We love spotlighting our designers and collaborators on Shrill Society, whose work brings themes from our Nasty Woman planner into your closet. Plus, they’re such an awesome group of women! In May, our focus is on combatting harassment. We’re excited to sit down with Minneapolis-based designer Kelly Abeln of Hagsville. Shrill Society co-founder, Cameron, talks with Kelly about her Grab Back shirt, fighting fire with fire, and building an ethical supply chain.
Cameron Shaw: Your brand is called Hagsville. I immediately think of the movie Clueless, which is probably giving my age away. How did you come up with the name?
Kelly Abeln: Yeah, it is from Clueless. Most people don’t figure it out because it’s such a small line! I actually chose it in 2009 as my Instant Messenger screen name and when I got Instagram I carried it over. So I chose it a long time ago, but I still like it because it’s kind of girly if you get the Clueless connection, but it’s also kind of weird―like hagsville [makes her voice super harsh.]
Awesome, I knew it! Our May theme is combating harassment. Your Grab Back design was part of a wave of gestures to reclaim language used by Donald Trump about groping women. Can you talk about how you were feeling at the time and why a shirt seemed like the right place for your image and message?
It seems so long ago that the Access Hollywood tape came out, but it was 2016. Thinking back to when I first heard it, it was so shocking and disgusting and ultimately enraging because it didn’t cost him the election or anything. His supporters still defended him even after he advocated for assaulting women. I remember being really outraged that he could just say whatever he wants. The response that felt the most truthful to me was fighting fire with fire―coming back and saying, “Try to grab us and we’ll grab you back.” It felt empowering to turn his words against him. It started as a protest sign for the Women’s March. After that people started requesting it. I felt like that was a good move because a shirt is basically a protest sign you can wear.
What were some of the reactions when you brought the Grab Back poster to the Women’s March in Minnesota?
It was cool because there were several other people who had it. I had offered it as a download that people could print out, so I saw it in the crowd. Other people came up to me and commented on it. It felt good to do something creative, small, and positive.
What were some of your concerns in moving from a free downloadable poster to a shirt for sale?
When I first made the shirt, it was important to me to ensure it was ethical. I feel like at the time there was a lot of feminist bandwagon stuff, where companies would print a feminist message but the proceeds just went to profit their corporation and it was printed overseas in bad ways. So when people were requesting a shirt, I was hesitant. There’s a lot of work that goes into the set up of it, but I had the profits go to Planned Parenthood. I had it printed by a local woman-owned print shop and the shirts were made in America. If I did a shirt, I knew I wanted to do it so I felt good about it―the whole loop of it―as opposed to buying a shirt and not knowing where the money goes.
That’s something that’s really important to us at Shrill Society―that we build and support designers with ethical supply chains. It can be hard to see these messages that should be about empowerment on a shirt or piece of clothing and know that doesn’t extend to the people who made it or the conditions in which it was made.
You also make comics. We were talking about Clueless earlier. A lot of your work seems to place your characters, especially girls, in high school or even earlier. How do you approach comics and what draws you to that time period?
I mostly make autobiographical comics. I have a lot of stories in my head of growing up. Once I started making comics, I found they were the perfect way to get the stories all out and release them. I don’t want to forget them and forget how I felt. When I think about memorable autobiographical experiences, the growing up years are what stand out the most to me because I think being a teenager is the craziest transition period that people go through. Every year of being a teenager feels like five years in terms of growth compared to the rest of your life. It’s a chaotic and exciting time―you’re trying new things, you’re exploring identities. There’s so many firsts and you’re trying to figure everything out.
I still feel that way about my thirties! I didn’t realize all your comics were autobiographical. What do you hope people get out of seeing this glimpse into your memories?
Sometimes I think with autobiographical work, “Oh, this is just something that happened to me and no one else will care.” But I really like reading autobiographical work, and that’s what I connect to. So I try to keep that in mind that the personal is universal. If you tell something really personal and focus on the feelings of it, then other people can relate to it.
It feels lately like there is a lot of momentum for women and femme illustrators, and I’m seeing some people finally getting their due in the industry. It felt for a long time that illustration was more male dominated. I’m curious how you’re seeing that play out and what you think accounts for the shift.
This question is interesting because I’ve noticed that too, but I wondered whether that’s because that’s my corner of the world and what I edit for myself is a lot of female illustrators. I do think it’s different than when I went to college ten years ago. When I was studying illustration then, it was more male dominated. I think Instagram and the Internet have opened up illustration to be more democratic. The gatekeepers of the past aren’t controlling everything as much anymore, so female illustrators are getting their work seen and known easier. I think for a while female illustrators were pigeonholed and only got jobs for illustrating a shopping bag or stereotypical feminine things. Now there are more brands that are by and for women or are otherwise not as limiting. So I think having the Internet, Instagram, and platforms where women can get their work out there and other women and people can see it and react to it creates its own momentum.
What are you working on now that excites you?
I’m working on a graphic novel. I’m more comfortable saying illustrated book. I’m trying to put together a pitch―a memoir of my coming of age years. I don’t know if it’s going to be a mix of comics and a mix of writing and illustration, but this summer that’s my goal. I’ve been doing a bunch of experiments writing and drawing in different ways to try to wrap my head around such a big story.
I love the idea of a summer project. It really brings me back to high school actually. I’m going to think up one for myself!