Wednesday 23 January 2019

Making a statement: when fashion designers become social justice crusaders

Connie Birtton
Connie Birtton
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

How do you stand out at an event where the dress code is all black? That was clearly the question on many minds ahead of Sunday's Golden Globes, where most of the attendees wore black in a show of solidarity with the #MeToo movement.

While female attendees lifted their outfits with bright shades of lipstick and oversized earrings, Connie Britton decided to take it a step further by making a statement within a statement.

The Nashville actress paired a pleated maxi skirt with a black cashmere sweater embroidered with the message "Poverty is sexist", and sent social media into overdrive.

Fashion lovers immediately recognised the sweater as the creation of luxury knitwear brand Lingua Franca, a label best known for hand-stitching hip-hop phrases on to cashmere sweaters.

Recently, however, they've started to work alongside a number of campaigning organisations. The "Poverty is sexist" sweater is a one-off design that highlights Britton's work with ONE, an organisation that fights extreme poverty. It is not being sold commercially but, ordinarily, Lingua Franca donates $100 from the sale of every $380 sweater to the various charities that they work with.

This is nothing new. The Trump era has turned luxury fashion designers into social justice crusaders armed with slogan t-shirts. "Girls just want to have fundamental rights" read one of the better ones by Prabal Gurung; "We are all human beings" read another by Creatures of Comfort.

These designs certainly make their point - loud and clear - but is high-end fashion the right medium? More to the point, is a prohibitively expensive cashmere sweater the place for a message about ending poverty?

Protest wear takes the pulse of a politically-charged climate. It represents grassroots activism and a DIY ethos. It loses its potency when it's moodboarded, mass-produced and worn by Madonna. Change-making protest requires consistency, cohesiveness and coherence. The fashion industry, with its whims and fancies, is capricious by its very nature.

There is also the small matter of integrity. Protest wear implies that you are fighting the good fight, so fashion houses really ought to consider their interpretation of corporate social responsibility before jumping on the social justice bandwagon.

Take Dior's hugely popular "We should all be feminists" cotton T-shirt which designer Maria Grazia Chiuri unveiled for spring 2017, and which sells online for €560.

A few months previously, the fashion house sent a 14-year-model, Sofia Mechetner, down the runway. They have since signed a charter that forbids the hiring of models under the age of 16, but the feminist T-shirt was on sale for six months before they signed up.

A percentage of the sales of Dior's tee go to Rihanna's Clara Lionel Foundation - they don't specify how much. Fashion designers Christian Sirano and Jonathan Simkhai, on the other hand, donated all the proceeds from their protest tees to their respective charities of choice.

When a fashion house is only donating a portion of the proceeds to a charity, one has to ask who their purchase is supporting: the cause or the designer. Yes, the message on Britton's jumper is powerful, but so too is the Lingua Franca branding. And while her outfit choice will certainly raise awareness of ONE, it fundamentally represents a PR coup for the fashion brand, and a boost to their bottom line.

Why not just take the big brand out of it? Actress Kathreen Khavari attended the premiere of Big Little Lies wearing a T-shirt dress printed with "My Iranian immigrant mother teaches your kids how to read". Imelda May got so angry with Trump's infamous memo to his female staff that she had a "Dress like a woman" clutch made for her appearance at the Brit Awards. Neither woman mentioned the designer. They didn't need to.

There is no less of an impact when a celebrity takes the DIY approach, but a lot more credibility.

Consciously re-coupling

After years of pushing overpriced product on her lifestyle website, GOOP, Gwyneth Paltrow has developed a knack for dramatising the banal with New Agey spin. A divorce in GOOP land is better known as "conscious uncoupling", while vaginal steaming is an "energetic release".

The actress and entrepreneur recently became engaged to TV producer Brad Falchuk (and announced it on the cover of her new GOOP magazine), but let's not make the mistake of reductively describing their courtship as a love affair.

In her own words, Gwyneth has "decided to give it [marriage] a go again, not only because I believe I have found the man I was meant to be with, but because I have accepted the soul-stretching, pattern-breaking opportunities that [terrifyingly] are made possible by intimacy".

God love the person tasked with designing the wedding booklet.

Irish Independent

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