Is Fashion An Advocate for Social Causes?

Historically, the runways have set the framework for social and political change. But as collections are premeditated by commercial viability, the causes they once spoke for seemingly lose their pertinence after headlining a season.

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As trends wean in and out of the headlines with each passing season, every now and then, fashion’s inherent frivolity is eclipsed by the seriousness of a deeper, underlying conversation. 

Preceding Donald Trump’s impending inauguration into the White House, politically charged messages ran rampant on the season’s runways early last year. Whether luxury behemoths or the lesser known names, a consequential amount of designers dressed models in their political creed and chimed in on a slew of social causes where feminism took centre stage. 

The air of defiance at the Fall/Winter ’17 shows was palpable. At Public School’s showing, red caps that read “This Land is Your Land”, “Make America New York” and “We Need Leaders” commandeered the attention. At Christian Dior, the girls marched forth in a steady beat as purveyors of artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri’s feminist ambition. At Prada, the elusive Miuccia Prada contemplated the role of women in shaping the cultural landscape. And elsewhere at Moschino, Jeremy Scott made a case for conscious consumerism and recycling.

 

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A few months down the road, the heavily-protested against President held the position as one of the most powerful men in the world, the highly-publicised Harvey Weinstein controversy fuelled a new wave of feminism, and essentially every other movement that found its legs on the runways was an ongoing battle. The activist agendas that reverberated on the fashion runways in the season before, however, fell into silence.

The designers had seemingly moved along in their timelines, away from the causes they had previously championed and onto their subsequent inspirations. The gloom and doom of Fall/Winter ’17 was blown over by the cheer that ensued with the Spring/Summer ’18 collections. Decidedly, the time for protest was over as unbridled optimism and ignorant escapism collectively steered the industry’s shift. 

“You know in the Depression era, when people went to see a double feature for a nickel and they would be transported from the fact they had no food, no job?”

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Raf Simons’s runway debut at Calvin Klein, set to the tune of David Bowie’s “This is Not America”, faded into the light as he paid an ode to the horrors and dreams of distinct Americana. Drawing back from its assertive, politically charged Fall/Winter ’17 commentary, Public School skirted the refugee epidemic in America with a metaphorical collection. 

Like water under the bridge, the socio-political affronts had lost their weight on fashion’s timeline. The designer’s fleeting commitment to the very causes that have previously underscored collections in the seasons before then begs the question — are these grand gestures on the runway merely fashion’s way of keeping its pulse on the contemporary and dipping its fingers into the greater cultural context?

Social advocacy has pervaded the fashion landscape since its earliest days. After all, at its core, the fashion realm is built upon individualistic identity and grounded in
the freedom to express. Littered throughout the pages of history are instances where runway showcases have played the mouthpiece for serious socio-political issues. But what the new crop of designers struggle with is in commitment. Whether there remains a real impetus to propel change is a conundrum that awaits answers.

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To better grasp fashion’s fleeting allegiance to its cherry-picked causes, it pays to study its social and political undertakings in the past. In 1984, one of fashion’s pioneering anarchist, Jean Paul Gaultier caused a stir when he sent men donning skirts down the runway at his Paris show. His subversion of the traditional dress code, as assigned by gender, caused a stir in the media. The collections that followed in the seasons cemented Gaultier’s apparent disregard for gender norms. Around the same time, Katharine Hamnett pioneered the political slogan T-shirt, sprawled with bold words that spoke to contemporary issues of the time. And since her beginnings in fashion, Dame Vivienne Westwood has, time and again, turned to her runway as a platform to echo her world views that overarched a multitude of causes from gender norms to climate change. 

A common thread that weaves these pioneering vanguards, is a unifying knack for rebellion. The designers, above all else, were governed by the fundamental need to express. The clothes, largely reactionary to the state of the world, emphasised the convictions of their designers. Then, commercial viability was but an afterthought. 

Herein lies a key signifier in perhaps explaining the frivolous, touch-and-go tendencies of the newer crop of designers who helm the luxury behemoths today. The role of a creative director is an elusive title. While a certain degree of creative freedom is handed to designers, their responsibilities primarily lie with their parent multinational luxury goods conglomerates like Kering and LVMH and individual stakeholders. These days, the fact that fashion is fundamentally a business underscores the collections.

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Holding on to the days when fashion played a voice of reason or a manifesto to the worldly views is setting oneself up for an inevitable disappointment. That is, however, not to discount all of fashion’s efforts, albeit selective. Perhaps, best described as a symbolic communicator, its pledges are inferred in its subtle nuances. 

Miuccia Prada’s work at her eponymous label epitomises this dichotomy of taking an astute stance while remaining in the fringes of the politics. “I don’t want to be political. Not officially political. When people ask that, I say no; in my work, I am not in the right position,” said Prada backstage at her Fall/Winter ’17 showing. De- spite the industry veteran’s calculated design to disassociate her- self from an overt feminism, Prada’s perspectives on gender are thought to be amongst the most progressive in the industry. 

The work of female cartoonists and manga artists governed Prada’s Spring/Summer ’18 collection, speaking to female empowerment while remaining ingrained in the off-beat tendencies of Prada. Overt statements in support of feminism were presented in a palatable fashion, without compromising the house’s commercial viability.

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At Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri, the maison’s first female to head the creative end has continued the conversation on femininity since she rose to the position of power a little over a year ago. Be- yond rehashing slogan T-shirts spliced with feminist mantras, Chiuri forges the house forward in her collaborations with other like-minded women. While it may be hard to distil an undercurrent of feminism onto a T-shirt, the democratisation was Chiuri’s way of infiltrating into the masses, the young, in particular. 

Sidestepping blind criticisms of fashion’s adaption of a range of social issues for one-liner kickers to accentuate its runway collections, one can extract the industry’s honest ambitions. A quieter, less-publicised commitment to sustainability on the production end by fashion houses also makes a case in the argument against the industry’s idle efforts.

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For instance, Gucci’s “Culture of Purpose” plan, announced by president and CEO Marco Bizarri, details the Italian house’s efforts in being fur-free, guaranteeing the traceability of 95 per cent of its raw material and the reordering of the management of its supply chain. Alongside Gucci, other key luxury players like Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren have both expressed anti-fur sentiments. Falling in line with a similar ethos, Tom Ford took to using faux fur on his Spring/Summer ’18 runways. 

As all the cards lay open on the table, the facts are in place for one to find answers to whether fashion really cares for the causes or perpetuate issues like it does trends. While advocacy may not top fashion’s agenda, these issues carry weight, if not always on the runways, certainly in the boardrooms.