wear your heart on your sleeve

METROPOLITAN LIFE There's no contradiction in being a feminist and a fashion designer, according to Karen Savage, queen of tongue-in- chic. She talks to Lorna Russell

when Germaine Greer launched a vitriolic attack on her younger sister- in-feminism, Suzanne Moore, her main complaint seemed to be that Moore didn't look like a feminist. To be specific, she wore far too much lipstick, "fuck me shoes" (stilettos) and overdid things on the hair spray front.

The remarks were a throwback to the days when your credentials as a feminist were seen to depend on lack of concern for your appearance. Yet, despite an increased acceptance that women can want to look good and want to be considered an intelligent life form, fashion still poses a multitude of dilemmas.

Karen Savage is 26, a feminist, and a fashion designer. She is best known for her T-shirt designs, which deftly subvert the modishly girlie "boy- toy" and "babe" type slogans that have recently multiplied. Like all good tops their cut is the figure-hugging, "body" shape and they come in the girlie colours of pastel pink, baby blue, or white. Unlike them, in cute "post-feminist" style either "Virgin" or "Baby" is emblazoned across the front. So far so safe. But with a quick Wonder Woman-style twirl the back of the T-shirt reveals an alternative message: "Whore" or "Bitch". "The stereotypes throughout the centuries have always been that a woman is either the good fairy or the bad witch," says Savage. "My message is that she can be both."

These are the sort of T-shirts that would make you consider where you might end up that evening before putting one on in the morning. Grandad ain't going to like it. The builders might not get it. Savage admits that you need to be sure of yourself to wear her designs: "It's having the confidence to walk down the road past a load of work guys and have them going 'baby, baby' and then give them that pay-off of 'Bitch' on the back. It's the confidence to provoke.

"I know people who bought the Virgin/Whore T-shirt and they had to keep it in the drawer for months before they got the confidence to wear it. Next thing I know they're going to me, 'OK, what's next?' "

How about one of the T-shirts from a later show, featuring a blow-up doll's face on the front and "Blow My Mind" on the back? Or a white PVC flasher's Mac which opens up to reveal pictures of nude women? "When I started this collection I didn't know where I stood on porn. I came to the conclusion that for me, in my sexual life, soft porn isn't a problem, but I do draw the line at hard porn - basically when someone's being hurt. To me a nude image of a man or a woman is erotic, not degrading. I think women need to get their own personal stance sorted out."

Savage is all for feminism in general being a personal thing and is embarrassed about the ideological arguments that go on: "The only way for me is the individual feminist living it herself, every day."

She arrived at her own beliefs more-or-less from just sitting around in her room. "I had always really loved the Pre-Raphaelite women; they were just so dreamy and romantic. Then one day I suddenly realised that it was always guys painting women. Then I turned round and looked at all the books on my shelf and they were all by men. I thought, there must be female artists, authors, film makers, and I want to know about them."

This opening of her eyes has filled her head with new ideas for design after design. The next collection may look at swimwear, or bridal dresses, or the conundrum that is Baroness Thatcher. Her spring/summer collection, previewed at the London Fashion Show, is entitled "Beautiful Is Painful". Wanting to find out where she stood on plastic surgery, she got her hands on as much material as possible on going under the knife and concluded that, "basically, it really, really hurts".

Savage has no time for the more unsubtle ploys of the fashion industry. She is horrified at the apparent return of corsets and disbelieving that designers could be trying to tempt women back into stilettos and strappy sandals. "It's just not intelligent," she says, "people's memories aren't so short that they're just going to slip straight back into corsets and stilettos. We're not going to fall for it again."

On the other hand, in her last show she used "so-called perfect-type women" to model her clothes. But she thought this was great because they were wearing her flasher's Macs which opened to reveal another Savage trademark: the "up yours!" fingers: "The guys were like, tongues hanging out, and yet the models were like this ... !" (cue enthusiastic demonstration).

As far as Savage is concerned the deal seems to be that as long as you're making people think, communicating an idea, taking the piss, or just having fun with it, fashion can give women power.

"I'm aware that there's some conditioning involved in beauty and that makes me angry. But then I think, 'OK, time to get some new messages across.' "

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