Fashion industry should highlight activism, inclusivity

While millions of protesters across the United States are taking to the streets to express their anger at the changes that are already beginning to take shape under Trump, others are taking to the runways.

On Sunday morning, Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow, co-designers of the line Public School, debuted their Fall 2017 collection for New York Fashion Week (NYFW) to a soundtrack that included new takes on classic ballads such as, “This Land is Your Land.” The clothing itself, which was overtly street style-inspired as usual, featured slogans such as, “We need leaders,” “Make America New York” and “44 1/2,” assumedly a nod to Trump’s position in the presidential lineup.

While the fashion industry has always been inescapably political, this spring’s New York Fashion Week, which ran from  Feb. 9 to Feb. 16, displayed political turbulence such as the New York runways haven’t seen in decades.

This is far from the first time that fashion has been used a platform for activism: flapper dresses in the ’20s, Chanel’s two-piece suits in the ’30s, mini skirts in the ’60s. Fashion has the capacity to be empowering, although it frequently leaves many women–queer women, lower-income women, women of color and plus-size women–out of its scope. This spring’s NYFW appears to be a step in the right direction; whether or not this momentum will die down as Trump’s presidency drags on is yet to be seen.

Public School was not the only line to make an explicit political statement. Mara Hoffman invited the founders of the Women’s March, Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour, Tamika D. Mallory and Bob Bland to open her show. Hoffman explained that the soft denim, knits and jumpsuits that made up the collection were “inspired by the women whose songs are not yet sung, the allies, the named and the nameless” (Refinery 29, “This NYFW Show’s Opening was Nothing Short of Inspirational,” 2.14.2017).

Alexander Wang chose the abandoned RKO Hamilton Theater in Harlem for the presentation of his collection, packing the audience into a small, standing-room-only space centering around a raised runway featuring models in black-on-black ensembles (The New York Times, “With Everything About Trump, What’s a Designer to Do?” 2.12.2017). He sent Bella Hadid down the runway in a white knit shirt that read, “NIGHT OF TREASON,” while guests helped themselves to Peroni from kegs sprinkled throughout the space. The wristbands presented to guests at the door, as well as the t-shirt Wang himself sported, announced, “No after party.” This would not seem unusual from any other designer, but coming from Wang, who last fall hosted an after party involving a 7-11 slurpee bar, several McDonald’s trucks and endless candy all night long, it was clearly a statement.

The runway at Prabal Gurung presented t-shirts with logos such as, “Our minds, our bodies, our power,” “Revolution has no borders,” “The future is female,” “Stronger than fear” and “Awake” (U.S. Magazine, “From Planned Parenthood Pins to Revamping Trump Hats, New York Fashion Week’s Top 7 Political Moments,” 2.15.2017).

While the runways overwhelmingly featured positive political statements, a few trends and concepts did not align with the general message. The focus on Wall Street banker-style suits, for instance, which were presented on the runways of Raf Simons, Calvin Klein, Victoria Beckham and many more, was a bizarre choice considering the implications of “big business” under the current administration (Vogue, “New York Fashion Week: Vogue Runway’s Editors React,” 2.17.2017).

Marc Jacobs responded to the widespread backlash that followed last season’s rave-inspired collection, in which he sent white models down the runway with candy-colored dreadlocks, with neutral colors and styles and a refusal to answer interview questions. However, while this collection also loosely drew inspiration from hip-hop, he at least employed a more racially diverse group of models.

Although fashion’s insular nature can be–and usually is–incredibly toxic, it is conceivable for the industry to use this penchant for exclusivity toward positive ends: at the beginning of NYFW, the industry banded together to boycott Trump’s modelling agency, Trump Models. The boycott does not stop with designers: “Casting directors, stylists, makeup artists and more fashion week pillars have had just about enough of the tumbleweed-adorned orange flubber and have pledged not to work with the company both now and (hopefully) forever” (Paper Magazine, “Fashion Has Called for an Industry-Wide Boycott of Trump’s Modelling Agency,” 2.10.2017).

Whether or not the boycott will make a difference is hard to gauge. Trump Models is not a particularly prominent agency, and will likely not significantly affect the industry. Additionally, the boycott could backfire on the models that the agency represents, who are already subjected to substandard working conditions. The ability of the industry to band together against Trump in some capacity, however, is a hopeful sign.

While NYFW exhibited some unexpectedly positive changes, the language used to report on the events needs serious reform. Fashion News Writer for Vogue Janelle Okwodu described the increasingly diverse group of models employed by designers as “a series of attractive outsiders of varying backgrounds” and introduced model Odette Pavlova as a “Russian transplant” who served the role of “underscor[ing] the collection’s anti-discrimination message” (Vogue, “Model Castings Anti-Trump Protest Designers at New York Fashion Week,” 2.17.2017).

Harper’s Bazaar, among other publications, lauded designers for exhibiting more body diversity in their shows, literally counting the number of plus-size bodies on each runway. While on the surface the increasing inclusivity and subsequent reporting is a promising sign, improving the inclusivity of the industry is not a numbers game, and running off a list of statistics is not an effective way to start a dialogue about the body image misconceptions perpetuated in fashion. Numerous reporters praised Michael Kors for including a single plus-size model, although just last season, he dismissed the idea of hiring plus-size women, claiming that it would be too difficult to make clothing for models in a range of sizes.

One can only hope that in coming months the fashion industry will not only continue to convey disgust at the current political climate, but offer an inclusive alternative as well. Throughout the 20th century, fashion has proven its capacity to catalyze political change; a few feminist logo tees are not going to start a revolution, although their ubiquity shows potential for much-needed reform. As one of the only industries truly centered around women, fashion has the potential to redefine and mobilize “femaleness,” if it could only stop agonizing over airport style and fad diets long enough to realize it.

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