From Brexit to Black Lives Matter: can fashion be a vehicle for change? And what is the industry doing to address the current social climate? WGSN reports
During emotionally charged periods of history, fashion often takes up one of two roles.
It can be a vessel of escapism to transport you away from the upheaval and uncertainty or it can be a reflection of its times -a fabric and textiles time stamp if you will. Notable examples of fashion designers merging with politics in recent years, include Vivienne Westwood’s Red Label S/S16 anti-fracking collection
and Zac Posen’s recent all black catwalk show, using models of colour to address the crippling lack of diversity on the runway in New York.
Against the current cultural backdrop, one that includes Brexit in London and Europe, and Black Lives Matter in the US, the men’s catwalk shows have also been happening. So after LCM and NYFWM I wanted to ask our senior menswear editors what they were seeing this season, from the design studio to outside the tents; how were designers responding to the current social climate? Their informed answers are below:
Nick Paget, WGSN senior editor of menswear, London
There have always been more markers of the state of a nation within a fashion context than merely the height of hemlines. For LCM, we saw Brexit come to the front and centre of catwalk shows. Beginning with the Graduate Fashion shows in early May where graduate designer Philip Ellis referenced the impending historical political vote to the LCM designer Daniel W Fletcher who displayed his ‘stay’ collection.
It’s been encouraging to see designers not shy away from the issues, but address them head on. Fashion designers like great artists, can reflect the times, and hold a mirror up to the cultural anxieties permeating the delicate fabric of society. It might seem simple, and make only a ripple of impact, but oftentimes it’s the creatives who feel bold enough to question, to challenge or at the very least document the changing cultural events.
And the politics that you are seeing on the catwalk are coming from the street (and street style), which has always been the driving force to inform the creative dialogue. On the night of voting last month, Londoners rocked ‘in’ badges as a statement of defiance and now in the current post-Brexit climate in the UK, a wave of hate crime has caused something of a social media fashion phenomenon.
The wearing of a single safety pin—devoid of a ribbon, badge or any decoration—denotes the wearer’s anti-hate crime stance and is designed to let people know that they can feel safe sitting next to that person on a bus or tube; that the wearer might be more inclined to intervene, should a racially-motivated, religious or homophobic attack be taking place.
It’s wrong that such measures should ever be needed, but as elements of society shift towards a more far-right politic, it’s where we’re at right now.
And while I’m saddened that it’s come to this to make people feel safe, I’m always encouraged by people making a stand, a common consciousness for kindness and togetherness. I’m inspired that in London, from the pavement to the recent protest walks to the catwalk plinths, creatives are making a small, but positive impact to stand up against hate and division.
Jian DeLeon, senior editor of menswear, New York
In times of crisis, many of us face an existential dilemma that what we are doing has no real meaning. That we cannot comment on the larger picture because we spend most of our time focusing on the smaller details. Bill Cunningham, magnanimous in his humility, spent his entire career downplaying the importance of his profession. “Yes, this is a lovely diversion,” he told journalist Fern Mallis. “We get dressed every morning. It’s very important how we feel.”
And in that, I realise that there is an underlying importance in covering the lighter side of life. Because when we include the width and breadth of humanity in the conversation of fashion, we are affirming that everyone is worthy of looking and feeling good. As DKNY co-creative director and Public School co-designer Maxwell Osborne says in his W Magazine Op-Ed: “Fashion is always at its best when it looks outside of itself for inspiration and holds up a mirror to society. Sometimes we do that on the runway and sometimes when we come together as an industry and take up important causes.”
Blogger Hannah Stoudemire chose to boycott New York Fashion Week: Men’s this season for its relative silence on the Black Lives Matter movement, arranging a protest outside the Clarkson Square venue on the first day. Her main ire is that the fashion industry is quick to take up LGBQT causes like the shooting in Orlando or address global terrorism like the Paris attacks, while remaining distant from the very real cycle of death facing blacks in America. That’s not to say no one is commenting on what’s happening. Designer Willy Chavarria showed a collection at Capsule tradeshow full of cheeky racial references. The tonal clothing included a black t-shirt with “STAY BLACK” emblazoned on the front, a mocha brown one that read “BROWN POWER,” as well as “F*CK HATE, LETS BOOGIE”. And mass market brands are also stepping up and speaking out about racial injustices, most notably sneaker company Nike.
Student designers remain in a unique place where they are in a position to use their graduate collections as a platform to promote social change. Parsons student Angela Luna designed a utilitarian collection combining technical fabrics with ergonomic techniques that allow the clothes to transform into items like a backpack and a tent, as well as a vest that doubled as a flotation device. Her main inspiration were the droves of Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi refugees fleeing their respective countries in hopes of a better life. Private Policy, a label run by fellow Parsons alumni Haoran Li and Siying Qu, used their collection as a platform to highlight the atrocities commited in the Southeast Asian fishing industry, where numerous workers are enslaved and forced to work on fishing boats in the middle of the ocean.
And in previous seasons, designers like Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss explicity addressed the number of black lives lost to police brutality by printing the names of the deceased on a t-shirt.
But like social media slacktivism, a t-shirt has just about as much power as a hashtag. Awareness does not equal direct action, but in a small way, maybe it can help the fashion industry to question itself and the role in plays in creating diversity. Pushing for diversity on the runway—and more importantly behind it, from increasing designers of colour to buyers and merchandisers— would be a great catalyst for true change in one of the biggest industries. That said, it is far from the biggest battle black Americans are currently fighting today.
Do you believe that fashion can be a force for social change? Comment below: