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Political protest fails to take off from the fashion show runway

Fashion

Designing dissent

A model on the catwalk at Prada’s show during Milan Fashion Week.

As a tense political climate becomes fodder for the fashion industry, Trey Taylor suggests it should leave resistance to real protesters

Fashion as protest is dead. The death knell was sounded by Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia, who on Jan. 18 in Paris showed a series of garments appropriating Bernie Sanders' Democratic leadership campaign logo as part of his Fall 2017 collection. In place of Sanders' name was "Balenciaga" emblazoned across purposely ill-fitting T-shirts and puffer jackets. Was the label being cynical? Or was it an earnest attempt at a runway-to-retail protest to align the storied luxury brand with a figure who so actively opposes the current U.S administration? The latter theory – a multibillion-dollar corporation hawking Sanders' ethos to its consumers – seems directly opposed to the democratic socialist values that the politician stands for. Either way, the fickle fashion crowd will likely flock to the nearest Balenciaga boutique to buy a piece when they arrive in stores in August. To them, Gvasalia's motivation likely doesn't matter at all.

According to British academic and author Elizabeth Wilson, signalling one's political stance through clothing is nothing new. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, groups including avant-garde artists and anarchists expressed their critiques of society through dress. "Most recently, it was hippies, punks and goths whose styles and modes got taken up and commercialized," she says. "The force and bite of them completely drained away in consumerism, so that they became just styles instead of the expression of ideas." As that practice has progressed, it seems that true expressions of activism on the runways has vanished.

To further confuse the messaging at Gvasalia's show, the logo for Kering, Balenciaga's multibillion-dollar parent company, also turned up on many of the garments. It was explained in the notes handed out to press at the show that this was a gesture to celebrate Balenciaga taking up residence in the same building as Kering's headquarters. A nice acknowledgment to your bosses, perhaps, if it wasn't sandwiched between hoodies sporting an emblem of anti-commercialism.

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"Balenciaga's use of the Bernie Sanders logo would have probably felt more powerful coming from an American brand," says Louis Wong, a designer at minimalist French label A.P.C. and of his own collection, Louis W. "There's been a trend of ironic, look-at-me graphic visuals in fashion, and it's interesting that this trend has crossed every type of brand from mass market to luxury. If the purpose is to fund the protest – I don't mind."

A model walks the runway during the Balenciaga Menswear Fall/Winter 2017-2018 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on January 18, 2017.

Balenciaga isn't the only label co-opting garments and symbols with political implications for their collections lately. Chanel faced a backlash in 2014 over its runway show-turned-faux feminist march, where models brandished signs sporting sayings such as "History is Her Story." In September, the debut collection of Dior's first female artistic director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, included a $700 slogan T-shirt bearing the phrase "We Should All Be Feminists."

While political statements through dress is nothing new, the recent politicization of runway shows "seems to be a new thing," says Wilson. "At the turn of the millennium, the British scholar Caroline Evans wrote about the catwalk shows of Alexander McQueen, arguing that political protest, in decline, had migrated to his fashion performances and that they were the only places that were showcasing protest. In the past couple of years, other designers seem to have taken up this idea."

Berets, a symbol of defiance for everyone from Che Guevera to the Black Panthers, were omnipresent at Milan's most recent men's-wear shows, appearing on the runways of Missoni, Louis Vuitton and Prada. Recently, actress Natalie Portman and singer Rihanna both wore the Dior slogan T-shirt to advocate for economic and social equality at Women's Marches in Los Angeles and New York ("Of course, Rihanna was the most stylish Women's March attendee" was the headline for a story on Harper's Bazaar's website). Both stars are ambassadors for Dior, and a real-life protest was the ideal opportunity to show support for two causes: one political, one commercial.

The latest politicized concept to be co-opted is the idea of being "woke," or clued-in to the nuances of identity politics (the term purportedly gained pop cultural currency in a 2008 Erykah Badu song, Master Teacher, and became linked to the Black Lives Matter movement around 2014). A recent Vogue article attempted to translate this new wave of antiestablishment awareness into a style of dress, describing actress Zoë Kravitz – who wears, Vogue says, "OVO Revenge sweatshirts, Kurt Cobain-inspired bug-eye sunglasses, and oversize Dickies" – as its poster girl. The magazine stated: "If anyone can claim to have the uniform of the woke cool-girl down pat, it's her."

Natalie Portman wears a "We Should All Be Feminists" shirt at the Women's March in Los Angeles on Jan. 21, 2017. Rex Feature Ltd.

Only when a garment is adopted by marginalized segments of society can it become a symbol of a wider movement. In 2013, Black Lives Matter demonstrators showed solidarity by wearing hoodies to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin by Florida police. In what was perhaps the most authentic example of a staged fashion protest recently, New York label Pyer Moss amplified the Black Lives Matter movement by opening his fall 2016 show with a 15-minute video about police brutality. The brand's founder, Kerby Jean-Raymond – who said he had been stopped and frisked by officers a dozen times by the age of 18 – listed the names of police brutality victims on a T-shirt he sold with all proceeds going to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Likewise, the sincerity knitted into the pink pussy hats on parade at the Women's Marches in January made them integral to the visibility of the grassroots movement they represent. The free pattern for the tuque was downloaded nearly 100,000 times from the Pussyhat Project website, creating a sea of pink in aerial photos of the crowds that took to the streets around the world on Jan. 21. Organizers say they were created in response to American president Donald Trump's notorious "grab them by the pussy" comment and the extent to which the beanies were worn amounted to a visual shout of the anti-Trump slogan "pussy grabs back."

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On the other hand, Miuccia Prada, who has often looked to waves of feminism for collection inspiration, sounded anything but revolutionary when explaining why she popped berets on some of the model's heads at her men's-wear show. "I didn't want to do it," she told The New York Times about the audience's interpretation of the collection's 1970s influence. "But it came out anyway, because it was a very important moment for protest, for rights, for humanity…that could be very necessary now."

"Fashion translates our world but rarely offers social commentary," says Wong. "What's relevant, though, is the powerful look of the protest. Punk clothing definitely encouraged social activism. But punk was the clothing answer to anarchism. When it got popular, it lost any type of activism."

Whatever the agenda threading the figurative needle at the most recent shows is, there is rarely any follow up by the brands after the lights fade. Instead, the message boils down to "buy our clothing." Protest in the fashion industry rarely makes it past the end of the catwalk.

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