Sara Benincasa

On dissent, disruption, and fighting back against the bullshit

Sara Benincasa started Excellent Coats on Irritated Women in December 2018 and since then, she’s gained a healthy following of 26,000 Instagram users. If you’re not already one of Excellent Coats’ fans, it’s definitely time to delve into the account. Spotlighting women who are “all outta fucks in a fabulous coat,” Benincasa’s content is equal parts humour and herstory. This week, I spoke to the woman behind the coats about fashion, politics, and joyful anger.

“I created it because Nancy Pelosi wore this fabulous Max Mara coat for a meeting that she and Chuck Schumer had with Trump. It was really cool to see her claim her throne as someone who’s an effective antidote to the president; both rhetoric-wise and legislation-wise.

“She walked out with that fabulous coat on that everybody loved, and so I tweeted: “This is a great day for excellent coats on irritated women,” and a few people said: “this should be a thing!”

“People say things like: “all politics is personal,” and I think that extends to our purchasing choices, and the way we choose to present ourselves in the world. We live in a capitalist society that runs on commerce, regardless of our feelings about that and how it could, or should, be amended. A lot of people operating in this system are doing really great work to affect change, so I wanted to celebrate them.

“People often think of fashion as being this very superficial thing that only has to do with how you want to represent your status to the world, so I wanted to take these people, who are celebrated (or denigrated) for their beliefs, and look at their fashion; it’s a cool high-low mix. Why don’t we praise them for their presentation and beauty as well? Not to take away from their other accomplishments, but to highlight them in fact. Maybe some people who are most interested in fashion more than anything else will come to the account and learn about some really cool leaders who could help change their lives.

“I’m learning as I go. People send me images of women who I hadn’t heard of or seen before all the time. I don’t always have a credit for the photographers, so people will often research them for me. It’s really important to me to credit the artists I spotlight properly for their work.

Growing up, I loved watching a show on MTV called House of Style. It was hosted by 90s supermodels like Shalom Harlow and Cindy Crawford, they had a rotating list of hosts over the years, and Kevin Aucion, who was a brilliant makeup artist. Watching that show was so much fun because you got to meet the designers and see them in a new light. They were funny and silly and over the top and dramatic. That introduced me to the notion that there were real people who made up the fashion world.

“Obviously, fashion can be, to use an over-used word, toxic. When you only see tiny people in clothes, it can be really limiting, but I think that we’re in a such a fascinating and exciting era for fashion because we are starting to have models of different sizes, shapes and colours of different backgrounds. The internet has empowered them to have their own voice.

“I did, at one time, work as a paralegal for a law firm specialising in immigration for fashion models in New York. They hire extra seasonal help the way retail shops will. I was 26, and just out of graduate school for teaching, and making portfolios where we would have to prove a certain level of excellence or expertise in the field. For the models, we would use recommendations from people like Anna Wintour and Mario Testino. It was like applying to university, but more so. Looking at the way my country treats immigrants of all kinds, I’m really glad I had that experience. It showed me what happens when you get the elite treatment.

“Until recently, I had just been emphasising the women in the clothing, but then I started to think about the clothing that I was showing. I realised that I was inadvertently promoting whatever designer was showing. I want to highlight designers who are using recycled materials, who are trying to be zero-waste, who are local, and who are incorporating designs from their own cultures.

“I can’t control what celebrities or icons of history wear. If it’s Mahalia Jackson singing on the steps of an institution where she was barred from singing because she was a black woman, and she’s wearing fur, I’m not going to put my 2019 values on it, because this is about something much bigger. It’s about this woman’s accomplishments and what she did.

“I want to highlight women who have demonstrated through their actions that they have been irritated. Sometimes there’s a joyful rage that powers activism and powers making a change. They don’t always look angry, but I try to highlight women who have engaged in dissent, disruption and fighting back against the bullshit, and sometimes they look pretty happy.

“I love this quote from Molly Ivins. She’s my role model. She was a brilliant journalist and humorist from Texas, and she wrote amazing columns about politics in the 80s and 90s. She said:

“So keep fighting for freedom and justice beloveds, but don’t forget to have fun doing it. Be outrageous, ridicule the ‘fraid-y cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce, and when you get through kicking ass and celebrating the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.”

Molly Irvins

“It’s guiding principle for myself and a guiding principle for Excellent Coats on Irritated Women too. I will show people who are angry at a protest and who are pissed off, but also people who are joyful in the midst of whatever their struggle, or the struggle of which they’ve chosen to be a part to uplift others. Ultimately, I spotlight dissent, disruption, and fighting back against the bullshit.”

Follow Sara Benincasa on Instagram and Twitter.

Follow Excellent Coats on Irritated Women.

