Environmental protest is all but guaranteed, too. The climate campaign group Extinction Rebellion has called for the total cancellation of London Fashion Week, describing it in a statement as a “parade of excess” that promotes destructive over-consumption. The group has pledged to stage “disruptive events”. Throughout the event’s five days, culminating in a mock funeral to “put (London Fashion Week) to rest forevermore.”
London isn’t the only city of the “big four” fashion weeks facing controversy ahead of the September schedules. Labels Prabal Gurung and Rag & Bone have both canceled shows at New York Fashion Week (NYFW) over links between venue The Shed, in Hudson Yard, and billionaire Trump fundraiser Stephen Ross.
And all this during a year in which major fashion houses have faced accusations of racism, cultural appropriation and using offensive imagery – from a Gucci sweater resembling blackface to a Burberry “noose” hoodie criticized both for its connotations of racist lynching and for glamorizing suicide.
Fashion weeks have never been apolitical. Recent decades offer countless examples of designers using runways to stage protest and challenge the status quo. But in what feels like an exceptionally divisive time for the industry and politics at large, could this be the most controversial fashion month yet?
Much like art, fashion is influenced by – and responds to – the politics of the day.
As such, protests have always been a part of Fashion Weeks, from Katharine Hamnett meeting British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984 in a shirt reading “58% don’t want Pershing” ( a reference to a public poll on nuclear missiles) to Viviene Westwood models wearing “Yes” badges at the SS15 London show in support of Scottish independence.
Politicized runways carry certain risks, however. Take Karl Lagerfeld’s SS15 Chanel show in Paris, which featured Kendall Jenner carrying a sign reading, “Women’s rights are more than alright”, and Cara Delevingne lead feminist chants through a megaphone. Critics weren’t convinced, pointing to Lagerfed’s long history of making disparaging comments about women.
“Runway show are marketing exercises”, said head of fashion at Dazed Digital, Emma Hope Allwood, over email. “And while it can be great if designers choose to use that media attention for good, when brands jump on social causes it can feel profit driven and insincere. It’s a fine line”.
Recent editions of NYFW have been especially charged. Last year, Prabal Gurung brought the #MeToo movement to the runway when models carried white roses, a symbol of the movement. And in Pyer Moss’ SS19 show, clothes featured slogans like “Stop Calling 911 On The Culture”, a reference to recent incidents of white people calling the police on black people for completely innocuous activities like sleeping in a college common room or waiting in Starbucks.
That same weeks,Jeremy Scott took a bow at his SS19 show in a T-shirt reading. “Tell your senator no on Kavanugh”, in protest against Donald Trump nominating Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. And Trump’s administration has been a fashion week talking point beyond the US – at Missoni’s Millan show in February 2017, models wore so-called ‘pussyhats” – pink knitted hats designed in response to the president’s comments about women.
CAPTURING THE ZEITGEIST
Brexit has also has also been a talking point in previous editions of London Fashion Week. The British Fashion Council (BFC), which organizes London Fashion Week, has been vocal in its opposition to a no-deal Brexit, which it estimates could cost the fashion industry up to £900 million ($1.09 billion). A BFC survey held before the 2016 referendum found that 90% of British fashion designers supported remaining in the EU.
Designers have, unsurprisingly, already responded to the referendum result on the runway.
Take British designer Jenny Packham, who told Vogue that she was reexamining “what it means to be British” at NYFW in 2016 through biker jackets, tartan, pearls and punk. Or Ashish Gupta’s SS17 show at London Fashion Week, which took the opportunity to celebrate Britain’s diversity by drawing heavily on Indian garments, fabrics and jewelry.
“I was absolutely horrified by Brexit”, Gupa told Refinery 29 at the time. “It broke my heart. I just wanted to make a statement about it and celebrate this culture which is so beautiful and an integral part of life in this country”.
In light of this recent history, it seems almost inevitable that the coming month will produce runway protest of some form, according to RHONDA Garelick, dean of the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons.
“I have no doubt we will see a response to a reflection of the current political climate on the runway”. She said in a phone interview.
While Garelick added that “It’s a mistake…to look too literally at it as a barometer of specific politics”, deputy editor of Fashionista.com, Tyler McCall, pointed to individual topics – namely recent mass shootings and debates over border control – that she thinks are like to be referenced by designers in the US.
“I’d be surprised if there aren’t at least a few designers who somehow note that at their shows”, she said, while leaving open the possibility that other react in quite opposite way.
“Sometimes, when things are rough, designers will retreat away from politics altogether as a form of escapism, so I do expect to see more of that this season”, she said.
As well as responding to outside controversies, the fashion industry has been creating its own. Beyond the aforementioned scandals, the past year has also seen a $790 Gucci turban that angered Sikh groups, Prada merchandise that resembled racist blackface imagery and a D&G ad that was criticized for its stereotyped portrayal of a Chinese model eating Italian food with chopsticks.
A number of legacy fashion houses have since appointed new councils and executives to champion diversity and equity. And Fashion Month observers will be watching closely to see what lessons if any – labels have learned from the outrage caused.
Garelick expressed doubt that the root causes of high-profile fashion gaffes have been tidily resolved. “My real concern is that these fashion moments reveal the terrible rise in racism, nationalism, white supremacy and other noxious movements that are increasing globally”, she said.
Meanwhile McCall believes that diversity appointments at brands like Prada and Gucci’s were made too recently to affect this season’s runways.
“My understanding of those roles is that you’re meant to impact internal structures and company cultures”, she explained, adding :Of course, as you change a company’s culture to become more naturally inclusive, I believe that does reflect in matters like casting choices. But that may take some time”.
Yet, recent fashion months have seen a wide range of labels pushing for greater diversity on the runway, by rejecting the overwhelming white, cisgender, slim, ableist ideal the industry has long promoted. Through their casting choices and other creative decisions, designers have made potent statements about who fashion belongs to – and who it has repeatedly excluded.
Men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton, Virgil Abloh, has continually cast black musicians like Kid Cudi, Playboi Carti, Octavian, A$AP Nast and Dev Hynes as models since first runway shoe for the brand at Paris Fashion Week in June 2018.