Fashion and BLM
Updated: Oct 8, 2022
It’s Black History Month, the internet has just broken over Kanye West’s baffling, and deeply harmful ‘white lives matter’ t-shirts at Paris Fashion week, does fashion still care about the BLM movement? Or were they just jumping on a bandwagon back in 2020 when protests really had momentum?
In the nasty case given above, which we won’t even waste more time giving energy or platform to, luckily journalists, models and magazines did speak out in response. And told this man off for promoting such a dangerous rhetoric.
But lets take our minds back to 2020, to begin with fashion was notoriously slow to step up. It’s such a big old, lumbering beast, it can struggle to be reactive. And people weren’t having it.
So then the social media activism started.
We had vague statements ‘we will do better’ or just ‘#BLM’ and a flurry of black squares (which BTW flooded Instagram on the wrong hashtags so that protestors and activists couldn’t find actually info or resources), squares which originated from two Black women in the music industry, Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas, as an effort to hold the music industry accountable and bring it to a standstill for one day, because it is an industry that profits so much from Black art, and it needs to do better.
Obviously the squares were adopted by every performative activist and filled our feeds, obscuring the specific reason they were created. On a side note the ‘say her name’ chant that was adopted at marches and changed to ‘say his name’ was created in 2014 by the AAPF (the African American Policy Forum) because racial justice so often leaves out, forgets, and fails to protect Black women, who suffer at the intersection of racial and gendered discrimination.
So watching multi-million-dollar fashion brands hop on these two well-meaning symbols was kind of a warning sign that they hadn’t done their research, or didn’t really get it.
Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and publicist Sandrine Charles set up the Black in Fashion Council, which is one of the better long standing offerings from fashion on this issue. Most conversation around inclusivity and equality in fashion up until 2020 had focused on models and the faces we see on the runway. Which yes – is important, representation is really important. But finally in 2020 light was shed to the mainstream about conversations surrounding those working behind the scenes, and those in leadership positions. Vogue itself (thanks to Edward Enninful) has become so much more diverse since his addition as editor in 2017.
After the social media story came the merch. T-shirts, virtue signalling, seemingly powerful statements that didn’t really take any action or have any tangible outcomes. See tee’s emblazoned with Breonna Taylor falling to the charity shop pile whilst her killers have only recently seen charges. A lot of people are wise to fashions performative nature, and didn’t bother getting invested in this wave of protest tees and slogans. Some activists even spoke out about how the BLM movement had been going for years before boiling point in 2020, but was never really deemed an acceptable or worthwhile cause until it had the eyes of the world on it.
Seeing huge fashion houses suddenly speak up, pledge donations and begin featuring Black voices and activists could have been really hope inspiring. And some of it has been, some meaningful work has been done. (I always wonder whether tokenism, which of course isn’t great, at least gets some voices heard, and at least takes that tiny step forwards. But then I think about how it exists in images, and isn’t replicated in pay, respect or protection and I change my mind)
Maybe all fashion needed was a turning point to actually kick into gear and start doing better.
But lets review what was going on during the pandemic and since.
2020 and onwards
And whilst obviously this movement is about the importance of Black Lives specifically, it also opened up our awareness of micro aggressions and other racism, of Anti-Asian hate, of cultural appropriation, of the appalling treatment of Native Americans and other indigenous people... so it would make sense that from all these important conversations finally being given platform, the fashion industry may have realised that any and all exploitation, appropriation or exclusion is wrong. You would think.
So what has fashion been up to?
Boohoo, who of course were involved in online activism during the BLM protests of 2020, was outed for exploiting its workers in sweatshops. It’s predominantly non-white employees there.
Black Friday sales soared, PLT went viral for selling fast fashion items for prices as low as 8 pence. And again, who do these exploitative supply chains and huge overconsumption/waste issues disproportionately affect? People of colour.
In 2021 Zara, Anthropologie and Patowl were accused by Mexico’s culture ministry of appropriating patterns from indigenous groups and not actually benefitting it’s creators. In his statement the culture minister (Alejandra Frausto) said they wanted a “public explanation on what basis it could privatise collective property”.
In Comme Des Garcones FW 20/21 runway a parade of white models emerged wearing cornrow wigs with flapping lace fronts – which honestly was just baffling and as Diet Prada weighed in ‘problematic.’
Our fave, Kim K, tried to name her shapewear brand ‘Kimono’, despite having nothing to do with the traditional and meaningful Japanese robe, and nothing to do with Japanese culture herself. So harmful that the Mayor of Kyoto himself sent her a beautiful letter asking her to reconsider the name.
Even at fashion weeks in 2021 attendees expressed concern that the sudden passion about Black creatives and employees was dwindling. In just the few months from the movements momentum in 2020 NYFW Fall 2021 had dropped back to 50.7% black models, from its previous 57.1% in spring.
Even on a personal note we were shooting our new look book and one of our Black models arrived on set with her own foundation because she was so used to makeup artists not catering to, or not knowing how to make up, dark skin. It was such a small detail but such a sad one. If fashion really cared about its Black followers, contributors and inspirations why the hell are Black models being hired and then being told there’s not a soul on set who can do their hair.
Does fashion care?
I think what BLM has done is open the conversation up, brands know that people care now, and whilst it doesn’t necessarily mean they do better, it does mean that when they get called out they react. And we have the confidence to call them out loudly and directly. Educators platforms have grown and Black businesses get more support and attention, as they rightly deserve.
But it still isn’t enough, and fashion get bored quickly. The second an issue is no longer cutting edge, no longer exciting, no longer selling t-shirts – they move on. Onto hollow pride campaigns, feminist slogan tees made my women in sweatshops, or campaigns with all black models who didn’t get paid for their work.
This industry is a monster, and monsters need to eat. It’s no surprise that when one cause gets chewed to the bone it looks for a new feast.
Despite what fashion may think, the BLM movement is not over, and its our job to keep reminding our industry that we see them, and the next generation is snapping at their big scaly tail, that we are full of moral aspirations and hope and we’re not going to be quiet just yet.