When Will Fashion Use Its Power For Good Again?

by: Rosie Dalton | 8 months ago | Features

Image: Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins on the runway, wearing the wooden prostheses carved for her by Alexander McQueen. Image source

Fashion is undeniably powerful. It has been this way since Coco Chanel liberated women from their corsets, Alexander McQueen cast a Paralympic athlete in his runway show and Patagonia urged customers not to buy this jacket. It is one of the few industries that bridges the gap between the personal and political – affecting people both mentally and physically, while also wielding dangerous power over the world. But, with high street brands now hijacking identity politics left and right, one has to wonder: when will fashion actually use its power for good again? 

Not only is fashion in control of our body image, price expectations and labour standards today, but it is also considered the second most polluting industry after big oil. And despite all of this, so many people in power continue to label it as superficial. Just this past week, for example, a spokesperson for Melania Trump said: “it’s a jacket. There was no hidden message.”

This was about a $39 Zara jacket that the First Lady wore to visit children detained as a result of her husband’s immigration policies. A jacket that was likely made by underpaid garment workers and was emblazoned with the message: “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?”. In the meantime, brands like Zara are being accused every day of ripping off the work of independent artists all over the world. For which there are rarely any ramifications.

This issue isn’t necessarily limited to the fast fashion giants, either. Even in fashion circles, the identity politics of minority groups are being hijacked through rising trends such as streetwear. And it is the appropriative nature of this rampant phenomenon that’s so often getting lost or being overlooked – amidst the mass of clothing, campaigns and commentary being thrust our way right now.

With all of that said, though, we are now faced with a unique opportunity to re-embrace the positive power of fashion. This is because the democratisation of fashion’s delivery over recent years has also facilitated the rise of certain unexpected design forces – and these are the ones now fighting for fashion that matters. The likes of Grace Wales Bonner and Virgil Abloh both come to mind here. Over recent weeks, Abloh in particular has been criticised by those who disagree with his appointment as men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton. Despite this, though, the self-trained designer this week made history with his debut at LV.

Unlike the fast fashion conglomerates seeking to capitalise on the ‘streetwear’ trend right now, Abloh represents a genuine authority in this domain. Born in 1980s Chicago to Ghanaian immigrant parents, Abloh learned the fashion ropes from his seamstress mother. And later began working with Kanye West, to fuse the worlds of music, fashion and street culture. “We were a generation that was interested in fashion and weren’t supposed to be there,” Abloh says. “We saw this as our chance to participate and make current culture. In a lot of ways, it felt like we were bringing more excitement than the industry was.”

What we now need to see more of, then, are designers like Abloh and his contemporaries. Designers who can rise through the ranks and shake up the fashion system, in order to foster progressive conversations around diversity, culture, politics and the environment. What we don’t need to see is fast fashion brands trying to capitalise on identity politics, meaningful trends, or the work of independent creatives in order to make a profit. Because all this does is dilute the meaning behind those movements and breed still more appropriation.

The political power of fashion hasn’t gone anywhere over the years, it is just the way businesses are using this power that has shifted radically. And, as more digital-first fast fashion brands continue to corner the market, this process is only likely to worsen. So it is up to individuals to support those designers genuinely making a difference. Inspired by the progressive ways fashion has been used throughout protest history, we now have a responsibility to recognise the socio-political power of fashion once more and to use that power for positive means.


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