LONDON, United Kingdom — Last week in Paris, Chanel appropriated the visual signifiers of feminist protest for its seasonal runway show. In a finale led by Karl Lagerfeld, a bevy of supermodels took to a catwalk christened “Boulevard Chanel” holding signs with slogans such as “History is Her Story,” “Make Fashion Not War,” and “Tweed Is Better Than Tweet.” On the same day in Hong Kong, a genuine protest was underway. Protesting for the right to democratically elect a candidate of their own choosing, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers formed crowds that throbbed and swelled in the city’s streets.
Playing out against this backdrop, the “faux-test” staged on Boulevard Chanel rang especially hollow, repackaging political riot as a light-hearted, Instagram-savvy performance. The show did, however, demonstrate the power of high profile runway events to attract enormous media attention. But are fashion shows capable of harnessing this power to carry and convey serious — as well as a sartorial — messages? Can fashion be a genuine platform for protest?
We think it can.
Over the course of a career spanning more than three decades, Jean Paul Gaultier has used the fashion show format to address the socially and politially charged issues of female empowerment and beauty. The designer has consistently invited plus-size models (including Crystal Renn, Marquita Pring and Velvet D'Amour), transgender models and older models, as well as women celebrated for their careers, not just their beauty, to share the catwalk with more conventional girls. For Spring/Summer 2011, plus-sized Gossip frontwoman Beth Ditto stormed Gaultier’s catwalk with an acapella performance, while his recent Spring/Summer 2015 show featured Spanish actress Rossy de Palma, aged 50, as well as a cast of white-haired older women, in a fitting end to his ready-to-wear line.
Vivienne Westwood is living proof of fashion’s ability to carry and convey a political agenda. Last month, the designer used her London Fashion Week catwalk show to endorse the campaign for Scottish independence, distributing a statement titled “Democracy in the UK” to journalists and buyers in attendence, while pinning ‘Yes’ badges to her models. In January, she petitioned for the passage of a European law to hold businesses and individuals responsible for environmental destruction. And her models have walked holding placards reading “Fair trial my arse!” in reference to the incarceration of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.
Indeed, Westwood’s clarion call that “an art lover is a freedom fighter” runs through every vein of her work. It infiltrates her advertising campaigns, it takes to the runway and it spills beyond the realm of her work as a designer. She has personally given several speeches to express her solidarity with protestors focused on issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to environmental protection. Whether you believe in the causes she champions or not, when Westwood protests, it is in the name of a genuine cause.
Sometimes, the brands that support real causes are the ones that don’t shout about it. Sometimes, the real revolution is much quieter and embedded into a company's process, not performance. Stella McCartney champions the cause of animal rights and environmental protection by simply committing to never using animal products, like leather or fur. Instead, she uses biodegradable and organic materials wherever possible. Her eyewear is at least 50 percent natural and renewable, sandals are made with biodegradable soles, bags are lined with fabric made from recycled plastic bottles. And yet, it is rare that the ethical and sustainable aspects of McCartney’s work are made explicit in the brand’s ad campaigns. “We know that we aren’t perfect,” her company statement begins, going on to acknowledge that creating fully ethical and sustainable products is not easy. In fact, her choices are difficult, but she makes them anyway, which is perhaps the truest kind of protest.
The $1 trillion fashion industry has a huge impact on lives, economies and the environment. Thus, it has the capacity to engage with the serious issues affecting these things. But to do so, first and foremost, requires a real message. To treat social and political causes as little more than a marketing stunt undermines the meaning of a protest. The next time a fashion brand picks up a placard, it should first make sure it has something to say.