A whiff of change in the air

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There has been a renaissance of slogan tee shirts. Pic: Flickr/21022123@N04

Rena Niamh Smith continues her series of columns with a hopeful look at how the desire for a better world is feeding into the fashion world — but a more fundamental shift will be required for lasting change.

Flick through any fashion magazine and you get a taste for the current mood of change in fashion. Features on gender fluidity, the renaissance of slogan tee shirts, models of size and colour, shopping guides to the growing sustainable market suggest a brighter future led by Gen Z. Even the trend for baby pink has been linked to renewed interest in feminism.

Donald Trump’s model agency, founded in 1999, quickly went out of business following his election as the industry dropped connections to the odious mogul-turned-president.

After 40 years of campaigning by activists, Chanel finally banned the use of fur and exotic skins last month, though it denied any external pressure. Bruno Pavlovsky, president of Chanel fashion and Chanel SAS, told the global fashion authority WWD: “We did it because it’s in the air, but it’s not an air people imposed to us. It’s a free choice.”

Too much relies on that free choice, and many companies ignore the mood. Last month Victoria’s Secret chief marketing officer Mark Razek was forced to apologise for dismissing calls to put plus-size or trans models on its runway. “The show is a fantasy,” he told Vogue.

Fantasy is out of place in 2019. Authenticity, such as diverse model casting, chimes better with the zeitgeist. Clementine de Pressigny wrote for i-D magazine that “if the industry can move away from, or even actively deconstruct narratives that cultivate insecurities and exclusion that play into social hierarchy, if it can seek to dismantle stereotypes in a genuine way, then fashion intertwining with politics can be a force for good.”

But as John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing, marketing is powerful, but it is not the same as concrete change: “Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it masks what is happening in the rest of the world.”

Democratising the image fashion portrays is woefully inadequate when serious inequality remains. As an engine in the economic machine, fashion reflects the undemocratic structure of society. “Exclusive” is oft-used in fashion as byword for desirable. In France, the gilet jaune movement are railing against economic inequality, united by a symbolic garment.

Fashion-trend forecasting is a marketing strategy of generating sales by engineering changes in taste. The fashion fortunes of Crocs were spectacularly reversed when British designer Christopher Kane put bejewelled versions on the catwalk in 2017. The next big thing seems “ugly” in the microclimate of what is considered good taste today, but becomes desirable through repeated marketing.

Sinister forces have already piggy-backed on this mechanism. Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie met Steve Bannon while studying for a PhD in fashion-trend forecasting. In November Wylie told the Business of Fashion’s Voices conference that Bannon “got it immediately. He believes in the whole Andrew Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture. And fashion trends are a useful proxy for that. Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically. So how do you get from people thinking ‘Ugh. Totally ugly’, to the moment when everyone is wearing them?”

For lasting change, what is happening in the rest of the world needs unmasking. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh killed over 1,000 workers, throwing light on festering malpractice in sweatshops. Unions such as the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, beaten back for years, finally achieved international attention. Two hundred and fifty companies signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.

The Guardian recently reported that factories whose clients have signed the accord have installed regulatory fire protection, and in January last year, unions secured a $2m payout from an unnamed company that failed to keep up. But they also report that union activity remains stifled by industrial police, and factories unaffected by the accord go unchecked.

Those trying to effect change provide a glimpse of how we can rip up the rulebook. Mountains of little-worn clothing go to landfill every year. Designer Bethany Williams re-uses denim sourced at a recycling point in Kent. She told me recently on my podcast Future Heist: “I like working with waste, where a pocket has been taken off, you can see it. I like the idea of taking something someone doesn’t want any more and turning it into something beautiful.” Indeed, artistic beauty can and should be reclaimed beyond the revolution.

Yet provocateurs cannot face down massive multinationals through the current system. Consultancy McKinsey & Company looked at 500 fashion brands and found that the top 20 percent (100 businesses) made 128 percent of the total profit in 2017; the bottom 20 percent made losses of 34 percent, skewing the results. The very top 20 companies made 97 percent of the profits within their group, with Zara, Nike and LVMH coming out on top. As such, the project of launching new production lines remains limited as long as capitalism perpetuates.

Real change means halting production for production’s sake, and creating garments that meet human need before profit.