In November 2019, Tan France, the fashion expert from Netflix’s beloved series Queer Eye, visited Vanderbilt University and shared how fashion has shaped his identity. As someone with minimal interest in the world of fashion, I was intrigued by France’s wholehearted emphasis on fashion’s ability to empower. Sure, we may all find ourselves feeling especially confident in an outfit, but the idea that fashion has the power to enact change beyond that seemed a little far-fetched. When has fashion empowered us enough such that, beyond suggesting that we are “taking control of our lives,” we are actually tangibly doing so?
In search of answers (and quick entertainment), I binge-watched France’s new global fashion design competition: Next In Fashion. The show was not marketed as anything but fun reality TV, but I figured that to be the “next in fashion,” at least a few of the competing designers would proclaim that the industry’s future lies in pushing boundaries, inspiring the everyday individual to right the wrongs of the world.
Sure enough, the criteria for advancing in the competition revolved around creating a message that carried itself down the runway or, even vaguer, made viewers “feel something.” One of the most complimented designers of the series, Daniel Fletcher, achieved these goals through an overt political message: a denim dress covered with patchwork Arctic sea ice and a t-shirt emblazoned with “CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL.” While I’m glad Fletcher established that fact, I was left asking myself, now what? What does a dress with icebergs really do to raise awareness of climate change (particularly its other facets)? What am I as a viewer supposed to do with the other alarming fact that a designer, after criticizing denim’s impact on the environment, is still trying to sell it to me and the rest of the masses?
Talking more about his brand in general, Fletcher comments in episode 9, “For me, fashion is a platform to talk about things that I care about. … if you’ve got a platform, you should use it to do something positive.” This certainly wasn’t the first time that Fletcher designed clothes with politics in mind; Fletcher’s debut collection was a direct response to gentrification in London, and a few years later, he released an anti-Brexit collection, as seen below.
These collections, along with Fletcher’s segment in Next In Fashion, arguably would have been much less frustrating and much more impactful if he supported his “platform” with in-depth reflections or tangible calls to action. Generic statements about climate change and socioeconomic class felt like a cheap ploy to use these social issues as a selling point. Fletcher’s work could feel much more meaningful if he fleshed out his platform just a smidge more: by directing followers toward specific organizations, highlighting their successful work and budding projects, or pledging to donate a portion of his sales to the causes that he cares about. With his current unsubstantiated comments, the positive impact of Fletcher’s fashion seems limited at best. Perhaps he does take some of these actions out of the spotlight, but if he hopes to raise awareness, he would do well to explicitly share them.
As Next In Fashion looks ahead to the future of the entire fashion industry, it is also worth mentioning the importance of holding well-known brands to this same expectation. At Paris Fashion Week 2020, the Spanish luxury brand Balenciaga was seemingly inspired by climate change. At a first glance, their show distorts the problem and lessens its urgency by suggesting that you can still thrive and strut through flooded wastelands and raging fires if you are wearing Balenciaga as your armor.
If this kind of runway show is intended to be an effective means of raising awareness, Balenciaga would have been far better off highlighting their involvement in real-time efforts to combat climate change. For example, Balenciaga’s parent company, Kering, is a signatory to the Fashion Pact, which includes the fashion industry’s commitments to meet UN Sustainable Development Goals. It’s a big undertaking, and consumers should be encouraged to follow suit.
All in all, for smaller & bigger designer brands alike, I can’t help but wonder how further broadcasting these kinds of steps in the right direction could allow fashion to be not only a statement but also an embodiment of real social change.