Can Fashion Ever Truly be Political?
If you have been anywhere near an Instagram feed, you will have seen the overwhelming commercial presence within the Black Lives Matter movement. Marc Jacobs posted a photo of graffiti naming the victims of police brutality, Adidas retweeted a moving video produced by its rival Nike, and H&M pledged to donate $500,000 to civil rights charities. While these moves seem positive, it is important to question whether these brands would have shown support if they weren't under the watchful eye of social media. One must wonder if fashion, which has historically profited off black culture, can ever be politically sound at all.
Many labels have been put under the firing line for their lackluster support. Off-White and Louis Vuitton’s Virgil Abloh sparked outrage for criticising the looting of his stores by protesters, before donating only $50 to a bail fund. In a conversation for Harper’s Bazaar, Brandice Daniel expressed concern with once-off donations such as this, suggesting they are purely short term fixes beneficial for little more than receiving clout on social media.
Michael Jordan is an example of putting his money where his mouth is, pledging $100 million over the next 10 years to social justice and equality organisations. Recurring donations like this are arguably the only way to enact real change, which will be needed long after the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag stops trending on Twitter.
The nature of fashion being ‘woke’ is complex, and digging into the issue reveals that being a true advocate is about much more than hiring a diversity and inclusion specialist. Fast fashion brands have come under particular scrutiny, with ASOS and PrettyLittleThing speaking out in support of the movement. However, can these brands ever be progressive when their clothing is mass-produced in sweatshops? Documentaries like The True Cost have exposed the horrific working conditions labourers are exposed to, many of whom are people of colour earning below the poverty line. When brands profit off this exploitation, it is hard to see their statements as anything more than performative activism.
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Then there are the hypocritical brands, whose brand images are so apolitical that it feels ridiculous for them to be involved at all. Athleisure brand Sporty & Rich faced criticism after Emily Oberg’s Instagram posts telling her followers to “stop making excuses” for having a poor diet. While Oberg issued an apology, the posts prompted debate surrounding the brand’s lack of diversity. A later post about Black Lives Matter was met with further backlash, with commenters deeming it lip service. It begs the question of whether a brand named ‘Sporty & Rich’ can ever not be synonymous with an aesthetic that is skinny, white, and privileged.
Similarly, Man Repeller came under fire for releasing a tone-deaf apology that failed to acknowledge how the site had failed to represent diversity in the past. Former staffers critiqued the brand for not paying their interns, firing POCs at the outset of COVID-19, and for creating a hostile working environment. Longtime readers deemed the brand out-of-touch, one that reflects the experience of the privileged minority within the NYC fashion scene, giving little room for any other perspectives. The controversy led founder Leandra Medine Cohen to step down from her role as the face of the brand, promising that the publication will do better moving forward.
These controversies raise important questions surrounding the fashion industry as a whole, which has been historically unfriendly to people of colour. Supporting Black Lives Matter is about more than just donating once, and brands need to look within their company structures to ensure they are truly diverse.
Will brands such as Nike and Adidas agree to hurt their bottom line continually to give tangible support to a movement that affects a huge amount of their customers? Are fast fashion labels still on the right side of history if they refuse to change their exploitative production practices? Can brands ever be a voice for change when they are selling things only the upper-class elite can afford, or profiting off black culture?
It’s a murky, complex issue, and one that will not be changed overnight. Judging by recent sentiment, fashion is becoming more aware, but it still has a long way to go before brands can ever be truly political.
Written by Kerry Mahony