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FASHION IS POLITICAL, SO WHY DOES FASHION WEEK CONTINUE TO IGNORE THAT?

Fashion should say something and be of service to someone. It should engage in a dialogue about the way our world works and how we must do better.

By Gloria Oladipo

I don’t understand the point of fashion week. 

I went to London Fashion Week for the first time. It was my adolescent dream realized, to be the cool girl with the exclusive passes, making her way into fashion week shows that her Black ass didn’t “belong” at. I was geeked and brought along my dear friend and associate, Amber, who acted as my photographer. We rubbed elbows with models. We clowned around. We interviewed celebrities. We got free swag bags, booze, and other accessories that come with rich people events. I still don’t get the point. 

I know why I love fashion. Fashion is supposed to be a progressive, alternative art form. Clothing, accessories, shoes, and other puzzle pieces of the fashion industry act both as an art and a craft. They are meant to be beautiful and surreal while also being utilitarian in purpose. That’s why (theoretically) fashion is able to quickly send messages about the way our world operates and how we as citizens need to act accordingly. Take streetwear, for example. The trademark baggie pants and tracksuits of streetwear was a fashion statement popularized by the hip-hop generation; As summarized in an article by Najma Sharif for Bitch Media, baggie clothing as a fashion trend was for “those of us who were making statements out of baggy jeans because we had to wear ill-fitting hand me downs” (a quote from Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion by historian Tanisha C. Ford). The tracksuit’s popularity also grew out of Black hip-hop artists marketing their own clothing brands after being unable to broker partnerships with brands who refused to invest in Black artists. Hence, streetwear represents a new political phenomenon of Black people creating their own opportunities in fashion and pop culture as well as an accessible form of dress. 

Fashion, at its best, is supposed to be political. Like any great art, it needs to have something to say. It needs to be of service to someone, engage in a dialogue about the way our world works and how we must do better. Unfortunately, I don’t know how those discussions can take place given the limitations of fashion and the racist, capitalistic, fatphobic systems it currently participates in.  

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Attending London Fashion Week for the first time, I was excited about the shows and demonstrations I would see. It was right after the United Kingdom had made the decision to exit the European Union because of their xenophobic and racist concerns regarding immigration. I was curious about how presenting fashion brands based in Hong Kong would interpret the protests taking place there and the government’s abuse towards dissenters (a number of designers give nods to themes of revolution, youth, cultural pride, and dissent). I was interested in how questions of sustainability would be answered, especially given the escalating nature of the global climate crisis. Unfortunately, fashion and mainstream, celebrated designers continue to be infatuated with the pomp and circumstance of exclusionary traditions rather than the political questions that remain. 

Of course, there are shows that will rise above and attempt to challenge the inaccessibility fashion demands. Shows like Sabirah by Deborah Latouche, a collection of modest wear, are an attempt to create space for different kinds of beauty within the fashion industry. Moreover, What’s The T by designer Taylor Bystrom used fashion to demand the fashion industry and society to humanize, protect, and love trans people and their experiences. Young designers of the Jaded Life Collective came together to display their designs, both a love letter to youthfulness and a eulogy for an increasingly depressive world. However, fashion as an industry, especially during the exclusionary practices of fashion week, is still regressive. A set number of tickets are reserved for industry elites and the press who are expected to write banal reviews of shows compared to challenging the woes of fashion (the fact that fat models aren’t a mainstream existence, the fact that Black culture is stolen and remarked by white designers as “exciting” and “innovative”). 

Pieces that are economically inaccessible are lauded for the environmentally sustainable impact, for being the change within the industry (even though poor people have been sustainable through our underconsumption and our ability to creatively reuse and recycle). Spaces are created for wealthy white brands and wealthy white publications to self-congratulate themselves while true innovators—those who use fashion to call-out, question, and demand—have to pay exorbitant prices to be included in showcases, quietly tucked away from the main event of the catwalk. Fashion week reminds me of an intro humanities course; the “students” (brands, press, industry elites) are asked to do so little while piggybacking off of each others’ ideas in a violent setting like the university (or the fashion industry). And moreover, when Fashion Week could be so incredible, so innovative, so exciting, many brands shut their doors to the public, insulating their collections from those who aren’t worthy enough (read: rich enough) to be invited.

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I’m not sure what the purpose of Fashion Week is. What can we demand from an event that still takes place in the parasitic nature of the fashion week? Nothing? What does it mean for a brand to be innovative and groundbreaking but still only allow mostly the wealthy and white into their events? What does it mean for a brand to be sustainable but present their ideas about climate change within the opulence and overconsumption of fashion? Even more so, what should I expect from fashion week events silently take place next to overt displays of racism masquerading as art? While naivety would be preferable in this case (who doesn’t like free booze, pizza, and gifts?), revolutionary practices can’t take place against the backdrop of oppression. Even as fashion grows more “diverse” and lightly challenges maltreatment happening in the status quo, if it still takes place in a problematic industry that is the fashion world at large, then it isn’t really doing much of anything. So, still, I just don’t get the point. 

Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a sophomore at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @glorels. 

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