can fashion save the world?

Is fashion re-discovering its political ambition? With so much wrong with the world, surely it needs to.

by Bertie Brandes
20 April 2015, 1:20am

When we talk about living in the Age of Plastic most of us think of Barbie doll bodies not floating islands of flip flops and water bottles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Instead of marble statues of muscular Roman teenagers we have slick, glazed totems of plasticity dripping in patent leather and clutching 3D phone cases. There's plastic everywhere and in everything and a large portion of it is ending up in our oceans, and because it never biodegrades it'll be there forever unless we do something about it. Now G-Star and i-D have teamed up to make a film about how they're starting to use recycled plastic as a fabric and in response we wondered if just maybe, fashion might be starting to take our best interests to heart.

It's hard to believe that out of all the industries, the tight-knit active communities and influential individuals sinking their teeth into global issues, fashion could ever be the one to save the world. After all, isn't it essentially ruled by sales figures, heavy with hollow aspiration and dominated by an overwhelming contempt for its consumer? When you take it at face value fashion is hardly a force for good; fur is more in than ever (and faux fur is probably made with highly toxic chemicals anyway), white, boney child-faced supermodels still rule the runway and two of the world's most successful gay fashion designers don't even support gay rights.

We're not off to a great start and it gets worse, because away from the high-end tax evasion of luxury fashion exists the constantly expanding world of the high street, with it's hush hush production lines and questionable creative process. Huge corporate business dominates this part of an industry, and it thrives off selling poor-quality, derivative products Made in Wherever via celebrity endorsements and subliminal advertising. Huge high street shops will pay young designers pennies to buy their allegiance and then rip off their designs in store knowing they won't retaliate. There has to be room for the self-expression that keeps fashion alive but as everything becomes increasingly stifled by profit margins isn't fashion less politically relevant than ever before?

Possibly, but maybe our nostalgia for the more aggressive, tribal and political fashion of previous generations can help us figure out how best to wield it's potential power in the future. Between the 1960's and 1990's fashion tribes represented an allegiance to a wider political or social affinity regardless of whether the wearer wanted to or not. Punk was a rooted in anarchist social politics, rave was a rejection of the Tories bullshit meritocracy and grunge embraced ideas of sustainability and equality. These are all movements which, while we shouldn't rehash aesthetically (god save us all) we could reference more honestly than simply superficially fetishising and re-creating them. Worlds away from the hideously uncool braying of two-party politics comes an opportunity to use fashion as a new way of building communities which, in the words of Meadham Kirchhoff, aren't afraid to "reject everything". Instead of exclusive or expensive it becomes about a badge, a zine, a beret patch; fashion becomes all about the power of symbols and nothing to do with the status of an it bag.

Somewhere over the last decade we stopped believing in the power of fashion. After the earnest ethics of the 90s, the noughties rejected politically active fashion in favour of all things Paris Hilton, and we were thrust into an internet-focused world where everything was monogrammed, shiny and decidedly superficial. America ruled supreme, God-fearing patriotic pop stars were our icons and if anyone thought they knew what the politicians were doing behind closed doors it turns out they were very wrong. Though we have since moved away (and back towards, and away again) from the lip-glossed, PVC mini-kilted turn-of-the-millennium aesthetic, that suspension of politics within fashion usually remains unchallenged. Sure, youth remains the perennial focus of the ever-exploding industry but youth doesn't mean what it used to mean. No longer a byword for a rejection of a staid status-quo, the youth of today is defined time and again on newspaper desks as an Instagram obsessed army of narcissists. As we get older and increasingly pessimistic, instead of challenging the newspapers and magazines that are re-defining what it means to be young and politically engaged we're thinking about how we can get cushy jobs at them. Time for a re-evaluation.

Creating a politically-charged new aesthetic for this generation is the first step, and it's happening. People like Reba Maybury are re-defining what it means to be a fashion writer, engaging actively with a politics of dissent in everything from her magazines, Sang Bleu and Radical People, to her personal style. It's tricky to establish a look without it being hijacked by the high street in the 10 seconds it takes to scroll through their list of Instagram influencers but blending fashion with intention, deciding to use it to do something, gives you an edge Topshop will never be able to take away. Fashion Director of Refinery 29 Paula Goldstein also understands it as a practical issue, "we need to slow fast fashion down and offer easy ways to recycle clothing" she enthuses, adding "there needs to be almost an element of media shame to it much like there was with battery hens." We've got a long way to go, but it looks like hijacking the mainstream and making it play by our rules is the best way to make fashion work for us. We might not save the world as we know it but who knows, maybe we'll save ourselves.


Text Bertie Brandes
Photography Steve Johnson
[The i-D One Issue, No. 1, August 1980]

Bertie Brandes
can fashion save the world
political fashion