Can Fashion Get Away With Being Political?

Designers and brands are increasingly expected to take a political stance if they want to stay relevant — but at what risk?

A part black and white, part vintage-coloured video captures an eclectic tribe of Gucci-clad rebels raising their voices and fists in an occupied university campus. Seizing inspiration from the 1968 Paris student marches, Alessandro Michele’s modern-day protesters are marching in the schoolyard, spray-painting the walls with verses by poet Rimbaud, coming together under the banner of “liberté, égalité, sexualité”. It’s fashion-meets-politics at its core.

The latest Gucci collection campaign, #GucciDansLesRues (“Gucci in the streets”), is, however, not the first of its kind; but rather just one of many examples of political and social commentary dressed up in fashionable apparel. You don’t need to go too far back in time to see dystopian and guerrilla references in the form of balaclava-sporting models on the spring/summer 18 catwalks of fashion houses such as Chanel, Calvin Klein, Alexander Wang and Versace; a celebration of LGBTQ+ diversity and equality through an explosion of rainbow motifs for Christopher Bailey’s Burberry latest collection; or an attack to Trump’s immigration policies disguised under an alien-themed catwalk for Moschino’s autumn/winter 18 collection.

Like the art we produce and the music we listen to, the clothes we wear are a product of their times, a reflection of the world at large. As late Vogue Italia editor-in-chief, Franca Sozzani said: “Fashion isn’t really about clothes — it’s about life.” Fashion and politics have always been intertwined, knowingly or not. 

“In terms of attitude, fashion has always been quite political and motivated by events happening within society,” says Debra Hepburn, founder of e-commerce platform Young British Designers. “But now, over the last two years, in particular, more and more designers are using [that] as inspiration for their collections or as statements to put in front of their clothes. It’s very much a force of the moment.” 

Some designers, like Katharine Hamnett, Vivienne Westwood or Stella McCartney, have a history of being vocal about their chosen causes — and doing so genuinely. But then again, given today’s increasingly fraught political landscape, it seems harder for designers to remain impartial and not to take a stance. 

Canadian-born, London-based designer steventai wouldn’t describe his work as “explicitly political”; and yet, lately, he is finding he too can’t help but let some sort of social commentary slide into his garments. “I think people want that from designers, they want them to use their voice,” he says. “And we [designers] can’t escape it, because no matter what we’re creating, that’s in the context of where we live, what we see and what people around us are doing and talking about — so, in that sense, it’s always going to be political in some way.”

I think people want that from designers, they want them to use their voice, and we [designers] can’t escape it, because no matter what we’re creating, that’s in the context of where we live, what we see and what people around us are doing and talking about — so, in that sense, it’s always going to be political in some way.

steventai, designer

As we walk into Simeon Farrar’s design studio in North-East London, it’s the political artwork hanging on the walls that caught our eye first; political engagement is no stranger to him, either. He nods. “Things have become so ridiculous recently with Trump and the Brexit referendum that I almost can’t help to comment on or protest against what’s happening with my collections. “I consider myself politically engaged, as a citizen, and that informs a lot of the things I do,” Farrar continues. “My labels, my collections, they’re always going to be some kind of extension of who I am as a person and reflect my views and opinions.” 

One of Farrar’s most recent creations, a T-shirt depicting a penguin with its middle finger up and the words “didn’t need those ice caps anyway Douchebag”, was a response to Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris agreement, last summer. For designers like him, sartorial semiology has become a transformative variable in collections, a way to express personal convictions and make political statements that can reach the wider public and resonate with them more and for longer. 

“We are in a moment where fashion is so much more available and disseminated than ever before, and that makes it a very powerful platform,” says Hazel Clark, Research Chair of Fashion at Parsons School of Design. Brands and designers at pretty much any market level, each in their own way, certainly have “the potential to send a message to their wearers through their clothes, and with this comes a responsibility, which can be taken, and should be taken by the fashion world,” she continues. 

We are in a moment where fashion is so much more available and disseminated than ever before, and that makes it a very powerful platform.

– Hazel Clark

As a universal visual language, fashion can explore ideas and act as a political microphone, blaring out messages via slogan T-shirts, white bandanas and runway extravaganzas; and for a growing number of consumers, it rightly should.

According to the 2017, Edelman Earned Brand Study, in a time of immense turmoil like the one we live in, consumers around the world increasingly expect brands to lead the movement for change and address critical problems in society. And it’s not just that; 57 percent of those consumers would buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue. Whereas brands that fail to take a stance on issues that people care about are left behind, those that commit to a cause seem instead to be rewarded by those customers that align with their views through increased spending and advocacy.

“If society is trending towards political discourses, there are profit opportunities in being responsive to that,” explains Henry Navarro Delgado, fashion professor and activist. For designers and brands, being active in the social and political climate often provides them with instant visibility and prestige. On the other hand, “It is riskier for companies to stay neutral if their core audience is following a trending political stance,” Navarro Delgado explains. “They may be perceived as not sharing the audience’s values or as not evolving with the times.” 

Hepburn agrees. “There was a period, probably from about 2011 to 2015, where designers were playing things too safe and avoiding making political statements with their clothes because they were worried about it being unpopular, not commercial,” she says. “But actually, because the world has become so politicised, I think now [for a designer] not having a voice is felt as being not brave enough, almost insipid.”

Since fashion as activism is en vogue right now, and “wokeness” is emerging as a new form of social currency, it seems that brands and designers are expected to jump on the political bandwagon and nail their political colours to the mast if they want to stay successful. “After all, the fashion industry has to pay attention to its bottom line,” says Navarro Delgado, and cultural currency, dressed as branded attempts at outspoken political engagement and sloganeering, “is one of the central values of their products”.

When it comes to fashion’s political statements, however, there is a fine line between being a heartfelt, meaningful trend and becoming something that is just trendy to talk about. For this reason, Farrar says, designers should only “take a stance of any kind if they genuinely believe it, rather than just appropriate the aesthetics of politics because it’s cool to do so”. 

The danger to turn a meaningful political message into a cringey platitude is around the corner. “There is a paradox here because fashion can draw attention to statements, but it also makes them so disseminated that they can dilute,” says Clark. Take the popular slogan T-shirt, for example, the Dior “we should all be feminists” tee. With their bold, catchy political phrases, they are this season’s logomania with a conscience — and they are everywhere, from the runways to the high street. And yet, as Clark points out: “They get reproduced and spread so quickly that the whole integrity of the message if there ever was one, gets misconstructed or even lost.”

As brands continue to flirt with the on-trend aesthetics of politics and activism, their stances risk becoming a hollow virtue if they do not practice what they preach. In this climate, selling political fashion on a mass scale might eventually promote the idea that using such products as a show of political expression can substitute meaningful action, for designers and customers alike. 

But flawed and frail as they may be, fashion’s political messages are nonetheless extremely important. “Even if the drawing attention to causes is fashionable at the moment for designers, it’s nevertheless better than doing nothing,” Clark says. “For every little thing which fashion can do to draw attention to important issues, and make people stop and think even for a moment, that’s a huge opportunity it has. And that shouldn’t be wasted.”