Brands are putting their money where their slogan tees are.
“Fuck Trump Fuck Trump Fuck Trump Fuc-”
The print on the dress keeps going, over and over, in bathroom graffiti script at a can’t-miss-it font size. Maybe the model wearing the dress felt the rage in that statement as she strutted down the runway during Fashion Week in New York last fall. Clearly the creators of the dress, from New York–based label R13, have some feelings about America’s current president. Or maybe it was just a calculated moment of IRL hashtag activism. Fashion is supposed to be a reflection of its times, and shouting angrily into the void is very 2017.
Across the past two Fashion Weeks—September 2016 and June 2017—we’ve seen Public School’s models wear hats and tops that read “Make America New York,,” Prabal Gurung tees with phrases like “Girls Just Want to Have Fundamental Rights,” and designer Robert Geller appear in a sweatshirt embroidered with a single supercharged word: “Immigrant.”
These cases are only a small sampling from a fashion world that’s been at least as politically engaged as you were during your freshman year of college. Dating back to last September, I counted 22 brands, including the likes of Dior and Jeremy Scott, that put a political message on a piece of clothing—and that doesn’t include the more than 80 brands involved in various projects like the CFDA’s #IStandWithPlannedParenthood or Business of Fashion’s #TiedTogether. (It also doesn’t include brands that made symbolic political gestures, like Mara Hoffman, who opened her show with leaders from the Women’s March. This is only brands that produced political items that could be sold for money, because those are the ones generating revenue directly from their “wokeness.”) “I’ve gotten the best reaction from my retail partners like Bergdorf, Saks, Neiman, Nordstrom,” Gurung told CNN about his politically charged collection.
And that, in a nutshell, is where the unease about woke-wear starts to creep in. We know that bringing awareness to struggle, gendered and racial, is valuable. We know that making activism engaging increases its power. We also know that fashion brands commodify trends—of any sort—in order to make money. In 2017, getting political is good business. But can these brands actually make a difference? I dug into who brought politics onto the runway, eager to see if the activism was more than terry-cotton deep.
If your gut reaction is to side-eye brands that trade in sloganized politics, you have valid reasons. We’ve seen Pepsi use Kendall Jenner to try to end police brutality, Audi attempt to talk about the gender wage gap, and Heineken squash transphobia with beer. Fashion, on the whole, tends to be a relatively progressive industry. I’m less prone to doubt the authenticity of the message. But I did anticipate a progress report littered with failures and incompletes. And yet many of the brands and designers flashing their politics are putting their money where their slogan tees are.
If you bought one of those many tees that publicly declared the good in your soul, its proceeds likely helped support a nonprofit. The ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the National Immigration Law Center were the most frequent benefactors of fashion-backed donations. Those organizations received support from Public School, Prabal Gurung, Robert Geller, Creatures of Comfort, Christian Siriano, Jonathan Simkhai, Milly, Alice + Olivia, plus the CFDA and Business of Fashion. Dior donated to Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation.
The CFDA’s campaign resulted in a $5,000 donation to Planned Parenthood and more than 103,000 impressions on social media. Business of Fashion made a $55,000 donation to the ACLU and the UN Refugee Agency. And while many designers declined to release specific figures, Robert Geller tells me that he raised just over $20,000 for the ACLU through sales of his “Immigrant” sweatshirts. (Geller sold the items on resale site Grailed, which matched the designer’s contribution.) Jonathan Simkhai’s Feminist AF tee made $25,285 for Planned Parenthood. (It’s worth noting that proceeds from R13’s aforementioned provocative dresses aren’t going to a nonprofit.)
So if the clothing looks cool, if the wokeness is well-informed, if the money is flowing to the right places—is there really a problem? Remaining apolitical as a brand or a corporation or even a person with a platform no longer feels viable anymore. Wouldn’t you rather know where brands stand on the political spectrum, rather than letting them proceed neutrally as the Taylor Swifts of the fashion world? Is it a sign of our flawed, freaked-out times that clothing brands are do-gooders? Definitely! Is it where we’re at right now? Also definitely. So when brands make these sorts of statements, it’s really great when they use their platform to raise money for organizations that help almost five million women or fight against the Muslim Ban.
That’s the excellent news. The still-good news is that even without some sort of money-raising component, organizations are still grateful for representation from brands. These items act as “walking billboards, and particularly nice ones,” says Caren Spruch, Planned Parenthood’s director of arts and entertainment engagement. Spruch says that the press Planned Parenthood gets from fashion’s involvement is invaluable in educating people who may not otherwise be familiar with the organization. “We haven’t seen all these people speak up before and use their platform for this cause,” says Spruch. “They helped us to reach new audiences around the entire country, if not around the entire world.”
Gypsy Sport designer Rio Uribe took a hard stance against brands that keep their politics to themselves. He toldAllure that ignoring politics and activism in the current climate “would be irresponsible,” and that brands have to support people and causes. Robert Geller, who donated money, says he doesn’t begrudge brands and designers who didn’t. “I do not think that anyone has a responsibility,” he tells me over e-mail. “I had this opportunity and was happy that it arose, but everyone should do what they feel is right.”