Jemma Finch on Clothes That Mean More

On the Clothes & The Rest podcast this week, I chatted to Jemma Finch, co-founder of Stories Behind Things. In the episode, we talk about the beginnings of Stories Behind Things, how fast fashion impacts mental health, and why Instagram is both a blessing and a curse. To listen to the full episode, please click here. In this post, however, Jemma shares some advice for how we can all find deeper connection with the clothes we wear…

“Go to your wardrobe, look at what you already have, pick an item that you haven’t worn in a while and ‘mend into’ it. Up-cycling is one of the best ways to rediscover things. Buy some thread, or a sew-on badge; both really good ways to inject some love back into items that need it. You’ll be surprised that they can feel totally new.

“Up-cycling does take time, but I think that’s a really nice thing. You’re putting energy into it, so I think you’ll value it more.

“Having a clear out is a really good idea, and can be really powerful… it’s just about whether you can bring yourself to get rid of things! It’s good for your mind to make space for new things.

“When I’m shopping, I don’t have the best willpower. With shopping second hand, if you see something you love, you have to get it because it might be gone the next day! I’m lucky that I have friends I can pass things on to if I don’t wear it as much as I thought I would; I always share with my friends.

Our swapping events are just a scaled up version of swapping with friends. You get the same dopamine hit of buying something new when you buy something second hand. It’s an important message to relay to yourself; it’s the same thing. You don’t have to got to a shopping centre, you can go to a clothes swap or a charity shop instead. And second hand clothes definitely have better stories!

For more from Stories Behind Things, please follow them on Instagram.

Patrick McDowell’s Advice for Young Designers

This week, on the Clothes & The Rest podcast, I chatted to Patrick McDowell about up-cycling, sustainability, and creative education. Just one year after graduating, his creations have been worn by singers like Rita Ora, and have been featured on the cover of Elle’s sustainability issue, so here, he shares what’s he has learnt from his first year as an independent designer…

“Take time to experience things. You don’t have to rush through everything. It’s something we learn in education that I don’t think is true; you don’t have to rush just to get to the end. You can take time off to do something other than work.

“Enriching your environment by doing different things will make your brain better. If you’re only sitting at your desk working all the time, you’re going to do bad work. It’s a fact. So get out and do stuff! Don’t be a martyr to your work; people don’t like that anymore. Go out and see things.

“New experiences are always enriching, so when you do go out, don’t go the place you went last time, and order the thing on the menu that you’ve never tried before. If you don’t like it, you eat three meals a day so it’s fine, you can have another one tomorrow morning!

“Sometimes it can feel like money is the biggest obstacle, but it will only make you stronger if you have financial struggles and produce great work. All you’re doing is working harder. If you’ve got less money and you’re still doing good work, you’re already miles ahead of other people.

“In my experience, it pushed me to be more creative. It builds everything, actually. If I had bought everything from a shop, I would never have spoken to anyone, or made the contacts I now have. I wouldn’t have applied to a scholarship with the British Fashion Council if I didn’t need the money, but it completely made me as a designer.”

For more from Patrick, please follow him on Instagram or visit his website.

#17: Khandiz Joni | Multidisciplinary Artist

This week, I talk to makeup artist and creative consultant Khandiz Joni. Khandiz discovered clean beauty in 2006, and since then, has been passionate about researching and working with organic products. In this episode, we talk about where her passion for green makeup began, why it’s so important to be conscious about the products we use, and the future of sustainable beauty.

Clothes and The Rest

Khandiz Joni

Thanks for listening!

Khandiz Joni’s Guide to Clean Beauty

On the Clothes & The Rest podcast this week, multidisciplinary artist Khandiz Joni talks about her journey to clean beauty. Here, however, she explains the terms and brands we need to know about to get started with conscious beauty…

Absolution does skincare and cosmetics. In my opinion, they do some of the best lipsticks on the market. We’re very used to certain colours and textures, and Absolution have nailed lovely consistencies and bright, fashionable colours.

Kjaer Weis is a luxury brand that I also really like, both the packaging and products are incredible.

Avril is a French brand and it’s very affordable, so it’s a great entry level point. They do really lovely foundations. I also love Zao because their products are mid-priced, but they have something for everybody; it’s a full range of products.

“When it comes to skincare, for me, it’s about finding things that were made locally. If you’re trying to limit your impact on the environment, shipping stuff across the world just because it’s lovely doesn’t make sense.

“The terms ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ can sometimes get confused. ‘Natural’ is contentious because it means different things to different people, but for me, it means that the ingredients were sourced from nature; grown from the earth. ‘Organic’ is anything grown by organic farming practices. This means that water cannot be deemed ‘organic’, nor can minerals because they aren’t actually grown. They can however be ‘natural’.

“Something I talk about a lot is vegan beauty. Personally, I don’t subscribe to vegan beauty because it isn’t the most environmentally sound. It means avoiding ingredients like beeswax, lanolin and carmine. I definitely think that there are animal-derived ingredients that shouldn’t be in beauty products, but I don’t think a beauty product full of synthetic ingredients that have been extracted from crude oil is better than one containing sustainably sourced beeswax, for example.

“You often have to go to specialist shops to find clean beauty. Content Beauty and Wellbeing in London has a great selection of products, Wholefoods has some entry level products and there are lots of great online stores which stock fantastic products.”

For more from Khandiz, please follow her on Instagram or visit her website.