In the throes of uncertainty across the globe, the role fashion plays is constantly in flux. This year, it became evident that it is no longer enough to just make good clothes; today’s designers must push boundaries by weaving social and cultural resonance into the fabric of their clothes. In the case of brands like Ahluwalia, Telfar, and A-COLD-WALL*, the designers’ engagement with a wider social dialogue enriches the medium and propels the industry into the cultural sphere. Increasingly, consumers are paying attention.
“There has definitely been a shift as consumers are buying in a much more considered way and it’s really exciting to see. There is room for more viewpoints, the landscape is wider and what is considered fashion is broader across different disciplines. There’s also a focus on the cultural social dialogue and consumers want to know more about cultural heritage and who is behind a brand,” Damien Paul, Head of Menswear at Matchesfashion tells Highsnobiety.
According to a study by Fleishman Hillard, nearly two-thirds of consumers (64%) believe that for a company to be more credible than its competitors it must talk about its behavior and impact on society and the environment, not just the customer benefits it offers.
It becomes abundantly clear if one considers the impact of Priya Ahluwalia’s namesake label. Through the lens of sportswear (and more recent experiments with tailoring and denim), the London-based designer combined the cultural crossovers and exchanges of her Nigerian-Indian heritage with responsible sourcing and manufacturing techniques she works with. Additionally, she explores ideas about Black, Brown, and South Asian experiences throughout history, from migrant stories to music and the role of youth culture in UK Black civil rights movements.
A personal and exultant paean to underrepresented communities with the utmost respect for the environment through the skillful upcycling of deadstock fabrics, Ahluwalia collected some of the most prestigious fashion prizes for emerging designers this year, such as the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design and the BFC/GQ Designer Menswear Fund.
Not only has Ahluwalia’s work received august honors but collaborations with Gucci and GANNI saw her innovate in terms of message and output. For the GucciFest project, she made a film about the beauty of the Black experience. At GANNI, she made a collection from reworked fabric leftovers from previous seasons. Most notably, a collaboration with Mulberry concluded with the brand changing its corporate policies on diversity and inclusion, which ensures non-discrimination against hair. Beyond a fashion label, increasingly brands like Ahluwalia are becoming social projects.
Case in point: Telfar, the thrillingly singular New York label founded by Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens in 2005, which has been at the forefront of upending gender conventions in fashion since before it was even a trend registered in the pages of fashion magazines.
From designing the official uniforms for the Liberian team at the Olympics to collecting their second CFDA/Vogue Fashion Award for Accessories Designer of the Year, along with his artistic director Babak Radboy, the pair have proven what it means to place community values first in an operation and how remaining true to oneself not only builds an ardent follower base but can accumulate $2 million in revenue.
Much of this success is credited to the manner in which the brand has toppled the elitist framework of fashion. The Telfar Shopping Bag, colloquially known as the "Bushwick Birkin” (after the Hermès Birkin, owing to its cult status), succeeded with its “not for you - for everyone” attitude. From Oprah to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, style influencers to unknowns on Instagram, the bag transcended high-end barriers. Unlike the exclusive clubs some brands operate, which take years to gain entry into, Telfar held multiple Bag Security Programs which allowed customers to have their say in what size and color bag they wanted, leveraging pre-orders to tackle fashion’s wretched overproduction problem.
The same devotion to community and the environment is felt deeply at A-COLD-WALL*. Samuel Ross, the British designer, Virgil Abloh protege, and interdisciplinary creative behind the brand needs no introduction as one of the most vaunted players in the luxury streetwear space..
Ross’ architecturally-inclined outerwear, which draws on his upbringing in a working class neighbourhood in London, straddles history, modernity, and futurism in its design. Holding a mirror to class and race relations, Ross’ clothing adopts the principles of armor between double-layered fabrics which withstand wear and recycled fabrics that reflect environmental concerns.
Moreover, Ross launched an annual grant program which awards 10 £2,500 grants to recipients in various fields across the arts, including fashion, sculpture, and literature, a testament to his desire to connect with and foster like-minded emerging talents in the artistic community.
Stefano Martinetto, CEO of creative agency Tomorrow Ltd, said that Ross “has built a wonderful cultural and social dialogue with his community – the messaging is solid because it’s real, trustworthy, and truthful.”
Continuing, he attributes the success of brands like A-COLD-WALL*, Telfar, and Ahluwalia, to their social messaging to the Gen Z consumer, who is “extremely attentive to the 360° messaging of modern brands, and the trustful voices of cultural creators, they choose to invest in. Generation Z expects diverse and inclusive marketing and will spot cultural appropriation and greenwashing from afar.”
Across all the designers mentioned, a shared concern for the environment exists in tandem with a loyalty to underrepresented communities. At the 2021 Fashion Awards, the British Fashion Council celebrated Priya Ahluwalia, Teflar Clemens, and Samuel Ross as Leaders of Change, a category devised to spotlight 15 designers, brands, creatives, and individuals, who fostered positive change within the industry under the following categories: Environment, People, and Creativity.
With a focus on new business models and a tailoring production process to ethical consumption, encouraging empowered workforces, and emphasizing the role of community from supply chain to shop floor, it is ultimately the commitment to stylistic output that positions them as modern fashion designers in the truest sense of the word.