There’s a specter hovering over London Fashion Week: When the first show opens next Friday, the UK will be less than seven weeks away from its scheduled departure from the European Union. It’s difficult to imagine Brexit not appearing, in some form, on the runway.
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.”
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 protests 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.
Katharine Hamnett meets former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street in an anti-nuclear missiles protest T-shirt Credit: PA Images/Getty Images
“Runway shows 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.”
Models walk the runway for the Pyer Moss SS2019 show at New York Fashion Week. Credit: ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images
Capturing the zeitgeist
Designers have, unsurprisingly, already responded to the referendum result on the runway.
Ashish’s SS17 at London Fashion Week incorporated Indian design. Credit: Catwalking/Getty Images
In light of this recent history, it seems almost inevitable that the coming month will produce runway protests 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 and 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 likely 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 the 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.
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 they’re meant to impact internal structures and company cultures,” she explained in a phone interview, 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 overwhelmingly 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.
Kid Cudi walked in Louis Vuitton’s menswear SS19 show, at Paris Fashion Week. Credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
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 his first runway show for the brand at Paris Fashion Week in June 2018.
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