When their collaboration started, Rachel Berks and Kelly Rakowski had never even met in person. Berks, the designer behind the boutique Otherwild, and Rakowski, a Brooklyn-based photo archivist who runs the queer history Instagram page @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, had many friends in common, but had never shaken hands—their friendship was limited to following each other’s social media, in that peculiar form of modern socializing where you may never have spoken to someone, but feel perfectly comfortable liking their vacation photos. But when Berks saw a picture on @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y of 1970s lesbian activist Alix Dobkin wearing a tee shirt that read THE FUTURE IS FEMALE, she knew that the shirt had to be made again. The two teamed up, and the T-shirt became a miniature phenomenon, showing up on the backs everyone from celebrities like Feist to that intimidatingly stylish bald woman you keep seeing around Bushwick. The shirt even sparked a minor controversy when supermodel Cara Delevingne briefly produced her own knockoff version, without crediting Berks and Rakowski (she eventually apologized, and linked curious fans to the Otherwild site). For a while, THE FUTURE IS FEMALE seemed ubiquitous. It’s likely that at least one of your friends posted a picture of herself wearing the shirt to her Instagram, and that she looked great.
When the T-shirt took off, Rakowski got an idea. “I reached out to Rachel and asked if she wanted to collaborate on a collection,” she says, “and HerstoryxOtherwild began.” Now on their second collection, the designers take inspiration directly from images posted on Rakowski’s @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y archive page, often in response to popular demand. “Many people will comment on certain images begging for a shirt to be remade or a phrase reproduced,” says Rakowski. The @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y Instagram page—which features images from the seventies and eighties of gay rights protesters holding banners and signs—has nearly fifty thousand followers. Often, the images that speak most to the page’s audience are the ones that Berks and Rakowski love, too. “We always start with images that resonate both in ourselves, as queer women, and with our audiences,” they told me. “Messages of being out and proud, and even just the very idea of gay pride, are proposals that continues to inspire and influence our work.”
Their process is collaborative, varied, and determined by what most inspires them. Sometimes, as in the case of THE FUTURE IS FEMALE tee, the design is taken from a piece of clothing and reproduced almost identically. At other times, slogans and typography from the archival images become reimagined as clothes. The words LESBIAN CULTURE, scrawled in a childish hand on a stone pillar in 1978, are transferred onto the front pocket of a slate grey tee in their new collection. Party balloons from a 1970 San Francisco protest, emblazoned with the words GAY POWER, became the inspiration for a denim baseball cap, which quickly sold out. Because many of the original photographs are of protest signage, the designs are suffused with a sense of playful defiance, a little bit angry and a little bit cheeky. Wearing pieces from HerstoryxOtherwild feels like sticking your tongue out at the forces of oppression.
Queer identity isn’t always so prominently displayed as a slogan on a T-shirt, and many of the pieces produced by the collaboration make queer visibility their aim. Pieces like a blue tote bag, that reads WE ARE EVERYWHERE in yellow block letters, seek to acknowledge the pervasive assumption of heterosexuality at the same time that they obliterate it, pushing queerness into the public sphere. One piece from the collection is an upside down pink triangle patch, with the words COME OUT inside a white border. Another is a tank top, reproduced directly from one of Rakowski’s archival photos, that reads HOW DARE YOU ASSUME I’M STRAIGHT. In the original photo, from a New York Gay Pride event in 1982, a brunette with feathered brown hair wears the tank, and smiles coyly at the camera.
In Brooklyn, it can be easy to forget that there are places where the kind of queer visibility that the HerstoryxOtherwild line promotes is still not quite safe; where it would not be a great idea, exactly, to walk around wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with two interlocking woman symbols, or a lapel pin that reads DYKE. Last Thanksgiving, on an uncomfortable family trip to a gun and hunting expo, I wore my own THE FUTURE IS FEMALE tee shirt. After many stares and one or two comments, I began to worry that I’d made a mistake; I thought about going to the bathroom and turning the shirt inside out, so that the words would be hidden. Ultimately, I kept wearing it as it was. It felt better that way.
If the HerstoryxOtherwild project is about anything, it’s about recreating artifacts from the queer past, a past that is too often ignored, suppressed, or made inaccessible to those who most need it. And the designers are using their line to help others who preserve and enliven the queer community. Ten percent of the proceeds of their first line went to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, an independent queer history organization in Park Slope. Proceeds from their next collection will benefit the Pulse Victims Fund page for Equality Florida. After all, there is still a lot of queer history that has yet to be made.
To shop the HerstoryxOtherwild line, visit here.
photos by Laurel Golio