Yes, Fashion Activism Is A Thing, But Not Everything Has To Be Made A Fashionable Statement Just For The Sake Of
Where passion and purpose collide, fashion activism begins. But the question is, does everything have to be a fashion statement?
“I can’t breathe.”
These were the chilling last words of George Floyd as he faced death with oppression and force weighing down on his neck by police officer Derek Chauvin. Resonant as it was, aggressively fanning the embers of recourse and revolution to blazing flames of passionate and persisting protests across the United States and the world demanding justice for the many victims of racism in all its iterations, the necessary conversation would be derailed by the existence of misguided and misinformed attempts at solidarity. The rise to unprecedented prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked many reactions and responses, most well meaning and earnest in its intent. While it is a major learning curve for humanity as a whole, where a lot of unpacking of privilege has since been a process that has been grappled by many on the opposite side of oppression, it wouldn’t be a process of progress without navigating undertakings of support that whether they like to admit it or not, exist primarily to further a personal gain that just misses the point.
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Where it was a phrase that expedited a reckoning for a movement that has long been waylaid for crumbs of tolerance, the phrase “I can’t breathe” was carelessly printed on an oversized white scarf tied around the neck of a black model wearing a mix of stark contrasts in a visual form of fashion activism realized as a stylized editorial by the creative forces behind Philippine Fashion Week. In a succession of images and videos, the plight and pulsating lifeline of the overpowered was manifested in of all possible things, a bag tag and geometric eyewear. Taking to Instagram to detail the editorial effort, the collective writes, “Philippine Fashion Week supports #BlackLivesMatter, a movement in protest of police brutality, racial violence, racial injustice, and economic inequality against African-American people.”
Naturally, the republic of the internet had their thoughts, and as social commentaries of this sort are subject to, this localized endeavor of fashion activism was tried by the court of public opinion. The verdict was clear: As sympathetic as it presents itself to be, it was in fact a gratuitous and grating display of surface-level perspective on a deep-seated wound for people of color. What was meant to be a cultural statement campaign felt performative, insensitive, and reductive, not necessarily because of what it supports, which is really a reflection of the times, but because it completely ignores the injustices that beleaguer the very nation it represents.
For argument’s sake, yes, fashion activism exists. Yes, fashion is reflective of the times. And yes, fashion is political. Whether you realize it or not, facets of your fashion, such as the bastion of youth culture and defiance that is the mini skirt as posited by Mary Quant to the slogan shirts that has long been a uniform for subversion of activists, especially during the 1970s, and even the Keffiyeh, the black and white scarf that is traditional to Islam has infiltrated mainstream prominence as a symbol of uprising and rebellion, as well as to destigmatize and honor Arab heritage, are a form protest. Clearly, there is more to the perceived folly and frivolity of fashion, in the sense that with so much leverage to inform and inspire, it becomes severely disappointing when its support reads as repugnant and tone deaf, especially when as a creative collective, we put so much premium on taste.
The industry of imaging has had a long history with social commentaries, which is an organic offshoot of fashion activism, really. “As an embodied everyday practice, fashion is endowed with the capacity to bring pleasure, to incite and transmit affect. Thus, in an era when politics is largely mistrusted and, increasingly, divides people along national, class, race, sex and gender lines, fashion might effectively provide a means of challenging such dissension,” explains Djurdja Bartlett, author of the Yale University Press published, Fashion and Politics, continuing to suggest a creation of “a bridge between politics and economics, providing a platform for today’s most urgent social and cultural conversations.” However, as paved with good intentions as the road may be, the results isn’t always effective. Why? If we put things into perspective, these conversations of cultural context rendered as fashion statements aren’t necessarily authentic to their point-of-view. Similar uproars of backlash happened to significant fashion players such as when model Ayesha Tan-Jones protested on the runway of Gucci in what appeared to be a straightjacket uniform saying that mental health is not fashion, a culturally insensitive fashion editorial on Interview magazine, and of course, the racism-ensnared Shanghai snafu of Dolce & Gabbana. Clearly, everyone is so attuned and aware of communications and injustice that we are compelled to go back to the simple lesson of if it isn’t your story to tell, allow someone living and breathing that truth to tell it themselves.
“It’s authentic, and when you’re authentic, you’re OK. When you’re not, you’re just doing it to chase a headline or just to be provocative; or one minute you’re sexy, the next minute you’re political, the next minute you’re sustainable, the next minute you’re charitable. Then it’s hard to figure out what you stand for,” says Trey Laird, founder and chief executive of New York agency Laird + Partners, the firm who worked on Donna Karan’s groundbreaking ad in 1992 that imagined a woman as a sworn in US President. Needless to say, as we intend to make statements that matter in this world moving forward, not everything has to fashionable just for the mere sake of. “A fashion brand is sometimes very closely rooted in either aspiration or desire or emotion or elevation or beauty,” Laird continues. “When you see something that beautiful or that edgy or elevated or aspirational and it starts to take on a meaning or a message that has maybe more substance to it, it kind of adds a little bit of a punch.”
Unfortunately, in the undertaking of documenting and reflecting history through fashion, as in the case of Philippine Fashion Week, it just doesn’t sit right. What also doesn’t help was the despite being called out and made aware of their missteps and oversights on social media, there was a conscious effort to defend its attempt at fashion activism in an overcompensation that again, doesn’t acknowledge the problems that plague the country. Graduating from a distaste of “what were they thinking” it quickly careened into a lane of “what about the inequalities and inequities in the Philippines?” Again, this isn’t to diminish the Black Lives Matter movement, but being that access, network, and reach is within arm’s reach, why look out when it is a human responsibility to look in as well. Also, it is lives that are at stake here, and to romanticize and glamourize it as such is severely out-of-touch and a denial of the true struggle of their fight for justice.
Don’t get us wrong, perpetuating the discussion and discourse on the decay of humanity is well and good. Now more than ever, people need to know what is happening, and expressing it in every way possible from your carved out corner of the world. However, it must be treated with utmost respect, because this isn’t some sort of seasonal fashion activism; this is quite literally the fight for lives across the pond, and most especially here where we live in pride as a Philippine nation. Yes, we have to speak up and put truths on a platform, but honestly, not everything is a statement to be made fashionable.