Fashion And Protest; Where Is The Call To Arms?

< Back to features
5 April 2017 By Rosie Atkin

Fashion and Protest; Where is the Call to Arms?

Protest; by nature, a passionate demonstration taking myriad forms, defiantly demonstrating against — or to highlight — burning issues. Political and enraged, or sometimes understated, it is a notion personal to many with an issue to raise. Yet, in the wake of Paris Fashion Week, eyes are drawn to the world of fashion where the industry continues to be embroiled with that of the political sphere, questioning our ideas of the meaning of a creditable protest.

Casting our minds back to one obvious example of the fashion and political worlds entertwining, Karl Lagerfeld, king courter of controversy, set tongues wagging as he depicted a catwalk protest (or ‘faux-test’, as it was coined) for the Chanel Spring/Summer 2015 show. Candy-coloured and pasted-hued, Lagerfeld successfully sugar-coated the topic of feminism with, what resulted in, a shallow parody. In some respects, the act was genius; by using faces such as Cara Delevigne and Sam Rollinson, who in their own right represented the first generation of media savvy models, the brand offered a lesson in marketing. Slogans reading “History is Her Story” and “He for She” were paraded, tapping into the UN’s equality campaign spearheaded by Emma Watson. To be politically active was, and still is, very fashionable, and the furore of social media will have generated renewed interest; but not necessarily to the message, just the collection. Regardless of Lagerfeld’s intentions - sales driven or to genuinely induce discussion - the ironic act rang empty.

Transforming politically weighted issues into a trend gimmick was a bold move, but it was not necessarily a move which instilled positive change. Not that Lagerfeld particularly cared. Speaking to Fashionista, his nonchalance was evident; "I couldn't care less if people are for or against. It's my idea. I like the idea of feminism being something light-hearted, not a truck driver for the feminist movement." Despite this blunt refusal to think beyond the parameters of the immediate after-shock, there continues to be an important question posed. Can the fashion industry, an unabashed dream machine, harness its influence to catalyse protest in the same vein as it has in the past? Or perhaps the social-media generation has finally quelled this possibility, translating defiance into PR stunts and marketing schemes.

To suggest that such a vast industry is void of political sympathy would be incorrect. The dialogue between fashion and politics is historically inescapable, and the industry hosts its own internal issues; manufacturing processes, factory conditions, sustainability, animal rights — the list is extensive and tangled. Such omnipresent pitfalls in the integrity of the industry continuously stems debate, with many lynchpin designers actively addressing these factors, incorporating mindfulness into their brand mantra. Stella McCartney famously promotes animal-rights, with an anti-fur policy and environmental conscience, appearing angelic against the backdrop of the sweatshop culture. According to the Ethical Fashion Forum, Giorgio Armani has also been eco-friendly, using recycled denim since 1995. High-street names such as American Apparel, despite its current turmoil, have, for example, always tried to oppose ageism by using mature models; however for every positive step the brand takes, it has long cultivated criticism in another area. Indeed, by trying to stand out from the crowd, the retailer crossed taboo lines which arguabley led to, among other things, its CEO being ousted. Such instances serve to highlight the limitations of fashion; to make a statement of any kind; you must be prepared for the backlash.

Dame Vivienne Westwood is notoriously unafraid to politicise her designs, reinvigorating debate throughout her career, provocative in style and substance. Whether it’s brandishing ‘Yes’ badges prior to the Scottish Referendum, or patenting aggressive S&M couture throughout the Punk movement, Westwood holds political activism dear. So what of the new wave of causes to align with? How will future designers carry this defiant, playful torch?

The internet exhibits a plethora of protest and potential issues for the fashion world to draw inspiration from and support. Yes, to comment on touchy political subjects can be seen as a venture into dangerous territory. But when the fashion interest holds such widespread influence, shouldn’t boundaries be pushed? Look to the injustices in Syria, look to Brexit or the current US election. Look to Russian feminist-punk purveyors Pussy Riot, who famously drew eyes to their anti-Putin message using the internet as their medium. Taking to the pews of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February 2012, their controversial performance of ‘Punk Prayer’ was powerful, but dangerous. Their aesthetic was just as distinctive as their method. Styled in neon balaclavas, a look associated with criminality, the group displayed resistance by identifying with an image of banditry. Think of the possibilities, and provocation caused, if Lagerfeld had opted for a Pussy Riot catwalk show as opposed to a soft-core protest.

An extreme suggestion perhaps, but a call to arms for the fashion industry to acknowledge tricky topics more actively. War on Want senior campaigner Owen Espley reiterated this thought, suggesting that fashion weeks are the perfect platform to address difficult matters: “London Fashion Week is a glittering showcase for the fashion industry. But fashion’s dark side is kept in the shadows. The British Fashion Council would rather we all forget about those who often work long hours, on poverty pay, in unsafe conditions to produce the clothes we love.” In light of the Chanel faux-test, the point raised should stir some reflection; rather than falsifying a protest and softening a cause, why not look in the mirror?

Yet, for the future of fashion design talent, there are schemes in place to teach ourselves, and upcoming names, the importance of awareness. The London College of Fashion continues to breathe activism into its students, with projects such as PROTEST or Fashion Revolution. These events and briefs encourage a conscientious attitude to design, in theory instilling the importance of sustainability from an early stage in designers’ careers.

With this positivity on the horizon, one can wonder whether incidents such as the Chanel show, in all its light-heartedness, will unwittingly create change. If approached differently, such eye-catching events could have real impact; by creating a forum for discussion, at the very least they may make future designers consider alternative ways to approach issues with greater gravitas than simply the revelation of a new line.

Further Reading