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When the Culture Wars Came to Fashion

Brands are being held directly accountable for their actions to a degree that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.
Illustration by BoF
By
  • Alexandra Mondalek

As the 2010s come to a close, BoF reflects on how the past decade transformed the fashion industry — and the culture at large. Explore our insights here.

NEW YORK, United States —  In the mid-aughts, the Tyra Banks-created reality show America's Next Top Model (ANTM) was arguably at the height of its cultural relevance in the United States. Viewers went crazy for Banks' competition series, which pitted aspiring models against each other in the hopes of winning a contract meant to catapult them into the ranks of supermodel-dom.

None of the contestants on ANTM became bonafide supermodels, but that didn’t stop the show from running for 24 seasons in the US, plus spinoffs around the world.

Looking back, much of what transpired on ANTM was “problematic,” to use 2019 parlance. In one 2005 episode, Banks, who also hosted the show, asked each hopeful to pose for a “Got Milk” advertisement, styled in hair and makeup representing ethnicities different from their own. The models’ faces were painted to look Native American, black, Korean and even “eskimo” — the term the show used for the indigenous people of the Arctic.

At the time, a few blogs scolded the show — a Slate columnist asked whether Banks was racist — but the episode was hardly a topic of widespread public debate (the term "cultural appropriation" didn't catch on until around 2015, according to Google Trends search data). It would have been another story had it aired a decade later. Who can imagine the social media of the 2010s keeping quiet about blackface in a “Got Milk” ad?

It was in the 2010s that the culture wars really came to the internet, and the fashion industry has often found itself at the centre of the conflict. But in the past 10 years, the ways in which culture — more specifically race, identity and politics — informs fashion, and the ways consumers engage with fashion, has evolved.

The ways in which culture — more specifically race, identity and politics — informs fashion [...] has evolved.

Brands are being held directly accountable for their actions to a degree that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

Social media, of course, is the leading driver of this transformation. A new generation of consumers, more socially conscious than ever before, are now able to broadcast their reactions to everything from an advertising campaign to store window displays instantly via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Before the conversation moved online, the average consumer only interacted with fashion via glossy print magazines or when products actually reached stores. Neither ad-dependent publishers nor retailers had much incentive to play up controversies.

For example, John Galliano's 1997 couture show for Christian Dior, which pilfered from Native American culture, was panned by fashion critics for its showmanship over wearability, but not for cultural insensitivity. The same can't be said for Victoria's Secret's Native American headdresses worn in its 2012 runway show, Givenchy's "Chola Victorian" collection from 2015, or Marc Jacobs' "cyberpunk" dreadlocks worn on the runway by white models in 2016.

These collections may not have always been criticised by the press — The Washington Post's Robin Givhan called the uproar over Jacobs' dreadlocks "ridiculous" — but they got enough of the public talking that actions were often taken. (Jacobs, for instance, issued an apology for "lack of sensitivity" over the issue after initially dismissing the controversy.) This year, Dior faced racism accusations after the brand debuted an advertising campaign for its Sauvage fragrance featuring a Native American dancer. The campaign was quickly dropped, though the fragrance is expected to be a top seller in the UK this holiday season.

It was only toward the end of the decade that online uproar began to actually affect the bottom line (and clearly, not in every case). For years, Victoria's Secret's sales continued to climb, despite growing complaints over the way its bras and underwear were marketed. Dolce & Gabbana's business kept growing, even as its founders repeatedly made controversial comments.

That began changing in 2016, when a series of high-profile fashion brands came out with products that customers deemed to look like blackface, including the Moncler Malfi jacket in 2016, Pradamalia keychain in 2018, and this year, Katy Perry backless loafers and the now-infamous Gucci blackface sweater.

After the string of blackface-related incidents, "it was just like, things need to change now and in a drastic way," said Connie Wang, a senior features writer at Refinery29 and host of the publisher’s popular Style Out There YouTube series, which focuses on how style and culture intersect in different communities. “That doesn’t fly anymore.”

Because it was... blackface specifically, I think it was just like, things need to change now and in a drastic way.

Gucci suffered tangibly for its transgressions. Parent company Kering noted in July that the company's star brand saw its first quarterly drop in North American sales since 2016, while Tribe Dynamics, an influencer marketing platform, noted that Gucci's social media engagement fell so much as to knock it from its top spot compared to other luxury brands following the debacle.

The culture wars would come for lingerie behemoth Victoria's Secret, too. Years of cultural faux pas and corporate insistence on an outdated beauty ideal alienated customers. Sales have dropped, and the brand cancelled its annual fashion show amid plummeting ratings.

But identity politics played only one part. Fashion and apparel brands, which once aspired to remain above the fray on issues that divided their customers, were forced to pick sides in the Trump era, which widened the gap between conservatives and liberals. The Grab Your Wallet campaign — its moniker inspired by Trump’s own rhetoric regarding sexual assault — encourages consumers, by way of internet campaigning and hashtags, to boycott brands that do business with the American president or whose executives have donated to his campaign.

Among the apparel brands on the do-not-buy list: L.L. Bean, New Balance and the 70-plus labels operating under the umbrella of French luxury conglomerate LVMH. The recent meeting between CEO Bernard Arnault and Trump in Texas for the opening of a new Louis Vuitton handbag factory set off the campaign's alarm bells, prompting the house's womenswear designer, Nicolas Ghesquière to speak out.

Nike — unafraid to take sides in the political culture war — has so far benefited from its marketing campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the professional football player who kneeled during the National Anthem in protest over police brutality and other racial and social causes, much to the chagrin of President Donald Trump and many of his followers. Though Nike shares initially dipped after the boycott erupted, the advertisement led to a flurry of product sell-outs. Today, shares trade at a record high, and the brand is rumoured to be close to releasing a sneaker with Kaepernick.

From Nike to Gucci, if the culture wars have achieved one thing in fashion, it is that they have humanised brands.

Brands have waded into other hot-button issues. Gucci donated $500,000 to the 2018 March For Our Lives protest against gun violence, and Proenza Schouler sells T-shirts featuring an anti-gun graphic, donating proceeds to the Everytown gun safety organisation. Climate change is at the political forefront for brands like Collina Strada and Stella McCartney. Retailers like Gap Inc. and Target double down on their support for LGBTQIA+ citizens with policies that encourage shoppers to use whichever fitting rooms and restrooms correspond with their gender identity.

From Nike to Gucci, if the culture wars have achieved one thing in fashion, it is that they have humanised brands. But with the rise of watchdog-style call-out culture a la Diet Prada, some, like Wang, are sceptical that it's possible for these conversations to be more nuanced and less polarising. The rise of "inclusivity marketing" can also read false and inauthentic if not executed with sensitivity.

However, others, like Hazel Clark, a professor of fashion studies at Parsons and author of "The fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, and Globalisation," are more hopeful for the next decade of fashion discourse.

“Brands are representing lifestyles, and lifestyles have values, that’s what’s being called into question when brands make mistakes,” she said. “Recognising and acknowledging those instances for privileged people around the world will certainly determine how we evolve as cultural beings.”

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