Burberry's AW19 collection 'Tempest'INSTAGRAM/BURBERRY

As September drifts into October, Fashion Month is coming to a close. Over the last four weeks, designers, models, editors and influencers have made their way from New York to London, to Milan and Paris, attending a never-ending series of runway shows, launch events and VIP parties.

Reflecting a turbulent political climate – as Tom Ford commented earlier this year, “you can’t escape the news” – recent seasons have seen the fashion industry more politicised than ever. Last year’s SS19 saw designers commenting on current events with slogans that included “Stop Calling 911 On The Culture”, which was directed by Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond; while Jeremy Scott concluded his show by taking a bow in a t-shirt reading, “Tell your senator NO on Kavanaugh”.

In February of this year, Vivienne Westwood’s runway put the politics for which she has become famed at centre stage, replacing models with activists like Rose McGowan and Greenpeace’s Executive Director, John Sauven. Somewhat pointedly, Ricardo Tisci debuted his second collection (“Tempest”) for Burberry by celebrating all things British, even as then-Prime Minister Theresa May struggled with a fresh round of Brexit negotiations, and Tom Ford kicked off New York Fashion Week with a pointed choice of music – Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” – weeks after Donald Trump’s State of the Union address.

“Recent seasons have seen the fashion industry more politicised than ever”

Spring/Summer 2020 was expected to be just as, if not more, political than its 2019 edition. But has it delivered?

New York Fashion Week began in the shadow of American politics. It had, as Business of Fashion put it, “a Trump problem.” The Washington Post had revealed in August that billionaire Steve Ross, a real estate developer and investor in NYFW’s primary venue at Hudson Yards, was to host a fundraiser for Donald Trump at his home in the Hamptons. In response, Rag & Bone and Prabal Gurung swiftly removed their shows from Hudson Yards, with Gurang releasing a damning statement on Twitter, targeting both Ross and the Trump administration. For Gurung, it was “no longer about party lines […] this is about choosing between two sides, the right or the wrong side of history.” The Nepalese-American designer, who has developed a reputation for being outspoken on political and social issues, followed this up with a provocative runway show that saw models dressed in sashes printed with the question “Who gets to be American?”, alluding to Trump’s controversial immigration policies. Through this, Gurung has done what few designers, and few people, dare to do: made beliefs concrete.

Dior's new initiative to acknowledge the origin of the 164 trees usedINSTAGRAM/DIOR

Aside from Gurung, however, there was little comment on Trump. Instead, designers turned inward, tackling problems in their own industry. In recent years, New York has put Europe to shame with their commitment to championing visibility and diversity, with models of all races, ages and sizes taking to the runway, and this was no different during its SS20 shows. Rihanna’s ‘Savage x Fenty’ show celebrated people of all shapes, sizes, identities and ethnicities, presenting an antidote in the extreme to the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and making the controversial event look more outdated than ever before. Meanwhile, luxury childrenswear brand Lulu et Gigi made headlines for their choice of nine-year-old double amputee Daisy-May Demetre to showcase their latest collection.

“London Fashion Week has a reputation for its politics, the city being one in which designers are able to stage protest on the runway in a way that the excesses of Milan or traditionalism of Paris don’t allow”

Across the Atlantic, London Fashion Week was once again caught up in British politics, the ever-present shadow of Brexit making this somewhat inevitable. And yet, while the British Fashion Council has been outspoken in its opposition to Brexit – warning earlier in the month that a no-deal Brexit could mean the loss of up to £900 million – there was little comment on the runway. The anti-Brexit sentiment that defined last season was confined to a single “Fuck Boris” t-shirt worn by Richard Malone this year.

Prabal Gurung's latest collectionINSTAGRAM/PRABALGURUNG

London Fashion Week has a reputation for its politics, the city being one in which designers are able to stage protest on the runway in a way that the excesses of Milan or traditionalism of Paris don’t allow – but with weeks until the EU deadline and amid increasingly charged rhetoric from Boris Johnson, British designers have fallen silent.

“With its shift away from slogan tees and speeches, Fashion Month seems have to marked a move from explicit to implicit statement, from protest to progress.”

While Brexit took a backseat, the climate crisis dominated both London and Milan, with designers and protesters considering the fashion industry’s environmental impact and responding accordingly. Veteran designer and activist Vivienne Westwood was conspicuous in her absence, rejecting Fashion Week in favour of a digital launch for her SS20 collection ‘No Man’s Land’. In a short film accompanying the digital lookbook, she explained, “The future is quality not quantity. Less is more sustainable.” Her sentiments were echoed by Miuccia Prada, opening Milan Fashion Week, who encouraged a rejection of trends in favour of style and spoke of her desire for simplicity and timelessness “in this moment where there is excess and too much.”

Marni’s show coincided with 20th September's Global Climate Strike, and while creative director Francesco Risso explained that he was not himself striking, significant parts of the show’s set and collection were, in spirit of the protest, created from recycled plastic bottles, mechanical pulp and archive fabrics. Similarly, the majority of the collection at M Missoni was produced from archive fabrics, Colville saw boat sails recycled into windbreakers, and Stella McCartney’s Paris collection was her most sustainable yet, using recycled polyester, organic cotton, regenerated cashmere, and handbags made of sustainable raffia or second-life plastics. McCartney, who after two decades of pushing for increased focus on sustainability and environmentalism from the fringes of the industry, has suddenly found herself an industry leader, also hosted a roundtable discussion with members of Extinction Rebellion and other activists the night before her show.

Christopher Kane's Ecosexual collectionINSTAGRAM/CHRISTOPHERKANE

With its shift away from slogan tees and speeches, Fashion Month seems have to marked a move from explicit to implicit statement, from protest to progress. It’s not perfect: Dior’s use of 164 trees in its set to celebrate biodiversity seems slightly lacking in the face of the climate crisis, and it seems more ironic than anything that Christopher Kane’s ‘Eco Sex’ collection, which intended for its florals and leafy prints to encourage its audience to “be in touch with the earth”, was not manufactured with sustainable production methods. Gucci, too, continued its series of missteps, with creative director Alessandro Michele making the highly questionable decision to dress several models in ensembles strongly resembling straitjackets. Model Ayesha Tan-Jones perhaps made Fashion Month’s most notable protest, holding up their palms on the runway to reveal their silent opposition to the outfit they had been dressed in: “Mental health is not fashion.”

“Protest will always have its place, but with a pervasive sense of time running out, designers seem to have got the message that we need more”


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There’s more to be done – that much is certain. Phillip Picardi was not wrong to call out “the hypocrisy of the elite”, to note that“true allyship and activism isn’t performative.” But if Fashion Month has shown anything, it’s that many designers aren’t going to perform anymore – they’re going to change. Instead of statements about sustainability, they’re changing production methods, scaling back collections, withdrawing from Fashion Week altogether. Instead of objectifying bodies, they’re celebrating them – and all bodies at that. Protest will always have its place, but with a pervasive sense of time running out, designers seem to have got the message that we need more, we need change, and we need it now.

Will it last? We’ll find out in February.

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