Fabricating Meaning in an Age of Protest
Words by Annie Carroll
In the first weeks of the new decade, Australia’s bushfire season took on new, horrifying dimensions. The environmental, ecological and human impacts of the disaster are still being revealed, but the cultural response was swift and momentous. Local fashion labels were quick to find ways of taking action, speaking out on climate change and pledging to donate profits to the charities and organisations doing the work our government wouldn’t. The trend was broadly adopted, even reaching international labels (Krost made “climate change” tee shirts and crop tops with pictures of forests and fires on them, donating all proceeds from them to the Red Cross).
Questions were bound to crop up about the effectiveness of fighting climate change with more stuff, particularly in the context of the fashion industry – which is widely thought to be one of the most polluting industries on earth. After all, a straight donation is a far less carbon-intensive action than creating a new product to sell, even if 100% of money from its sale goes toward charity. The optics of a more direct approach, unfortunately, are harder to guarantee. The desire to share our beliefs is one that designers understand, particularly today. We want to be seen and heard, because it often feels like nobody is listening.
Diana Vreeland once claimed that you can see the approaching of a revolution in clothes. That you can, in fact, see and feel everything in clothes. Looking back at the inflated shoulder pads of the 1980s or the modest hemlines of the 1940s, it’s easy to see this connection between fashion and society play. Fashion holds a mirror up to the political and cultural climate and returns a crisp and tangible reflection of an otherwise mercurial atmosphere. Optimism or prudence, boom or bust: it’s all spelled out in sartorial slang. And now, as we live through a critical time of global unrest, it’s no surprise that fashion as a form of protest is having a moment. But unlike its historical precedents – punk and grunge come to mind – today’s version is ubiquitous and highly literal, articulated in the slogans and witticisms found on tee shirts, bags, hats and jumpers.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Slogan tees have been resurging in popularity for decades. But fashion’s willingness to make proclamations that take a clear point of view on politics and social affairs is increasingly visible. We saw shades of this 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 in wearable form when Maria Grazia Chiuri included a tee shirt stamped with We Should All Be Feminists in her Spring/Summer 2017 collection for Dior. Both of these instances illuminated the sentiment of the time, acting as unwitting omens of the monumental #metoo movement to come. Dior’s tee 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’s election, this was surely it.
“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.”
From H&M to Amazon and beyond, Dior’s tee 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 are routinely exploited, and then sold on to consumers cheaply. It’s hard to think of a more blatant hypocrisy, or one that so effectively highlights the baked-on economic injustices that the industry largely and, too-often blindly, supports.
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 absorb, 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. 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.
Business of Fashion, together with McKinsey, touched on this shift in its State of Fashion report for 2019 – an annual report that takes the temperature of the fashion industry today. Through data analysis, interviews and insights, the report investigates the current and predicted trends facing the fashion industry at a business, consumer and systemic level. The report highlights the 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 inertia and desire for meaning in what we consume.
“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.”
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, tee shirts and hats, was sold through luxury retailer Net-A-Porter, where a black jumper from the range had 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.”
It’s a nice soundbite, but on closer inspection, a hollow one. After all, 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? Meaning is not a commodity that can be applied or layered onto an outfit like an accessory. Rather, values and emotion should arguably 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 in this way. One Instagram user, commenting on a post from the Business of Fashion Instagram account regarding Balenciaga’s WFP collaboration, put it simply: “Purchasing a tee 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.”
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? As Business of Fashion points out, consumers are increasingly conscious of 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.