This piece appears as part of our initiative on Identity & Representation, a six-month-long project highlighting different facets of identity and how they shape the practices, conventions, and conversations happening in the Highsnobiety world. Head here for the full series.
Fashion is inherently political. Not only does the industry shape our views on gender, luxury, and desire, it relies on countless global workers (plenty of which are underpaid and exploited in developing countries) and leaves an enormous carbon footprint. From supply chains and factories to runways and the high street, every rung of the fashion ladder has political consequences.
But some designers make it their mission to harness the power of political fashion to make social change. The likes of London-based Bethany Williams are fighting greenwashing and advocating for a new, more sustainable norm; elsewhere, Polish designer Martyna Sowik weaves nationalist slogans into her slick, deconstructed collections as a commentary on the rise of the far-right, which has recently resulted in a number of ‘LGBT-free zones’ and a state declaration of homophobia.
Other designers create political fashion by default. Paria Farzaneh has earned critical acclaim for collections which sartorially explore her Iranian heritage, but she clarified in a 2018 interview that the message “isn’t so much political, it’s more simply to inform people about the culture and let people know that the Middle East isn’t what most people believe it to be.“ In an industry still lacking diversity, decisions like these can feel political – even when they aren’t necessarily intended to be.
The same can be said of NO SESSO, an innovative and conceptual brand founded by Pierre Davis in 2015. Although Davis – who now helms the label alongside Arin Hayes – regularly casts queer and trans models from within her friendship group, the duo have shrugged off the idea that their art is political. But as a trans woman, Davis has spoken about feeling automatically politicized – a feeling which rang true earlier this year when the brand made its New York debut, sparking headlines which mentioned Davis’ identity before her name.
With that being said, a handful of brands and designers are making work with the intention to disrupt. Whether donating profits to marginalized communities, hiring workers with special needs or using fashion to highlight transphobia in the mainstream media, these creators are using their platforms to push for positive change.
Here are five brands who have centralized their politics to instill real social change:
When Miles Dunphy and Elsa Ellies first met at the Royal College of Art, they shared the goal of creating a label which did things differently. In 2016, they delivered on this aim by founding ONEBYME. Billed as a gender-neutral brand with sustainability at its core, the label stood out conceptually: each piece was created from a single piece of fabric, a design choice which minimized waste and resulted in a series of striking, forward-thinking clothes.
Since then, Dunphy and Ellies have branched out by developing ONELAB. Conceived as a scheme to get customers more involved in the making process, the initiative has since blossomed into a program which trains and empowers a community of disabled creatives. This unique blend of fashion and social enterprise sets the brand apart, and aims to remedy the lack of inclusivity in the industry.
Alejandra Muñoz may have only just graduated from London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins, but already her portfolio makes a powerful political statement about what it means to be a trans woman in 2019. Entitled When I Dress As A Woman, The Audience Laughs, her graduate collection features tailored trousers slashed dangerously low at the crotch and origami-style corsets emblazoned with flowers – which, upon closer reflection, are actually embroidered with homophobic and transphobic newspaper headlines.
By casting trans and non-binary models, the young designer is aiming not only to spotlight her community, but also to prove that they’re worthy of celebration by the fashion industry. A model herself (she walks regularly for London’s trailblazing design duo Art School), Alejandra best expressed her mission at a protest for trans inclusivity in fashion earlier this year: “Get us off the mood boards, put us on the covers.”
Fashion supply chains often stretch around the globe, relying predominantly on the underpaid labor of women in developing countries. This isn’t the case with ADISH, a streetwear label co-founded by Israeli creatives Amit Luzon and Eyal Eliyahu. Their brand employs dozens of Palestinian women – all of whom are paid a fair wage – and takes inspiration from traditional embroidery, which creeps across wardrobe staples like hoodies, sweatshirts and jersey shorts.
Last year, the duo described to Highsnobiety their desire to bridge the cultural gap between Israel and Palestine, hopefully inspiring positive change in the process. Their work undeniably gives insight into life amongst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most notably in multimedia project Area A. Two narratives are interwoven: one is a heartbreaking description of daily war, but the other is a clarion call for creativity and togetherness. It’s this pragmatic embrace of artistic community that sets ADISH apart from its contemporaries, and which continues to push for change even as chaos ensues.
At first glance, nothing about Mojaljvin – the fashion label of designer, model and footballer Salomon Lukonga – looks overtly political. From bold, asymmetric printed shirts to pinstriped overcoats with fabric belts, the clothes are cool and classic. That’s kind of the point: everything is slick, stylish and wearable, which means there’s optimum possibility to raise money for refugee children in desperate need of medical aid.
Lukonga spent a portion of his childhood in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Like others, his family had fled a brutal civil war in what is now known as the Republic of Congo. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed; even those who escaped to the refugee camp still lived in extreme poverty, but Lukonga’s family was later moved to Australia, where he carved out a successful fashion career. By creating clothes inspired by his own heritage and pledging a portion of his profits, Lukonga proves that fashion, politics and philanthropy can all go hand in hand.
When Shazia Ijaz launched a crowdfunding campaign for Seek Refuge, “the world’s first streetwear brand for Muslim women,” she chose a clip of President Trump declaring that Islam “hates us” to begin the promotional video. Islamophobia is a widespread issue in even the world’s most supposedly progressive countries; as a result, countless Muslim refugees displaced by violent wars are being scapegoated and locked out of countries which could save their lives.
Seek Refuge aims to change this by donating cash to refugee charities, but more broadly, Ijaz is aiming to reconfigure society’s idea of what it means to be a Muslim woman. Denim jackets are emblazoned with Arabic poems; sweatshirts feature symbols of love and unity, whereas baseball caps bear a straightforward plea: support refugees. By catering to Muslim women who want to dress modestly without sacrificing their edge, Ijaz is catering to a demographic that’s often treated as invisible – and potentially saving a few lives in the process.