Fashion Week: More than a Pretty Face

With each Fashion Week, there are always nay-sayers that don’t see the need for all the hullabaloo. It’s just for the fashion-oriented, enthusiasts and hopefuls who are engulfed in the world of fashion, isn’t it? Despite the fixation on beauty and aesthetics, Fashion Week provides a platform for designers to share fundamental values that touch on issues such as social and political. As Business of Fashion argued in a 2014 editorial, while there are designers that have allegedly used pressing issues as a marketing stunt, there are brands that use this trillion dollar industry to convey real messages.

Female Domination

The obvious theme that stands out at is female-orientation and domination. Whether you’re on the streets around the event, on the catwalk, or a big player in the industry – such as businesswoman and noted fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg – there’s some serious female devotion going on here. Nevertheless, there is constant criticism on less than enriching practices often associated with the fashion world.

French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier takes the catwalk with plus-size model Crystal Renn at the end of his spring/summer 2006 collection. (Photo by Remy de la Mauviniere/AP)
French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier takes the catwalk with plus-size model Crystal Renn at the end of his spring/summer 2006 collection.
(Photo by Remy de la Mauviniere/AP)

One designer that has specialised in speaking on feminism is Jean Paul Gautier. This designer has consistently utilized his runway to address socially and politically stimulated female beauty and empowerment matters. Known for diversifying his catwalk, the models have ranged from plus-size and transgendered to mature and career women. Forbes 30 under 30 designer, Carrie Hammer, used her Spring 2016 runway to portray talented industry leaders as sartorial guides to the career-driven. Under her slogan “Role Models, Not Runway Models” motto, female professionals from different fields such as Olympic figure skater to United Nations Communications and Advocacy Advisor took to the runway.

Rakia Reynolds, president of Skai Blue Media, and Gold Medalist Olympic Figure Skater Meryl Davis walk the Carrie Hammer Spring 2016 runway (Photos by Getty Images)
Rakia Reynolds, president of Skai Blue Media, and Gold Medalist Olympic Figure Skater Meryl Davis walk the Carrie Hammer Spring 2016 runway (Photos by Albert Urso/Getty Images)

 

Some designers turn to dramatic flair to convey their messages. Hood by Air’s used their Spring 2016 collections to comment on the modern obsession on uniform and airbrushed perfection. Their models walked with unblended contouring streaks as a reminder that beauty’s real charm resides in imperfections. According to an interview in Slate Dynamic Duo, Namilia’s ready to wear collection entitled “My Pussy, My Choice”, directly confronted the opposite sex at New York Fashion Week by displaying phallic images in ridiculous ways in order to downplay the power of masculinity.

Political leaning

If feminism isn’t your cup of tea, there’s always the political aspects that come through collections. Vivienne Westwood is strong proof that fashion can have a say in political issues. From supporting Scottish independence in her Spring 2015 London Fashion Week to her “Fair trial my arse!” commentary to prisoner incarceration at Guantánamo Bay.

Model shows Vivienne Westwood's SS15 Red Label collection. (Photograph by Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA 2)
Model shows Vivienne Westwood’s SS15 Red Label collection. (Photograph by Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA 2)

Sometimes the designers chose to reflect their commentary non-verbally through artistic representation. Marijuana legalisation in some American states comes across through the 60s and 70s inspired collections during Fashion Weeks. It isn’t a coincidence that the military trend never dies and is revived every few seasons. It does on some level acknowledge the level of violence globally and annually.

Cultural Commentary

Betsey Johnson used her Bridal Spring/Summer 2015 collection to celebrate nuptials in all its diverse forms. From drag queens and same sex couples to modern takes on weddings such as prenuptial-emblazoned crop tops and theatrical makeup, her ‘viva la modern bride’ rang loud and proud.

Betsey Johnson Bridal Spring/Summer 2015 collection (Images by Livio Valerio)
Betsey Johnson Bridal Spring/Summer 2015 collection (Images by Livio Valerio)

The Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t left out of the New York Fashion Week last September. Pyer Moss designer, Kerby Jean-Raymond, featured symbols that represented some of the extrajudicial killings by U.S. law enforcement’s of unarmed black people. Unfortunately, Jean-Raymond’s bold move cost him a long-term buyer. Even the controversial Kanye West used his ‘Yeezy season 3’ collection, launched at New York Fashion Week in February 2016, to pass a socio-political message. According to the Business of Fashion, the collection ‘prompted reflection on what is going on right now in the world outside fashion, in America’s streets, in the Middle East’s refugee camps and the Mediterranean’s migrant diaspora. The positioning of the models even drew influences from Pau Lowe’s 1994 image that was taken after the Rwandan genocide. Closer to home, South African designer Isabelle Lotter of SIESisabelle joined her voice to the university students that were calling for lower university fees. With her models carrying placards reading “#NationalShutdown”, “#FeesMustFall,” and “Education is our weapon” placards at South Africa Fashion Week in 2015  she called attention to a societal issue that was affecting disenfranchised youth looking to be empowered through education.

Artist Gregory Siff decorated the middle jacket with the words "Breathe, Breathe, Breathe" during the show (Courtesy of Pyer Moss)
Artist Gregory Siff decorated the middle jacket with the words “Breathe, Breathe, Breathe” during the show (Courtesy of Pyer Moss)

Environmental concerns

There are two forms of approaching this subject at Fashion Weeks. It can be from the ethics that the designer adopts in a collections creation process. Stella McCartney, for example, commits to never use animal products in a bid to champion animal rights and environmental protection. Rarely does she publicize the fact that she uses, ethical, biodegradable and recyclable products in her collections in publicity campaigns.

African brand, Lalesso, plays their part in protecting the environment by reducing their carbon footprint in their production process. The signature prints and resort wear brand designers, Alice Heusser and Olivia Kennaway, established a carbon free brand through carbon off setting companies. Olivia Kennaway told Fashion Business Africa, “Carbon off setting companies access your business and you as an individual…work out the average amount of carbon you emit into the environment based on transporting the goods, fabric and yourself. They give you a weight [which] has a cost. You then pay that amount and that goes directly towards planting trees, which will in turn absorb the carbon you are emitting.”

On the polar opposite, Fashion Weeks are used by the occasional gate-crashers to raise concerns in front of the millions of viewers. No one does this better than PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). It’s most recent demonstration being at the opening of London Fashion Week Fall 2016 earlier this year where three nearly nude models in gas masks protested against the use of fur.

Models Wear Gas Masks at London Fashion Week to Protest Fur (Image by PETA)
Models Wear Gas Masks at London Fashion Week to Protest Fur (Image by PETA)

So the next season when your media feed is flooded with Fashion week ad nauseum, take a beat before blocking it all out. Remember that it goes much further than just the basic needs to be clothed. It acts as a reflection and an expression of current state and aspirations of society. Sometimes crucial conversation and debate can get the attention it needs from a gown or shoes.

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