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In the Trump Era, Owning American Heritage Is Tricky

'All American' used to be an easy sell. Today, it’s an albatross.
(L) Tomi Lahren's "Freedom" activewear line, (R) Bldwn campaign imagery | Source: Instagram/ @alexoathletica and Facebook/ BLDWN
By
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — When news broke in August that Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren was launching her Freedom activewear line with Alexo Athetica — a company that makes leggings and other fitness gear made to easily conceal a gun — I thought it was a joke.

Truth is, I had never heard of Lahren, thanks to my extremely strict news diet: NPR, BBC World, major international papers and links from Twitter, where I refuse to follow accounts that could cause a spike in my cortisol levels. No CNN, no MSNBC and definitely no Fox.

To me, Freedom felt more like a send-up of two of the world's most All American brands. Tomi, combined with Lahren, combined with star-spangled prints was simply an appropriation of the tropes Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger — members of the East Coast elite — have used to sell clothes for years. Just as Lauren had often co-opted the culture of WASP aristocracy, and Hilfiger had generously helped himself to both Lauren's template and then hip-hop culture and the style of the streets, Lahren was now filching from two of the industry's most masterful marketers.

Interesting enough. But I brushed the whole matter aside, too busy reporting on another fitness brand, Outdoor Voices, which is polarising in its own right, but doesn't necessarily make national headlines when it launches a new style.

Tomi Lahren, as it turns out, is the story we need to be talking about. Partially because the product is sold as upbeat “athleisure” built to hide weapons, launched during a month when there were 54 people killed in mass shootings in the US, including an incident on August 31 in Odessa, Texas, where at least eight lives were lost according to the most recent reports. Also because the products are not made in the US, but in China, going against the fundamentals of the MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) movement. And, not to mention, subject to those trade-war tariffs that are set to take effect on December 15.

It’s enough conflict to make you queasy, no matter what side of the party line you toe. For many consumers both in the US and abroad, the concept of “All American” is more fraught than ever. Gone is the warm-and-fuzzy nostalgia, the hope and idealism. In the divisive, emotionally crippling era of Trump, American pride has hit an all-time low, according to a June 2019 Gallup poll. Just 45 percent of those surveyed — and 22 percent of registered democrats — are "extremely" proud to be American, down from 47 percent in 2018 and 70 percent at its peak in 2003.

So, how do brands that want to own their American-ness reframe the idea?

Newly appointed Council of Fashion Designers of American (CFDA) Chairman Tom Ford, whose truncated New York Fashion Week begins in earnest on Friday evening, believes the American fashion industry, much like the US itself, is too inward looking. In order to help reverse this, Ford has wooed international press back to the shows with free flights and laid out a plan to empower underrepresented CFDA members by naming Carly Cushnie, Maria Cornejo, Pyer Moss' Kerby Jean Raymond and Virgil Abloh to the board of directors. Ford certainly has the right idea and the bullheadedness to affect change. But while the CFDA can provide support and guidance, it's up to designers and brands to work out for themselves what exactly being an American fashion brand means to them in 2019.

Some labels, like Eckhaus Latta and Pyer Moss, do their thinking on the runway. Their work reflects society, illustrating what it's like to be living in America right now. Others are spending more time pointedly baking new ideals into their brand DNA. Good American co-founder Emma Grede is helping to redefine the concept of American-ness by building a business based on inclusion, both in terms of size and ethnicity.

Even a megabrand like Levi’s, probably the most “American” of them all — and carrying a heavy, 166-year history — has opted to take a stand, pledging more than $1 million in 2018 to support nonprofits and activists working to end gun violence.

"It's inevitable that we're going to alienate some consumers," Chief Executive Chip Bergh told The Washington Post last year. "But we can no longer sit on the sidelines and remain silent on this issue."

What if we look at 'American' through a slightly different lens?

Other brands are rethinking Americana. The revamped label BLDWN, for instance, is focusing on aspects of American culture rarely explored by traditional heritage brands.

"Given everything that is going on and has been going on politically, culturally and socially, I did wonder, is now the right time to build a brand identity around this idea of American when it is so polarising and divisive?'" said President Johnathan Crocker, who moved the label’s headquarters from Kansas City to Los Angeles in 2018. "I had to ask myself, what are my personal hangups in terms of that association?"

In the end, he decided that there was more to be said about American-ness. Instead of referencing Elvis and cowboys and plaid, Crocker looked to Andy Warhol and Paul McCobb and John Steinbeck. He has said he wants to build the American version of APC or Acne.

In August, he opened a new flagship on Melrose Place, enlisting Montalba Architects — which worked on the Row’s store just a few doors down — to fill it with white oak and black steel. The clothes are a take on basics, the thing that has come to define the American wardrobe of the past 30 years. Not red, white and blue.

“What if we look at 'American' through a slightly different lens?” he said. "If we can be some kind of agent of positive change, that’s something that we take a lot of pride in."

Crocker's message is quiet compared to Tomi Lahren's. But there's clearly an opportunity for American fashion to reflect more than the status quo.

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