Fashion has always been political. From Vivienne Westwood highlighting women’s rights, climate change and wealth inequality on her catwalks, to the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show where Beyoncé and her backing dancers entered the stadium clad in black leather and black berets, paying tribute to the Black Panther Party of the 60s. Or even the infamous “Make America Great Again” caps which Donald Trump made a cornerstone of his presidential election campaign.
ctivists, celebrities and brands continue to use fashion as a vehicle to make political statements and speak on social injustices. Because whether you care about fashion and choose to spend your yearly income on the hottest designer gear, or you refuse to succumb to the societal pressures of looking good, both say something about your view of the world.
But with great activism comes great responsibility and in recent weeks, we’ve seen the demise of so many brands that seemed “on-trend” on the surface but which were perpetuating injustices. As I watched everything fall apart under the tensions of the Black Lives Matter movement, I wondered how an industry worth over €29bn worldwide had been able to increasingly thrive through so many economic upheavals while also becoming so incredibly tone-deaf to their consumers when it came to racial discrimination?
Fashion began to unravel in early June after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota sparked a global uprising on the inequalities faced by black people against a system created to oppress them. Blackout Tuesday began with Universal Music announcing that their staff would be given a day of leave to reflect and rework their company’s structure to combat the racial injustices felt by their colleagues and audience.
The trend soon hit Instagram; black squares swept the grid and companies across the world started posting their own press releases condemning racism and showing their solidarity with the protesters. They were under pressure to say something, and fast — perhaps before they’d fully understood their own part in the problem.
Over the course of that week, brands also started to be named and shamed as their staff came out with statements of racism and micro-aggressions they’d experienced in the workplace. These multi-billion-pound businesses couldn’t hide and suddenly an industry that thrived on its progressive approach to fashion and creativity had a lot to answer for when it came to how they actually treated people.
One of the clearest issues with the fashion industry is that it got away with using and abusing cultures and people when social media didn’t exist. It was based on elitism: being white enough, skinny enough or rich enough. Brands were seen to outwardly steal from cultures while ethnic minorities rarely got a say.
Working in the fashion industry has always been mesmerising for me. I remember the first few times being in a fashion cupboard amongst some of the most incredible garments. They would arrive from designers all over the world ready to be worn and photographed on the latest hot model.
I fondly remember how giddy my fellow interns and I would get when an incredible new piece came in. However, over time the giddiness turned sour when I would realise how mistreated and unappreciated I was as a minority.
From Marc Jacobs having his models wear faux dreadlocks in a Spring/Summer 2017 fashion show (a hairstyle known for its Rastafarian roots but often described by the same elitists as “dirty”), to Poppy Delevingne dancing and miming the words “My hair’s so nappy” in a Tory Burch 2017 campaign (a derogatory term used to describe unkept afro hair), it always felt like designers were allowed to keep taking while never respecting or catering to those they took from.
Most design houses wouldn’t bat an eye and could swiftly move on because they didn’t need to care. They weren’t being held accountable and those that did care, like me, were silenced.
So, it’s not surprising that the Black Lives Matter movement has come as a shock to those who never saw, heard or experienced racism themselves. It has resulted in a number of high-profile fashionistas stepping down. Leandra Medine of Man Repeller and Jane Larkworthy, the Beauty Director of The Cut, to name a couple.
At Conde Nast, black female staff took to social media to highlight how they had been mistreated while working at Vogue. Anna Wintour apologised, too, for Vogue’s failures on racism: “I want to say plainly that I know Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators. We have made mistakes too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I take full responsibility for those mistakes.”
Overnight, the industry lost its ability to approach race with such a lawless attitude. It began being held accountable to the irreparable damage it has done to many young women and men who’ve not only been previously silenced but shamed into leaving the companies they worked for.
Fashion, like art, music and literature, thrives in the freedom of lawlessness. It’s called the avant-garde. It’s meant to give an alternative perspective on the mainstream, an escape from the social norm. Freedom of expression is not what we want to lose in our arts, but neither can we tolerate the constant taking advantage of minorities. The institutional structure of the fashion industry means concessions have always been made to protect those that have abused their power and position.
As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to have a ripple effect across many other industries, companies and individuals are starting to grapple with how they could have got it so wrong before. I ask myself, “What will the fashion industry look like when it’s no longer allowed to exploit the cultures of the people it so often dismisses?
And, will the next generation of aspiring designers, stylists, editors, writers and directors feel like they have a chance to be a part of a world that has regularly closed the door in their faces?” I hope so. But, systemic racism isn’t fixed overnight and unfortunately, the pain of those who have had to endure it won’t be healed overnight either.