Not only do fashion shows offer a preview of the silhouettes, prints and fabrics that will eventually trickle down into our future wardrobes, they hold a mirror up to the society around us and act as a cultural time capsule.
Today’s society is, to say the least, fractured: global leaders are revoking human rights at breakneck speed and using their platform to encourage both literal and ideological division. Put simply, the future looks uncertain at best and, at worst, apocalyptic. Naturally, the runways reflected this chaotic climate this year.
A combination of activist slogans, clever casting choices and open declarations of individual views on social media characterize fashion’s new age of political consciousness. Throughout history, the question of whether or not designers should engage with politics has continued to re-emerge.
On the one hand, the fashion industry has the potential to make a change by sparking weighty political discussions; on the other hand, it’s often argued that fashion is complicit in the discrimination it seeks to challenge.
The most-discussed example of runway activism over the last few seasons comes courtesy of Maria Grazia Chiuri, who last year made history by becoming the first woman to ever occupy the role of creative director at Christian Dior. She wasted no time in making an impact, using her first collection to show a T-shirt emblazoned with ‘We Should All Be Feminists.’
The statement is, of course, the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s seminal essay which was catapulted to worldwide fame when Beyoncé sampled its accompanying speech in her hit "Flawless." Response was mixed, and justifiably so – it soon emerged that, to buy into Chiuri’s feminist statement, customers would have to shell out an eye-watering $700.
It was later announced – after several high-profile figures had voiced concerns online – that all proceeds would be donated to Rihanna’s non-profit organisation, the Clara Lionel Foundation, but the real message behind the design rang out loud and clear: in an age plagued by a Trump presidency, politics sell.
Chiuri’s intentions to further the message of feminism may have been genuine, but there’s a vital problem which stems from excluding all but the wealthy from a sartorial political statement. The slogan T-shirt may have found fame through the designs of controversial designers like Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hamnett, but its beauty came from its simplicity and its ability to be replicated for next to no money – all you needed was a message and a marker.
This message quickly resonated, and protestors began using their clothing to send concise, catchy clarion calls designed to fight political injustice. Now, the slogan tee has been removed from this context and adopted by designers including Prabal Gurung and Cristian Siriano.
It’s worth noting that both designers will donate either part or all of the profits from their designs to various charities, but why buy into Gurung’s $130 vision when you can get handy at home and instead donate the full amount yourself?
There are also problems with the fact that the fashion industry is essentially built on the foundations of intern labour, which is rarely paid. Not only are runways often depressingly bare of trans, non-white and plus-size models, the exploitation of international sweatshop workers is still an enormous problem.
A lengthy recent report by Human Rights Watch reveals the true extent: workers are being arrested in Bangladesh for “striking to secure a monthly minimum wage increase from 5,300 takas (US$67) to 15,000 ($187) or 16,000 ($200).”
High-street chains are reportedly mobilizing and sending letters to governors to improve human rights, but we live in the age of fast fashion – one which is arguably exacerbated by diffusion collections and experimentation with "see-now, buy-now" approaches to selling.
The seasonal nature of fashion itself demands constant production which, in turn, forces high-street brands to copy trends at low prices. It’s inevitable that these cheap thrills often come at the expense of garment workers whose lives are rendered difficult by poor payment and, on more extreme occasions, snatched in factory fires resulting from appalling working conditions.
Fashion designers may be making political statements, but why are so few willing to speak out against the issues which remain pervasive within their own industry?
Despite headlines which suggest otherwise, fashion has always been inherently political. When McQueen commissioned a gigantic scrapheap for his ‘Horn of Plenty’ collection back in 2009, he was making a statement on waste and pollution without resorting to anything so literal as a slogan T-shirt.
The problem with most of the political statements on the FW17 runways is that their activism is their key focus – one which is almost always praised in press coverage. It’s fair to say that most of us want to invest in companies which support the same causes as we do; more than ever, consumers have the power to either rally behind or boycott huge companies.
It’s not just fashion either – a recent piece published by The Guardian highlighted Lyft, Starbucks and Kenco as key examples of huge businesses doing good deeds in extremely public fashion.
There are brands like Gogo Graham, Eckhaus Latta, Charles Jeffrey, Simone Rocha, Grace Wales Bonner – labels which have always made a conscious effort to showcase a diverse cast of models and make clothes which are always tinged with a touch of subversion.
These are the designers who choose not to make a glaring statement for one season; instead, they are challenging representation which is, in itself, inherently political. They are showing that trans models are more than a token, that beauty is not defined by race.
This season, that message extended to include the first ever hijabi model, Halima Aden, cast by Yeezy and Max Mara. Aden was not decked out in full political garb but, in the wake of Trump’s Muslim ban, her presence was a statement in itself – without multiculturalism, Western society lacks creative brilliance and becomes a stale, white wasteland.
In conclusion, the point is not that designers shouldn’t be involved with political issues – in fact, the point is quite the opposite. If brands need to declare their activism, however, logic suggests that this is because it marks a departure from their usual message.
It’s no secret that advertisers and sponsored posts keep the fashion industry alive; this, in turn, often leads to covert censorship because, as brands like Dolce & Gabbana have learned in the past, regressive views can jeopardize a company’s image and lead to their designs being boycotted.
True activism issues a "fuck you" to censorship, which presents a paradox – how can big brands engage in protest without alienating investors? It’s obvious that we can’t stay silent while Donald Trump continues to restrict the rights of minorities, but there’s a way to do it without using good ethics and a stance against discrimination as the first line of a press release.
Crucially, we need to be wary of brands whose political stance may reveal itself to be nothing but a seasonal statement. The way to do this is to look at where the profits truly go, to examine the company’s supply chain and, crucially, to ensure that these brands are giving modeling jobs and vital paid positions to the immigrants, PoC and queer communities they claim to defend.
The best way to contest Trump’s discrimination is to humanize and financially support marginalized individuals, not to show slogan T-shirts one season and revert back to political neutrality the next. There’s a way to communicate an activist message without making it a selling point; the boundaries between commerce and creativity have always been tricky, but they’re trickier still when the industry straddling them has issues of its own to resolve.
Maria Grazia Chiuri got one thing right with her feminist T-shirts – we really should all be feminists, especially when an overt misogynist is the U.S. President. We should also, however, realize that activism isn’t a trend, nor is it a tool to garner good press or a brand’s key selling point.
Research, vigilance and an ongoing focus on violence and discrimination both in and outside of the fashion industry – that’s the true formula for "political fashion" whose impact will outlast the industry’s ruthlessly seasonal structure.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
For more social commentary, check out our piece on how we should react to Kanye West.