Style

The Limits and Ambitions of the Fashion Industry’s Protests

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Fashion has always been about standing out, with designers forging innovative ways to separate themselves and their art from the rest of the crop. But now, it seems, designers are opting to come together and embrace gestures of solidarity. Tommy Hilfiger, Prabal Gurung, and Tadashi Shoji sent models down the runway with white bandanas tied to their wrists, a symbol of the #TiedTogether campaign’s message of “unity and inclusiveness.” Anna Wintour, Tracy Reese, and Diane von Furstenburg all showed up with Planned Parenthood pins, in accordance with a partnership between the organization and the creator of New York Fashion Week, the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

This was the first fashion week since the election, so the anticipation for designers to make a statement was palpable. Fashion’s matriarch, Anna Wintour, has been an active Clinton supporter, while designers like Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenburg contributed to Clinton’s campaign last year with custom-designed T-shirts. But participation in protest doesn’t necessarily mean alliance with one party or another; Hilfiger was also one of the few designers who openly declared he’d be proud to dress Melania, and many in the industry remained silent following Trump’s travel ban.

This doesn’t say much about the industry’s hypocrisy. Fashion-week shows capture the mood of the season, and if future trends can be deduced from runways, then it’s clear that protest — or the spirit thereof — is in style. Mara Hoffman opened her show with the organizers of the Women’s March, while Prabal Gurung’s models wore T-shirts saying “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like,” as Huma Abedin looked on from the front row. A recent story on the Guardian claimed that brands understand that sex doesn’t sell anymore, but activism does. During the Super Bowl, for example, commercials from Airbnb to Coca-Cola used diversity and inclusion as main themes. It seems that the fashion industry — an industry that’s mastered the art of selling sex — has come to the same realization.

Walking through the streets of Soho, I can’t quite tell whether a throng of loud young women are convening for a Planned Parenthood protest, or a Kylie Jenner pop-up shop. Political and social statements in fashion can be powerful, but the industry’s inherently commercial pull ensures that any critique can be countered.

In this divisive climate, neither politics nor companies can get away with not choosing a side. Not reacting to the travel ban can get a designer in trouble, and offering to dress Melania Trump might do the same. Fashion magazines have already taken their cue: Vogue featured the organizers of the Women’s March in a photo shoot, while Teen Vogue has developed into a reliably critical voice, spearheaded by editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth and driven by writers like Lauren Duca, who infamously took on Fox News.

Cynics believe that nothing can take down global neoliberalism, while pragmatists are convinced that, no matter how fraught the system, every little contribution helps; in between these two extremes is a space where we can separate what fashion can accomplish as an industry and how fashion can function as art.

Fashion, as an industry, is no less damaging than the sharing economy that abuses its workers or the oil companies that pollute the earth. Whatever protest the industry mounts, the effort may seem bleak. Initiatives were put in place after the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh that killed over one thousand garment workers, yet very few believe conditions have actually improved, or if fashion companies even intended them to. In this case, fashion operates within the framework of capitalism: Should we be surprised when an industry preserves business and profit, whether it’s protest-flavored or not?

But fashion is also a mode of expression, a collection of symbols sitting at the intersection of individual identity with markers of the times. After the French Revolution, Parisian youths from elite families started wearing exaggerated shapes to go against the revolutionary spirit. The black and ripped clothes of punks in the 1970s projected the discontent of the youth. In contemporary Iran, where women are required to be veiled by law, the position of a headscarf or the length of a coat can be a subtle act of political subversion. An example closer to home is Raf Simons’s spring 2002 collection, “Woe Unto Those Who Spit on the Fear Generation… the Wind Will Blow It Back,” reflecting on post-9/11 culture.

Fashion has always been used as a tool to express dissent in fraught times, and it will continue to be used as such. One of the most memorable images of the Women’s March is of the pink pussy-hats, donned with pride and defiance, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was the individual marchers who knitted and wore them. Fashion as an industry can only sense where the public taste is shifting. What happens with the symbols that it produces is up to us.