should the fashion industry take more of a stand against donald trump?
With fashion and activism so intrinsically linked, we ponder whether brands have an obligation to speak out against the president.
Like so many of us, I've been transfixed by rolling news coverage over the past (God, has it really only been) two weeks. From the surreal slow fades between rioters and attendees on the Guardian's live coverage of the inauguration, to Sean Spicer and Kelly Anne Conway's truly Orwellian newspeak, and the sustained protests across the globe: it's been a sickening, saddening, inspiring, fearful, hopeful, angry journey. Trying to process all these reactions is not easy at the best of times, and yet I find myself struggling as well with the creeping impulses to view everything through the lens of the (whisper it) fashion industry that I predominantly work in.
When I see footage of face-covered anarchists in technical apparel smashing up a Starbucks, a tiny part of me sees the black-ops-streetwear of German tech brand Acronym, or the 90s output from mil-spec obsessed Japanese brands like WTAPS. I don't just see a dangerous buffoon who doesn't know how to knot his scarlet tie, I also see an East Coast socialite who remembered the advice from one of those meticulous gentlemen's style guides, on how lengthening the tie masks the size of a heavy gut. The slogans splashed beautifully across the slow, peaceful marches worldwide: they evoke the runways of Undercover, of Vivienne Westwood, of countless designers who recognize that words are able to speak in a way that can't always be summoned solely through patterns and fabrics.
Of course the point I'm making here is not that disenfranchised members of AntiFa have been swotting up on the latest Hypebeast trends, but rather the opposite. The fashion industry has always looked to counterculture movements and marginalized minority groups for 'inspiration.' Many people (and I include myself at times in this) have found ways to justify this, in that eternal quest to lend meaning to the endless procession of new collections sent down the runway. Meaning that goes beyond simply, 'I think it looks cool.' The clothes you see each fashion week are a crucial tool for reflecting the state of the world, is the common argument you might hear — usually in the sort of article that will, straight-faced, note how grunge was an anti-consumerist backlash against the excesses of the 80s, whilst at the same time exalting the $1,000 plaid shirts being sent down the runway by whoever. 'Reflect' is the key word here. When the wider world is crying out for tools to muddy its hands with, fashion more often than not simply holds up a mirror. Gosha Rubchinskiy might give ample air time to the marginalized youths he grew up with, but is he really doing much more than fetishizing their situation as he strives to make their post-Soviet world, chic? Perhaps, but I'm not so sure. The Working Class as a defiant, ever-struggling social group exists regardless of how long The Working Class as a knowing, fleeting fashion trend does.
As my own immersion in the fashion industry has waxed and waned over the years, this role of brands as takers-rarely-givers has remained an uneasy constant. I was drawn to 'fashion' (for want of better shorthand) via a childhood spent predominantly amidst the council estates of north east England. The joyous discovery of music both righteous and avant-garde galvanized me into carving an identity for myself and, as I grew in confidence, started to emulate the look of those musicians and creative forces I so admired from afar. It didn't occur to me until much later that by switching up a box fresh pair of Nike Cortez and North Face jacket for beat-up canvas sneakers and a wool overcoat, I was simply trading the signifiers of one social group for another.
It's true that many fashion brands have made admirable efforts in recent years to act more ethically when it comes to their impact on the environment, or the way they treat workers in various parts of the world. It was presumably once thought, at board level, that issues such as these had the potential to kill off their profit-making — but they came good, and it didn't. Isn't it time that more brands began to acknowledge and support the issues that their consumers care about today — the deeply problematic political actions that will arguably have consequences just as potent as sweatshops and carbon footprints? Fashion instead, for the most part, continues to passively draw inspiration from the social movements that fight these battles while it — a multi-billion industry — does very little. In the process of writing this piece I watched a short video of the recent anti-Trump protests in London, shot by filmmakers from the fashion world. Its wordless focus seemed to be predominantly on picking out attractive women in 'on-trend' attire from the crowds — making them pose mute and stationary at an event that was all about voice and movement.
The fashion industry can no longer simply repackage that inspiration and sell it back to the very people who are increasingly enacting these social movements — there has to be some meaningful action taken by the side of that relationship who actually wield power, money, and influence. If the time for that isn't now, then they will lose the very people who are going to sustain their businesses when the baby boomers finally die out. I'm speaking of young, creative, internationalist, conscientious people who check style blogs and place importance on aesthetics but also march in the streets and boycott department stores selling Ivanka's footwear. Look no further than the powerful effect of the #deleteuber campaign, which overwhelmed the business' account deletion process to breaking point and forced its CEO to stand down from his role on a Trump advisory board. Those same people who live(d) a lifestyle of taxi rides around cosmopolitan cities are also often the ones spending their money on the latest 'must-have' clothing — and if there's one thing thing those same people are taking note of right now, it's how the powerful are responding and not responding to their anger, their sadness, their protest.
So where is the fashion industry's engagement with this? As highlighted by a Business of Fashion op-ed last week, its response to the Trump administration's actions has been deafening in its silence. Where is the condemnation from Calvin Klein, as Raf Simons takes the helm (a Belgian I might add, and therefore immigrant in his new place of work)? Why hasn't LVMH or Kering spoken out in the same way that titans from the tech industry have?
There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Mark Parker of Nike made a rare political statement in an email to employees, stressing that the company stands "against bigotry and any form of discrimination." That could be construed as nothing more than soft vagaries were it not for the fact that the CEO of the Fortune 500 company explicitly, crucially, framed this in the context of Trump's refugee-banning executive order — "this is a policy we don't support," he said, stressing that Nike would be countering the order's impact wherever possible. At the same time, Opening Ceremony went one step further, announcing that all proceeds from its 'Action Capsule' collection will go to the ACLU.
It's often posited that brands are damned if they do and damned if they don't when it comes to making political statements. I would suggest that the answer to that is for those brands to not simply stop at the statements — Opening Ceremony's Global Varsity collection, "an homage to diversity and the magical melting pot that America is today," made a mere statement. The ACLU-headed proceeds from its Action Capsule though will make a difference that reaches far beyond that statement. 'Statements' are a comfort zone for fashion brands in particular (surely the F-word is the only one to prefix 'statement' more than the word 'political,' right?).
Fashion brands need to not only make statements if they want to stay at the forefront of their audience's admiration, they need to act. It's time for them to let their audience know they care in legitimate, tangible ways about the issues being protested — and that they're not simply taking notes on the outfits being worn by those doing the protesting.
Text James Darton