisbane, and there’s talk of performances in both Derry and South Africa. It’s been an incredible experience, and I’m so grateful for the wonderful Jude Kelly for putting it all together. She spoke about growing up in Liverpool with fantastically supportive parents but few role models when it came to women in the arts. As a teenager in Merseyside in the 1990s she was one of my role models, and ten years on she still is. Thank you Jude, and thanks to all the people who made WOW 2012 possible. I can’t wait for next year.