Fashion: More than just a statement?

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. 

Official trailer that boldly proclaims: “FASHION HAS A NEW DREAM”… (Of what, I ask?)

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.

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#SS17 #DanielwFletcher #STAY

A post shared by DANIEL w. FLETCHER (@danielwfletcher) on

Fletcher’s “STAY” commentary on Brexit (For copyright reasons, I unfortunately could not post a screenshot of the described denim outfit.)

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.

Snippet of Balenciaga at 2020 Paris Fashion Week… See the replies for a good amount of immediate backlash.

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.

-Christina

4 thoughts on “Fashion: More than just a statement?

  1. I really appreciate your realistic take on this subject. I think being idealistic about how art can change the world is dangerous because it can allow us to avoid tangible action, as you say. That is honestly one of the things I’ve struggled with the most in this class, but I think I’m now realizing what certain mediums can do for policy. That being said, fashion is a sticky subject because it is so inextricably tied to consumerism. Brands often use social or political issues to make sales- the ones that come to mind immediately are Nike and Gillette. In both cases, the company took a stance and used a controversial subject in their advertising campaigns, and in both cases the public took notice. Basically, the technique worked. After the Gillette ads about men treating women with respect, everyone was talking about the brand. I am really interested in political consumerism, and it is definitely possible that the designers you talk about are just trying to make sales. I also worry that people will avoid real action by assuaging their consciences with merchandise about issues like climate change. But that being said, I do believe that these things can spark important conversations. It’s a difficult topic, and I honestly have no real answers but I appreciate your thoughtful blog.

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  2. Hi Christina,

    Thanks for this insightful blog post! I completely agree that sometimes well-intentioned efforts fall short of their goals and even undermine the very issue they are trying to raise awareness for. I think one of art’s greatest appeals and strengths lies in its abstractness, but sometimes too much abstraction leads to confusion, and so art’s impact is limited. Of course, art’s aim is often, arguably, merely to raise awareness, not to recommend any specific approaches or move beyond the first step. In that sense, art doesn’t necessarily have to be more specific. But I agree that pairing art with steps for action and providing more specific, accurate, nuanced explanations beyond what the art itself conveys could go a long way and be much more effective. It’s something I hope artists will consider.

    -Teresa

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  3. Hi Christina,

    Being interested in fashion myself, I found your piece riveting. I think something to consider about fashion is the concept of “trends,” what’s “in season” or “in style / in vogue.” I could see how designers are trying to make sustainable fashion the new “chic.” I do agree that their efforts could go much further – however, the fashion industry is a large contributor to climate change (especially “fast fashion”). Revamping itself could go a long way to enact change. A large designer calling attention to sustainability could influence other designers to make their pieces environmentally friendly as well – especially because that would be the trendy thing to do (as sad as it is that designers aren’t doing it in the first place).

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  4. Hi Christina,

    Thank you for sharing your insights on this very interesting topic. I appreciate your take on both sides of the matter: while fashion is a platform for people like Flectcher to express their concerns about the environment and climate change, designers could also sacrifice the importance of raising people’s awareness. The emphasis on creativity and artistic value of commercials and designs determines that the fashion industry may not be a 100% effective way of advocating political issues. As Teresa has stated, art itself sometimes is too abstract to be generating significant changes. Surely we can’t expect consumers to change their attitude overnight simply because of a Balenciaga commercial. Fashion could, however, accelerate the process of raising people’s awareness. How to utilize the platform effectively but not too directly (as it might not be as effective) remains one of the industry’s biggest questions.

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