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Op-Ed | New York Fashion Week Has a Donald Trump Problem

The protests against Stephen Ross have so far targeted Equinox and SoulCycle — but the billionaire’s reach also extends into the upper echelons of the American fashion industry.
The Vessel at Hudson Yards | Source: Shutterstock
By
  • Phillip Picardi

NEW YORK, United States — On Friday in Southampton, New York, many of the city's elite will arrive for a private luncheon at the home of billionaire Stephen Ross and his wife, the jewellery designer and CFDA board member Kara Ross. Summer parties for the 1% are hardly a rarity on the Hamptons circuit, and yet, this particular fête has sparked a spectacular kind of outrage. That's because, as The Washington Post revealed earlier this week, this party has the ultimate guest of (dis) honour: President Donald Trump.

Access to Ross' fundraiser comes with impressive price tags, boasting the possibility of earning Trump a high seven-figure campaign contribution by its end: For a photo opportunity with the president and lunch, tickets start at $100,000. If you're willing to fork over $250,000, you're entitled to a "roundtable discussion" with Trump. Ultimately, the affair will help to bolster the already well-funded Trump re-election bid, which recently announced it had raised $105 million in the second quarter. (By contrast, the leading Democratic fundraiser is Senator Bernie Sanders, who clocks in at $38.7 million in contributions for the first half of 2019.)

The news of the event prompted swift backlash, and even a boycott of properties owned by Related Companies, of which Ross is chairman and founder. Among his investments are brands like Equinox, SoulCycle, Pure Yoga and Momofuku — all of which attract a distinctly fashionable (and fashion industry) clientele. #BoycottEquinox started trending on Twitter Wednesday, with members calling in to cancel their memberships. Both Equinox and SoulCycle issued statements claiming that Related has nothing to do with their day-to-day operations and that they do not endorse the fundraiser. Neither statement mentions Ross or Trump by name, and both point out that neither company allows profits to be used for campaign contributions.

But while many in the fashion flock have already cancelled their gym memberships — or worse, are guiltily going to SoulCycle this weekend in disguise — avoiding Ross’ empire may prove impossible for the countless industry folks who flock to the city for Fashion Week next month. (The CFDA declined to comment.)

Ross and Related are behind the $25 billion "city-within-a-city" known as Hudson Yards, which is reportedly the most expensive real-estate project in American history. It has long been speculated that the "Shed," a $500 million events space located within Hudson Yards, will be the future home of the shows at New York Fashion Week. While next season's shows are still being housed at Spring Place, IMG (which oversees production for many of the collections) has remained mum on whether designers will migrate uptown.

And yet, it appears Hudson Yards' team has already begun to orchestrate events for this upcoming season of New York Fashion Week. The designer Prabal Gurung was approached to host his 10-year anniversary show at the Vessel, the Ross-funded $150 million "sculpture," memorably described in New York Magazine as "large, shiny, and extravagantly pointless." Upon hearing news of Ross' fundraiser, Gurung condemned the billionaire on Twitter and said he was pulling out of the proposed Vessel show.

“To read that Stephen Ross ... is hosting a fundraiser for President Trump in the Hamptons is appalling, shocking, [and] an indication of their integrity and values,” he wrote.

He added that deciding whether to work with Ross and Related is “no longer about party lines … this is about choosing between two sides, the right or the wrong side of history.”

The truth is, Mr Ross’ “integrity” was already on full display earlier this year during the opening of Hudson Yards — but the various fashion folks who took part in the festivities and published party photos from the evening seem to have missed some key details.

Journalist Kriston Capps of CityLab has been tracking down the investments and finances for the billionaire's development, revealing that the project actually weaselled its way into acquiring $1.2 billion of financing that was meant for economic development and public housing in Central and East Harlem. Additionally, a report published by Bridget Fisher and Flávia Leite of The New School concluded that Hudson Yards cost New York taxpayers a whopping $2.2 billion, even after receiving $6 billion in tax breaks and government assistance.

