Fashion has turned its spotlight on politics, with designers harnessing their power to call attention to social issues.
The time to remain apolitical or risk losing valued customers is here – and designers around the world are shouting loudly, supporting human rights, and picking political sides. Many brands want to be on what they perceive as the right side of history when it comes to politics. In the run-up to the recent US presidential election, 19 designers – including Vera Wang, Joseph Altuzarra, and Tory Burch – launched the collaborative Believe in Better collection in support of presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Others have been vocal about social issues such as systemic racism. When the American football player Colin Kaepernick knelt during the US national anthem at the start of his NFL games in 2016, in protest against police brutality and racial inequality, the country erupted into furious debate.
In 2018, Nike followed with an advertising campaign featuring Kaepernick with the text, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” In response, some Nike fans took to social media with videos of them burning their once-beloved kicks, and the hashtag #BoycottNike began to trend. The brand had transitioned from being not just something to wear, but a way of pledging political allegiance. Others stayed on the sidelines, waiting to see if Nike would come out on top financially. Despite an initial dip in its share price after the campaign was launched, Nike sales increased by more than 30% the following year.
Protests against long-simmering racial inequality in the US seems to have lit a fuse with brands, precipitated by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May this year. “Following the death of George Floyd, we saw that the public is not afraid to voice their intolerance toward racism and that set in motion the movements we’ve seen recently to challenge discrimination in all its forms,” says Sanjay Bhandari, chair of Kick It Out, a UK-based organization that fights discrimination in English football. “Brands have been aligning themselves with well-known figures and influencers to show support for the likes of Black Lives Matter, as a way of pledging their solidarity and commitment against racism.”
Support through fashion is apparent in other areas of inequality, too. In 2017, after the rise of the #MeToo movement, designers around the world projected feminism and female empowerment to reflect the sentiment of the era. Actresses wore all-black at the 2018 Golden Globes Awards, Egyptian designer Rana Yousry showcased her Black Rose line at Arab fashion week that same year displaying themes of feminism, strength, and power, and Saudi designer Arwa Al Banawi dressed the Saudi women’s soccer team for the 2019 Global Goals World Cup in Copenhagen.
“Fashion reflects what’s ‘now.’ For it to have power and feel right, it has to speak to what is going on more broadly,” says Dr Rosie Findlay, course leader in fashion cultures at London College of Fashion. But sometimes, brand’s signatures are adopted by less-than-desirable demographics.
In the 90s, the signature Burberry check was associated with football hooligans in Europe, and more recently, a US far-right group appropriated a black and yellow polo shirt by Fred Perry. It’s not the first time the British brand has been commandeered by the far-right – it was a favorite of skinheads in the 60s and 70s, too. Fred Perry quickly withdrew the polo shirt from sale and released a statement disavowing its use by far-right groups, saying, “They have absolutely nothing to do with us, and we are working with our lawyers to pursue any unlawful use of our brand.”
“Some business decisions seem very driven by what is moral and ethical,” says Findlay, citing the example of French brand Maison Cléo. “It is constantly advocating for slow fashion and educating its followers about the unsustainability of the fast-fashion system.” Fashion has always been one way of uniting people, but, Bhandari says, “we need to see more from some brands in terms of their commitment.” He continues, “We also need to see them making a positive contribution to society and their local communities.” In terms of racial inequalities, brands need to be “looking inside their organizations and developing long-term plans for social inclusion and racial equality so that they foster a more inclusive environment and attract a more diverse workforce,” Bhandari says. In an age of such political extremes, it seems fashion, which moves and evolves with the times, must speak louder and be more politically brazen than ever.
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Originally published in the November 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia.