In “Say Yes to the Dress,” visual artist Martine Derks, fashion designer Marijn Abel, and artist and model Nina666 unite the worlds of photography, fashion and performance to create a personal portrait of gender euphoria. The Dutch trio spoke to writer Gem Fletcher about community, spiritual caregiving, and clothing as a tool for survival.
“We are empathic beings who feel for each other,” the poet Kae Tempest writes in their book “On Connection.” “Our very success as a species is rooted in our ability to be aware of each other's needs, to notice each other's pain and to experience deeply felt physiological and emotional empathy.”
This ethos of profound care and support is the beating heart of “Say Yes to the Dress,” a fashion and photography project on show at the Outsiderland art space in Amsterdam. On one level, the exhibition charts artist and model Nina666's journey of gender euphoria and the liberating act of self-expression. On another, it's a poetic document that speaks to small gestures and subtle transformations born from genuine human connections.
Nina666 and artist Martine Derks met online in 2017. They found each other on Kunstinzicht, an online network where artists can showcase their work, and share skills and resources. It was a moment of mutual seeking: Derks was coming out of a nightmare project and looking for a new muse, while Nina666 was ready to pursue her dream of performing in front of the camera. In coming together, they unlocked something in each other that they'd been chasing for years. Over the last five years, this moment of serendipity has evolved into a vibrant and vital creative collaboration.
As a neurodivergent transgender artist, Nina666 has grappled with her identity in environments that lacked support and acceptance. From an early age, dressing up was an essential method of self-actualization.
“I always felt more like a girl,” she says. “I tried to do all the boy things, but it never felt right. I was around eight when I first began raiding my mum's closet and secretly dressing up. As I got older, I would wear dresses and go to the shops. I was nervous, but wearing those clothes made me feel calm. As a trans, [neurodivergent] person, it can be difficult to navigate to what extent I can be myself in the world—dealing with people's reactions to how I dress can be challenging.”
Drawing has offered Nina666 a space to reconcile her experiences and imagine a world of endless possibilities. She has spent the last 10 years sketching dresses inspired by a diverse mix of references, from comic cons and kink to Lady Gaga and Chantal Janzen. She is particularly captivated by wedding dresses, which she describes as “the ultimate form of femininity.”
“When I combined spiritual caregiving with the making process, I saw people flourish in front of the camera. I suddenly found this purpose in artmaking again.”
Derks began taking photographs of Nina666 at home, creating looks with everyday materials like aluminum foil, toilet paper and cling film. “At first, I was very nervous, but I dare more with every shoot,” Nina666 says. “When it's done, and I see the images, I'm super happy. Modeling has enabled me to show the world who I am and how I feel, which I love.”
For Derks, the creative partnership was more than an exchange of ideas; it manifested an entirely new direction for her art. Before their collaboration, Derks had been in a prolonged period of creative block, burned from a previous partnership, and feeling jaded about her practice. She decided to do a master’s in spiritual care at The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, hoping to combine the approach with artmaking.
“Spiritual caregivers are there to be with someone and really listen to them,” Derks says. “It offers people a space to be themselves. Through my research and internship at a psychiatric hospital, I realized what an important and powerful tool this is. The main medium for a spiritual caregiver is speech and making space for conversation. When I combined this with the making process, I saw people flourish in front of the camera. I suddenly found this purpose in artmaking again.”
While the photographs in “Say Yes to the Dress” are bold and daring, the transformational power of the work is rooted in the creative process. For Nina666, Derks served as a compassionate cheerleader who cultivated space for her to develop her artistic practice, self-esteem and trans identity. Nina666 helped Derks by modeling a progressive and open collaboration, free from hierarchy and full of experimentation. At its core, “Say Yes to the Dress” is about growth, empathy and human connection—a project where connection and care are prioritized over productivity, and the journey is more important than the outcome.
When the pair met Marijn Abel, it unlocked a host of new possibilities. Abel calls himself a “social tailor,” and uses fashion to help trans and non-binary people to reach gender euphoria. “As a trans man, it has been a journey. It takes time to break the binary thinking and love every part of yourself,” Abel says. “Unlike Nina666, I had the privilege of having a safe environment and the space to develop myself. I discovered the joy of seeing yourself and feeling seen, and it’s something I wish to gift to others.”
Through his technical craft and innovative designs, Abel has liberated Nina666 from societal taboos, offering her a new way to thrive in daily life. “Nina likes to stim (self-stimulate) by wearing tight and latex-like clothing,” he explains. “Instead of the sexual associations people often read into these outfits, for Nina, it makes her feel calm and soothed. Kink wear can be confronting for people, so instead, I designed a tracksuit lined with latex so it can be worn anywhere.”
The hero of the exhibition is the wedding dress Abel designed for Nina666. Constructed by merging two giant blankets and playfully embroidered with things Nina loves, it turns her fantasy of femininity into a reality. Designed to fit different body types, the dress can be worn by visitors as part of an interactive installation, allowing them to experience Nina's fantasy for themselves. “I've been fighting with [my gender dysmorphia] for years,” says Nina666. “With this work, I can finally show the world who I am.”