Using clothing to make a statement — the take-a-stance kind, not the look-at-me sort— is nothing new. However, before 2016, it had been quite some time since doing so was as, well, fashionable. This year, fashion activism took many forms and was carried out in the name of a number of progressive causes, from fighting ascendant Trumpism to promoting Black Lives Matter. The fashion community banded together to be heard by way of slogan-splashed T-shirts, the brands they supported, the list goes on.
By and large, much of the activism was galvanized by the election — specifically, the implications of a Donald Trump presidency. As a result, many of the big fashion headlines had a political tie or were downright Trump-driven: “Opening Ceremony Sends a Message (Plenty, in Fact),” the New York Times reported after the retailer’s Fall 2016 show. Titled “Pageant of the People,” it included commentary by various celebs urging attendees to vote. Two months later, WWD ran “Designers Weigh in on Dressing Melania Trump,” following designer Sophie Theallet’s tweet vowing to never dress the future FLOTUS. And Vogue issued “10 Ways to Wear Safety Pins Post-Election and Show Your Support,” a guide to showing allegiance to Americans feeling threatened.
Opening Ceremony’s “Pageant of the People” Fall 2016 runway show | Image via harpersbazaar.com
Such stories called to mind the many tide-changing, fashion-marked movements of yore: Suffragists wore pure white during protests in the early 1900s; in the ’60s, bra-burners fought for equal rights. More recently, there were the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts worn by NBA players in 2014 to protest the verdict on the police officers behind Eric Garner’s death.
Hopelessness is a common driver of activism, and according to Jasmine Aaron, founder and CEO of VOZ — an ethical luxury fashion company that works with women artisans around the world — going some distance to explain the fashion industry’s politicization following November 8. “Since the election, people are just dumbfounded and thinking more about fashion’s relevancy in this landscape,” she said. “It’s an appropriate time to take an ethical stance. People are worried.”
In September, Maria Grazia Chiuri made her runway debut as Dior’s artistic director with a Spring 2017 collection centered on female empowerment — fitting, given she is the first-ever female to be at the helm of the house. The lineup included a variety of strong silhouettes, and sneakers balanced traditionally girly pieces. The most memorable look was an embellished tulle skirt topped with a graphic white tee, which read, “We Should All Be Feminists.”
Singer Katy Perry in a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt | Photo via People.com
Easy to top with a slogan, tees are common banners for fashion activism. This year, that included “Nasty Woman” tees, $25 styles produced by Nasty Woman + Co. The U.S.-based company was inspired by and named after Donald Trump’s description of Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate. From the get-go, it has given 50 percent of its proceeds to Planned Parenthood — so far, it has reportedly raised more than $100,000 for the organization.
Fashion activism isn’t without its downsides, said Céline Semaan, owner of the Slow Factory brand and the self-professed originator of the “fashion activism” term. For starters, many T-shirts are made of cotton; it reportedly requires 20,000 liters water to make a single cotton T-shirt. “When you want to make a T-shirt that has a message like ‘Save the Planet,’ make sure you’re using some kind of fabric that doesn’t make the entire planet go dry,” she said. “Or if it says ‘Made in China?’ Hello!”
Semaan has also warned against companies that randomly or vaguely announce affiliations with charities. For a Medium post, she wrote about “hand-wavy, do-gooder sentiments,” pointing out that those behind them may simply be taking cues from brands actually linked to causes. Donating “a percentage of sales to charities” could mean less than 1 percent — plus, which charities? Because “cause marketing” has proven to have positive effects on businesses, it’s hard to know whether companies using it are being opportunistic or not.
The supply chain of Semaan’s clothing line is 100 percent clean and fair trade — and while her designs are not stamped with text relaying what her brand stands for, she regards simply purchasing and wearing her pieces a form of activism.
Aaron would agree. “I don’t know if there’s a difference” between buying ethically-made togs and activism, Aaron said. “Everyone uses these words in a personal way. In order to stand up for ethical values and human rights, and against exploitation, it takes a large degree of activism.” That’s particularly due to the fact that the marketplace is currently infiltrated by fast fashion, she said. “You’ve got to be strong and patient.”
And if there’s one thing 2016 has required, it’s been patience. “Fast-fashion darling Zara is still reigning, but more conscientious brands are continuing to grow by offering a more thoughtful alternative,” said Jessica Navas, Chief Planning Officer at Erwin Penland. More and more, in addition to being empowering, brands are proving that activism is super-chic, she said.
Both Semaan and Aaron attested to seeing a large infiltration of ethical fashion brands emerge this year. What’s more, their own brands have been experiencing success.
Also countering the popularity of fast fashion have been those “fashion activists,” whose mission is to support emerging designers. One who proved vocal this year was B. Akerlund, who dresses Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and Beyoncé. (She was responsible for the yellow dress Bey wore in the ¨Hold Up” video released in April.) She prefers being called activist to stylist and prides herself on backing up-and-comers, even while sourcing clothes for celebs. “If we don’t support emerging talent they will not survive,” she said. “Especially with the larger brands who produce mass-made fashion at a low cost.”
Black Lives Matter
In July — motivated by the police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling the week prior, as well as the industry’s overwhelming silence in the Black Lives Matter conversation — fashion blogger and stylist Hannah Stoudemire organized a demonstration outside of New York Fashion Week: Men’s. The protesters’ T-shirts read, “Don’t Shoot” and “Stop Killing Us.” A lone sign stated, “Black Lives Matter.”
Black Lives Matter protesters outside of New York Fashion Week: Men’s | Photo via nymag.com
Just two days later, Maxwell Osbourne, one-half of the design duo behind Public School and formerly of DKNY, penned an open letter published by W explaining his decision to join the Black Lives Matter movement and asking his peers to do the same.
“I … encourage the fashion industry to not just continue the dialogue of race in America, but to do something about it,” he stated. “Go out and educate yourself … Encourage diversity on your runways and campaigns. Empower your social media fans to raise their voices. Use your designs for the public good. Attend a protest and see change in action. Raise awareness.”
Moving forward, as brands feel pressure to become more transparent and further connect with their customers, it’s safe to assume their positions on the eco-political climate will become increasingly apparent and important.
“More than ever, many people are going to support brands and companies that share their progressive worldview and back it up in action,” Navas said. They’ll display fashion activism by paying more attention to brands’ “sourcing, manufacturing and marketing,” and shopping accordingly.
Image via vogue.com