Why is the fashion industry voicing its political views now?
Wearing your political heart on your sleeves
The fashion-political revolution started in the old continent, precisely on the island that voted to be a separate entity. That's right, Great Britain. Since the referendum on Brexit, the fashion industry has begun to voice its political opinions, with a majority of editors openly campaigning to 'RemaIN'. At the last London Fashion Week, Indian-born designer Ashish Gupta sent ethnically diverse models out on the catwalk to celebrate the cultural variety that has always inspired London's creative scene — one that he felt was chastised in the case of Brexit. And true to his design code of statement clothing, Gupta himself proudly closed the show in a T-Shirt bearing the word "Immigrant".
On the other side of the ocean, editor-in-chief of American Vogue and Condé Naste's creative director Anna Wintour, deployed her title in favour of the Democratic Party and campaigned for Hillary Clinton — the first time that Vogue has taken such an explicit political stance in its 124 year history. Many designers and models also threw their support behind the democratic candidate, with Mr Ralph Lauren dressing Mrs Clinton during the campaign.
After the United States voted Donald Trump into the White House, New York based designer Sophie Theallet wrote an open letter voicing her refusal to dress the new First Lady — urging fellow designers to follow suit because of "the rhetoric of racism, sexism and xenophobia unleashed by her husband's presidential campaign." Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs have since joined the crew.
Open letter | Sophie Theallet | November 17th, 2016 pic.twitter.com/g1hIAyBmdF— sophie theallet (@sophietheallet) November 17, 2016
The real question is: Why is the fashion industry speaking up about politics, and why only now? The reasons are to be found in their own interests — a combination of business needs and an emphasis on socially responsible initiatives — facilitated by the open and engaged conversation that social media allows.
The lively and diverse ethnic mix found in London and New York has always been an endless source of inspiration for its creatives. This access to the world at their doorstep was one of the privileges that the fashion industry was trying to protect; against the Brexit campaigners and Trump's protectionist policies. Fashion schools like Central Saint Martins and the Parsons School of Design have attracted high calibre talents from all over the world — with some choosing these cities as their home to launch their own labels. Indeed, now at London Fashion Week, over 30 designers hail from elsewhere, but have studied in London-based fashion schools and set up their businesses there. These two fashion cities — London and New York — have produced the beautiful stories of "non-local" designers such as Roksanda Ilincic, Ashish, Marques Almeida, Prabal Gurung and Naeem Khan, to name just a few. In addition, countless foreign models, photographers, pattern cutters and stylists now call London and New York home — all of whom play integral roles in the grand matrix of fashion.
For the younger generation, transparency is due; millennials want to know the values of the companies producing them, their carbon footprint, and yes, even where the brand stands politically.
Also, at the end of the day, those gut-wrenchingly gorgeous dresses you see in the window of Neiman Marcus? It's all a business. And like any business, it needs to look after its bottom line. From an economic point of view, the single European market that 'RemaIN' campaigners sought to protect, and Mrs Clinton's policies of pursuing the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (initiated by the Obama administration) translate into more convenient prices for imported goods, as well as competitive prices on the end of exports. The United States government has been negotiating this deal for almost a decade, with countries whose value of textile industry shipments rose from $48.7 billion in 2009, to $56.7 billion in 2014. U.S. textile and apparel manufacturers sold nearly $11 billion worth of products to transpacific partnership countries in 2014; an increase of roughly 50 percent from 2009, positioning the country as the world's fourth largest exporter of textile products. Furthermore, the agreement regulates human rights and intellectual property issues.
Culture, environment and human rights have always been at the heart of what major fashion players act on and drive awareness to. Think of Gucci that founded Chime For Change, Louis Vuitton who campaigned for UNICEF with #MakeAPromise, or other environmental initiatives by the large luxury groups such as LVMH and Kering. All these core areas of interest were at stake during the latest popular vote, so it must have felt only natural for the fashion cognoscenti to intervene. And although the political preferences were voiced as personal opinions rather than official stances by the companies that the individuals are a part of, the urge to act is symptomatic of the social responsibility agenda that the fashion industry has been pursuing of late — now more than ever.
We live in an era where consumers are discerning about their purchases — especially on the luxury end of the spectrum where a customer desires to know as much as possible. For the younger generation, transparency is due; Millennials want to know the values of the companies producing them, their carbon footprint, and yes, even where the brand stands politically.
THE FACT THAT AN OPINION can BE EXPRESSED IN A SIMPLE TWEET OR AN INSTAGRAM POST CASUALISES THE OCCURENCE, WHICH THEN PROTECTS BRANDS FROM POSSIBLE CONSUMER BACKLASH; ESPECIALLY THOSE WHO SHARE A DIFFERENT POINT OF VIEW.
Despite this, there has been a lack of official statements from the fashion industry apart from American Vogue's open support for Clinton and the words of Sophie Thaellet. What we're witnessing is the continued rise of social media playing a pivotal role in delivering political viewpoints. The fact that an opinion can be expressed in a simple tweet or an Instagram post casualises the occurence, which then protects brands from possible consumer backlash; especially those who share a different point of view.
Interestingly, the designer brands that Melania Trump wore during her husband's campaign have not publicised the association on their official Instagram accounts — despite the fact that dressing the First Lady provides stellar exposure for any company. While we've yet to see the "Melania effect" in the proportion of Michelle Obama's stylistic influence, it is certain, however, that as Millennials grow and rise to decision-making roles in industry, fashion houses will have to widen their socially responsible activities to resonate with this demographic. Inexorably, fashion-political conversations will only continue to deepen — making it more acceptable to wear your political heart on your sleeves.
Milena Lazazzera is a veteran in the luxury goods industry, having worked in the public relations department at LVMH and Richemont Group for over 12 years. She has a passion for the visual arts, particularly Renaissance and photography.