In short, any Fashion Week event heading to Hudson Yards is bound to be tainted by the corporate greed of a billionaire who took from the poor, manipulated city funds and is now using the profits of his expansive empire to pad the pockets of the most overtly racist, anti-LGBTQ+ President in modern history.

In a statement, Mr Ross addressed the fundraiser controversy, calling himself “an outspoken champion of racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education, and environmental sustainability.” A brief glance at his wife’s Instagram account, on which comments have been disabled since Wednesday, shows that she considers herself a supporter of LGBTQ+ equality and abortion rights. (Kara Ross did not respond to a request for comment.)

Herein lies the great hypocrisy of the elite: One can call oneself a champion of racial equality while helping to raise millions of dollars for a president whose rhetoric was invoked in the manifesto of a white supremacist who slaughtered 22 innocent people last week in a spree targeting Mexican immigrants.

One can attend a luncheon for President Trump hosted by their billionaire husband, and then post a rainbow-hued photo on Instagram endorsing #inclusivity, all while the Trump administration has rolled back employment discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ individuals and barred transgender people from serving in the military.

One can shake hands with President Trump on a Friday in the Hamptons after serving an organisation such as the CFDA, which just hosted the Love Ball in support of eradicating HIV/AIDS, and never draw the connection that the president has made it more expensive and difficult for people living with HIV to access life-saving medication.

One can partake in the CFDA's efforts around endorsing immigration equality, all while funding a man who has trapped asylum-seeking migrants escaping poverty and torture in conditions at our border that can only be described as squalid, and where children are going without showers or hot meals for days on end.

One can have the audacity to say in a statement that they stand for access to public education, when Trump has appointed a woman who is dismantling the quality of public schools by the day, making things worse for our nation's middle and lower class, while working to place more guns in our classrooms.

One can feign concern about our world's ecosystem from the safety of their Hamptons home or penthouse in Hudson Yards, while giving directly to an administration that has denied the reality of climate change and has dismantled protections for our environment, incentivising oil drilling and destroying protected lands.

One can go to bed with a man who gives to Trump one day and post her support for reproductive rights, all while never acknowledging that, just last week, taxpayer-funded clinics all over the country were ordered by his administration to stop referring women for abortions.

In essence, one can be so wealthy as to completely insulate oneself from the actual effects of Trump’s disastrous administration — and then use that wealth to further fuel his machine.

In the years after the 2016 election, the fashion industry formed ourselves in opposition to Trump's rhetoric. With our international flights, our front row seats and our celebration of arts and beauty, we pride ourselves on being an antidote to Trump — to providing relief from his hatred, and promoting values that champion women, queer people, people of colour, immigrants and everyone who lives at the intersections of these identities. Our most famous publications, from Vogue to Elle to Harper's Bazaar to GQ, have established themselves as standing on the side of progress and condemn Trump on their websites on a near-daily basis. Our most influential designers in New York — from Gurung to Michael Kors to Tom Ford to Tory Burch — have all voiced and materialised their support for causes that Trump aims to bury each and every week. So how could the future home of New York Fashion Week be in bed with the financial underwriting of President Donald Trump?

What many of our upper class and fashion elite fail to grasp is that life happens beyond headlines and Instagram posts. That true allyship and activism isn’t performative — in fact, it’s absolutely and utterly inconvenient. And your worth and integrity will not be measured by what you dare to say behind an iPhone screen: It is measured by the difficult decisions we make when we are forced to choose a side — and that includes who we double-kiss at fashion shows, and with whom we’re willing to avoid confrontation in order to keep the peace at catered lunches and fundraiser meetings.

As the body count rises, as our rights are rolled back on the daily, as our democracy continues its slow and onerous crumble, we have to redefine what it means to be “the bigger person.” The Bigger Person, in this case, doesn’t rise above by turning the other cheek. In moments like these, it’s the Bigger Person who needs to qualify how and when to fight back.

So it seems the fashion industry — our editors, critics, creative directors, stylists, designers, publicists, executives — have a choice to make: Which side of history do we want to be on?

Phillip Picardi is the editor-in-chief of Out Magazine.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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