Staying Silent is Out, Fashion Activism is In

The Men’s Spring 2020 shows have wrapped up, and while the runways were filled with plenty of notable trends — such as soft suiting at Givenchy, gender-bending at Comme des Garçons, nautical looks at Prada, and romantic prints at Louis Vuitton — the one trend that has been gaining momentum is “designer as activist.” But fashion activism is nothing new.

In the 1930s, the Keffiyeh became a symbol of political uprising and rebellion. In the 1960s, designers gave us peace symbol T-shirts in protest of the Vietnam war; miniskirts became the symbol for women’s rights and sexual liberation. In the age of social media and the internet, where opinions and messages are delivered in lightning speed, designers, actors and other influencers feel duty-bound and a certain responsibility to bring attention to the relationship between fashion, politics and social change.

Here are a few noteworthy designers who have shown more than just clothes on their runways, past and present.

Virgil Abloh has developed a cult following with his collections for Off-White. For his men’s Spring 2020 show, Abloh focused on the negative effects of plastic and saving the environment. He featured an aquatic theme throughout the collection with shades of blue tie-dye prints and amoeba-shaped appliqué motifs on knits.

The show ended with the models stomping through a beautiful field of white carnations created for the show. Abloh’s message was loud and clear — we must protect our environment.

Stella McCartney
McCartney focused on playful tailoring, hand-printed silk shirts, ties and shorts with horse motifs, lightweight dusters and loose-fitting jumpsuits with satellite Earth-prints and of course a collection that was fur-free. The collection was light and humorous, but her fight to save the earth is a serious one. We wish her well in her new digs at LVMH.

Pyer Moss
Herby Jean-Raymond launched his menswear label, Pyer Moss, in 2013 and followed up with a women’s collection shortly after that. In the few seasons that Jean-Raymond has been presenting, the designer has quickly become known for his social activist stands. Most notably, he’s inspired by the heritage of African-Americans as well as the social issues that this community continues to face today.

Women’s Rights
Fall 2017 was a big season for designers to speak out about social injustice. Attendees at Missoni’s Fall show each received pink pussy hats. Guests proudly wore the hats, as did the models during the finale. According to Angela Missoni, creative director for the label, its message for Fall 2017 was all about, “Femininity in our times, prepared to confront the conflicts and dilemmas of our contemporary society: the conditions, needs, and rights of all women and minorities.”

Prabal Gurung created “The Future is Female” T-shirt for his Fall 2017 show. According to Gurung, “So to me, feminism is not just a trending topic. It’s the only way I’ve known, even before I knew what [feminism] was.”

Also in 2017, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) partnered with Planned Parenthood to launch the “Fashion Stands With Planned Parenthood” campaign to raise awareness about women’s healthcare during New York Fashion Week.

Going Fur Free
While Stella McCartney has been creating fur-free and leather-free clothes for years, many designers jumped on the bandwagon, including Burberry, Michael Korts, Gucci and Prada, to name a few.

Following in the footsteps of San Francisco and Los Angeles, New York is now considering a ban on fur as well. However, there’s much push back. It is one of the oldest industries in NYC, dating back to when Henry Hudson explored the region in 1609 and French traders bartered for furs with Native Americans. New York was a thriving trading post of beaver and other skins that traveled through the New York Harbor and to Europe. In fact, the official New York crest includes beavers, whose valuable pelts helped fuel the early fur trade.

Designers Who Rock the Boat
English fashion designer Katherine Hamnett is best known for her political T-shirts and ethical business philosophy. In 1983 she stated, “If you want to get the message out there, you should print it in giant letters on a T-shirt.” Celebrities such as George Michael (who was part of Wham at the time) wore one of her “Choose Life” tees in a music video for “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Roger Taylor of Queen wore her “Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now” T-shirt during Queen’s historic appearance at the first edition of the Rock in Rio festival in Rio de Janeiro.

Vivienne Westwood is another British fashion designer and businesswoman who was largely responsible for bringing modern punk and new wave fashion into the mainstream. Westwood has retail shops worldwide and sells a variety of merchandise; some of it linked to her many political causes, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, climate change and civil rights groups.

In 2000, John Galliano created one of the most controversial fashion shows ever. For his Christian Dior Haute Couture collection, Galliano was inspired by the Paris homeless. As a master of shock value, his message rang loud and clear in a city of beauty and glamour. The show created such controversy that homeless activists picketed outside the Dior headquarters and riot police had to be called in to deal with the protesters. As a result, Dior’s flagship closed for two hours and Galliano had to issue an apology statement: “I never wanted to make a spectacle of misery.”

Alexander McQueen’s inspiring showmanship is greatly missed ever since his suicide on February 11, 2010. For the late designer’s Fall 2009 collection, McQueen took an environmental stance on the runway as his models dressed in fiercely tailored coats, boxy jackets and airy gazar dresses walked around a heap of trash. McQueen even referenced trash in some of his looks, such as aluminum can accessories. It was all so hauntingly beautiful.

The un-condensed, unedited version of this article originally appeared on The University of Fashion’s website here.

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