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We are living through a time of political division that leaves both sides of the debate incensed. It stands to reason that designers might pick up on that mood and look for ways to express their own hot-take. We saw it at Chanel’s Spring/Summer 2015 show, where Karl Lagerfeld sent models down the runway wielding placards calling for women’s rights. We saw it again when Maria Grazia Chiuri included a t-shirt stamped with We Should All Be Feminists in her Spring/Summer 2017 collection for Dior. Both of these instances illuminated a nascent sentiment of resistance, acting as unwitting omens of the monumental #metoo movement to come. Dior’s t-shirt in particular, emblazoned with text taken from the prominent Nigerian feminist and writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s manifesto of the same name, came at a time when the cultural conditions for a seismic societal shift were just about right. If there was ever just one item of clothing that so glaringly represented our collective mood in the aftermath of Trump, this was surely it.
But then, something happened that brought to light just how dysfunctional the global fashion industry had become, and just how much it needed radical change. From H&M to Amazon and beyond, Dior’s t-shirt was replicated by some of the world’s largest clothing retailers; Adichie’s galvanising rally cry was being churned out of factories where young women and girls are routinely and carelessly exploited - in some cases earning less than $2 per day - and being sold at bargain-basement prices. It’s hard to think of more a more blatant hypocrisy, or one that so effectively highlights the baked-on economic injustices that the industry largely, and too-often blindly, supports. Looking back, it’s easy to see how this happened; Dior’s t-shirt was made for the Instagram age. An easily digested 5-word message that could be snapped, shared and ultimately consumed. The rapacious speed at which this message was absorbed, re-appropriated and commodified was astonishing. From Beyonce to Dior, feminism had become consumable product.
Of course, the trickling down of ideas from fashion’s foremost creative minds to the mass-produced market isn’t new. Today, the speed at which we consume and share ideas has given fashion designers and brands the ability to adapt and reflect back on us the changing values that increasingly underpin our choices. In this instance, however, the vast chasm between our ethics and our actions was suddenly writ large. Consumer brands co-opting feminism to sell goods made by disenfranchised women isn’t only unpalatable, it speaks of a more insidious culture that profits from the notion that meaning is something that can be fabricated.
In January, Business of Fashion, together with McKinsey & Partners, examined this shift in its State of Fashion report for 2019 - an annual report that takes the temperature of the fashion industry today. Through rigorous data analysis, interviews and insights, the report investigates the current and predicted trends facing the fashion industry at a business, consumer and systemic level. According to the 2019 report, there is a growing movement in the fashion industry towards brands becoming more purpose-driven to attract both consumers and talent. It’s a shift that comes as younger generations’ interest in social, environmental and political causes is rising. In short, the fashion industry is catching up to our growing ‘wokeness’ and desire for meaning in our consumption.
It stands to reason, in a world that is increasingly bound by a strongly conservative agenda, that scores of people with progressive, liberal views are left unmoored in a world where their beliefs are not championed by the political powers-that-be. Those who haven’t been empowered by the ballot box, Business of Fashion’s report posits, have taken their proverbial vote to the cash register.
We are now using our purchasing power to support our deeply-held beliefs. It’s a trend that has been picked up on by some of the world’s most high-end, luxury fashion houses. In the report, Business of Fashion’s founder Imran Amed interviews Cédric Charmet, the Chief Executive of Balenciaga, about the brand’s decision to partner with the World Food Program (WFP) for its Fall 2018 collection. The collaboration, which saw Balenciaga use the WFP logo used across a number of hoodies, t-shirts and hats, was sold through luxury retailer Net-A-Porter, where a black jumper from the range carried a retail price of over $1,000 AUD (February 2019). According to Balenciaga, 10% of the sale price of each item in the collaboration will be donated to the WFP. It’s what Charmet refers to as being ‘meaningful in what you do’, in terms of fashion.
“It’s a good example of having commitment blended and integrated with the aesthetic as opposed to have commitment being something that we do aside or something we do in the shadows,” says Charmet. “In the future, we will all make commitment part of the aesthetic. It’s what you call activism…A product can no longer be only and purely craftsmanship plus creativity and heritage, we need to add values and emotion to it. Products need to be meaningful,” he states.
It’s a nice sentiment, but on closer inspection, it raises a number of questions. How can values and emotion be viewed as additives? How authentic is a commitment to doing good when it is designed with optics in mind? And perhaps most confounding: Can products be inherently meaningful? After all, meaning is not a commodity that can be applied or layered onto an outfit like an accessory. Rather, values and emotion should be the starting point from which almost any meaningful creative endeavour takes shape. And, though Balenciaga and others might try, such fundamental, ephemeral qualities cannot be retrofitted to adhere to the current cultural climate. One Instagram user, commenting on a post from the Business of Fashion Instagram account regarding Balenciaga’s WFP collaboration, put it simply: “Purchasing a t-shirt that costs hundreds of dollars is in no way shape or form anti-poverty activism, and a World Food Program logo doesn’t miraculously make your habit for spending obscene amounts of money a more ethical form of consumption.”
Knowing that 10% of the sale of an expensive sweater is going to a good cause might be a happy byproduct of the exchange, but isn’t there a more meaningful way to use fashion as a pathway for change? Moreover, is it the role of fashion brands to tell us what causes, charities or issues to care about, or is this merely a symptom of our obsession with optics?
In an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year, the Chilean-born fashion designer Maria Cornejo points out that “clothing is emotion”. It may sound esoteric, but the essence of Cornejo’s statement is primal. We are drawn to the objects of beauty that resonate with us, that pull at our desires and lift us. Equally, we form connections with the things that protect us—that fill a gap. Clothing is a rare type of commodity that can be both armour and expression. We use clothing to conceal and reveal, often subconsciously forming unspoken expressions of who we are, what we do, sometimes even what we stand for. Our ethics, morals, beliefs: we wear them on our sleeves.
As Business of Fashion points out, consumers are becoming more conscious about where and how they spend their money. Coupled with a rise in awareness of misconduct across the fashion industry, it’s increasingly easy to identify the brands that attempt to exploit our values and those that are genuinely improving their values in an effort to be more ethically sound. If we want to use fashion as a form of political protest, then it has to start with our choices as consumers. Seeking out brands whose values are more than skin deep? This is how a movement really starts. With any luck, we will look back on this moment as the era that fashion really stood for something.
Dior S/S 2017
Chanel S/S 2015
Balenciaga F/W 2018