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Although it’s still freezing outside, Supreme has already unveiled its warm weather range to the world, with a lookbook that lets us see all the items we won’t be able to buy because we’ll be beaten by bots. The highlights of Supreme SS18 include a number of pieces that have been described as “politically charged” – namely a hoodie bearing Martin Luther King’s image, a molotov cocktail pin and another hoodie with “illegal business controls America” printed on the back in the brand’s iconic Futura font.
But one man’s political statement is another’s cringey platitude and Supreme’s posturing has attracted snark, eyerolls and disdain – a reminder that any brand that tries to “get political” will probably get ridiculed for doing so. Politics is always divisive, but it’s particularly problematic when paired with fashion and there are very few brands that manage to take a stand without stumbling into a tone-deaf minefield of hypocrisy. This balancing act is so fraught with difficulties that clothing labels would be well advised to stay well clear of politics all together.
The reasons for this are varied. First of all, there’s all the problematic aspects of the fashion industry, which make it an easy target for criticism: its objectification of women, elitism, shallow consumerism and the exploitation of third-world labour (although it should be noted that these are problems inherent to capitalism, rather than just fashion). Not only that, but sticking any sort of conviction or ideal onto a product cheapens it.
That’s the thing about genuine, unbreakable conviction: it can’t be sold because it is above the temptations of monetary reward. Someone who dies for democracy is a hero, but anyone who refuses to give up their iPhone to a gun-wielding mugger is a moron. By placing their ideals onto a product and then selling them, a brand immediately comes off as insincere: we can’t be sure if they’re driven by belief, or by profit.
Fashion also tends to banalize complex issues. Last year, Dior stuck “We Should All Be Feminists” on a $710 T-shirt. With countless university courses, academic texts, books and essays devoted to feminist theory, what could Dior possibly contribute in t-shirt form that hasn’t been said already? What could Dior possibly stick on a t-shirt that has already been said without dumbing it down?
Fashion design is an aesthetic medium, not a theoretical one, and although it can explore ideas in a visually interesting way (Raf Simons’ recent FW18 collection for Calvin Klein is a prime example), it’s not very good at articulating those ideas with any sort of depth. By presenting them in an abstract, non-verbal form, those ideas risk being misconstrued: Dior followed up its aforementioned “feminist” t-shirts with ones that asked “why have there been no great women artists?” for Spring 2018. As much as this sounds like something Paris Hilton would say, it’s actually the title of an essay penned by feminist art historian Linda Nochlin in 1971. Stripping the essay down to its title robs it of intellectual substance and detaches it from its author. I’m sure Dior’s products were intended as a well-meaning tribute, but in the end they cheapen Nochlin’s politics and work.
The problem with branded attempts at political engagement is that in most cases they don’t go nearly far enough. Sticking “fuck the president” on a keychain, as Supreme did soon after Donald Trump’s election victory, is at best lazy and at worst cynical. If a brand puts out politicized products without engaging in any activism then they run the risk of being painted as callous profiteers.
Sure, Supreme has sold special-edition box logo tees and donated the proceeds to 9/11 relief. Brendon Babenzien’s NOAH has made donations to the American Civil Liberties Union and other noble causes, which is commendable, but you’ll very rarely see brands campaign publicly to advance the politics that they espouse. This is what opens them up to criticism. Shouting “fuck the president” starts to sound like a branding exercise that reinforces Supreme’s carefully constructed image – although it’s often forgotten that the skate brand had the integrity to publicly endorse Hillary Clinton and encourage its Instagram followers to get out and vote on election day.
This deserves to be applauded; but this sort of forthright political engagement is an exception for Supreme rather than a norm and it comes off as a bit tokenistic.
As much as I think that brands should stay away from politics, if they do want to get political then Patagonia is the example that they should follow. Patagonia’s messaging is consistent and unavoidable. It encourages customers to bring in their old products to be repaired in-store rather than haranguing them to buy new ones. Instead of simply speaking out against Trump on social media once, the brand shut all of its 29 retail stores across America as well as its headquarters and distribution center on election day in 2016. Patagonia doesn’t even style itself as an explicitly political brand, but it recognizes that it has a moral duty as a manufacturer of outdoors apparel to campaign for environmental causes. Brands that use political posturing to sell commodified rebellion to teenagers have a similar duty, whether they recognize it or not.
If Supreme wanted to be treated with a comparable seriousness, it could start off by sticking some less obvious political figures onto its products than Martin Luther King, to use its product drops to introduce its customers to people and ideas that they haven’t heard of. Instead of waiting ‘til the final week of a presidential campaign to make a single woke social media post, it could start posting about the November midterms today, raising awareness for Indivisible and at least attempt to rally the hypebeast vote. Dior could prove its feminist credentials by enforcing gender pay parity across the company and internally disclose salary figures to all of its employees so they know how much everybody earns and that any discrepancies are down to individual talent and achievement (if the company doesn’t already, but there isn’t any information on the web that suggests that it does). Alternatively, it could try out some of the many well thought-out suggestions already listed on The Fashion Law. All of these moves risk negatively affecting a brand’s bottom line, but social justice has always come at a price.
Ultimately, doing anything beyond sticking slogans onto T-shirts and keychains would count as a step forward right now because the bar could hardly be set any lower. But even if fashion labels take the steps to engage with political causes in a substantial way, they would still be well advised to stop using their products to cash in on political sloganeering.
Too many people confuse political expression with political engagement. They delude themselves that signing an online petition or changing their Facebook profile picture in the wake of a tragedy counts as meaningful action rather than hollow virtue signaling. In a climate of hashtag activism, buying and wearing political fashion risks being misconstrued as a political act. At a moment in history when rightwing populists are driving a wedge through Western societies by offering simple solutions to complex problems, the last thing political discourse needs right now is further banalizing.
Brands degrade their self-professed convictions by selling political fashion because it promotes the idea that politics is something that can fit onto a T-shirt or a keychain or a hoodie and that buying such products as a show of political expression can substitute meaningful action. The dumbing down of politics is what got us into the mess we're in right now, so the best thing that woke brands could do is quietly sign out and avoid being part of the problem.