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Fashion weeks are about to start: Here's what we expect to see during a month of shows

Published 3rd September 2019
Climate activism group Extinction Rebellion have pledged to protest London Fashion Week.
Credit: Brais G. Rouco/Barcroft Media/Getty Images
Fashion weeks are about to start: Here's what we expect to see during a month of shows
Written by Emily Dixon, CNNLondon
There's a specter hovering over London Fashion Week: When the first show opens next Friday, the UK will be less than seven weeks away from its scheduled departure from the European Union. It's difficult to imagine Brexit not appearing, in some form, on the runway.
Environmental protest is all but guaranteed, too. The climate campaign group Extinction Rebellion has called for the total cancellation of London Fashion Week, describing it in a statement as a "parade of excess" that promotes destructive over-consumption. The group has pledged to stage "disruptive events," throughout the event's five days, culminating in a mock funeral to "put (London Fashion Week) to rest forevermore."
London isn't the only city of the "big four" fashion weeks facing controversy ahead of the September schedules. Labels Prabal Gurung and Rag & Bone have both canceled shows at New York Fashion Week (NYFW) over links between venue The Shed, in Hudson Yards, and billionaire Trump fundraiser Stephen Ross.
And all this during a year in which major fashion houses have faced accusations of racism, cultural appropriation and using offensive imagery -- from a Gucci sweater resembling blackface to a Burberry "noose" hoodie criticized both for its connotations of racist lynching and for glamorizing suicide.
Fashion weeks have never been apolitical. Recent decades offer countless examples of designers using runways to stage protests and challenge the status quo. But in what feels like an exceptionally divisive time for the industry and politics at large, could this be the most controversial fashion month yet?

Politicized runways

Much like art, fashion is influenced by -- and responds to -- the politics of the day.
As such, protests have always been a part of Fashion Weeks, from Katharine Hamnett meeting British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984 in a shirt reading "58% don't want Pershing" (a reference to a public poll on nuclear missiles) to Vivienne Westwood models wearing "Yes" badges at her SS15 London show in support of Scottish independence.
Katharine Hamnett meets former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street in an anti-nuclear missiles protest T-shirt
Katharine Hamnett meets former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street in an anti-nuclear missiles protest T-shirt Credit: PA Images/Getty Images
Politicized runways carry certain risks, however. Take Karl Lagerfeld's SS15 Chanel show in Paris, which featured Kendall Jenner carrying a sign reading, "Women's rights are more than alright," and Cara Delevingne lead feminist chants through a megaphone. Critics weren't convinced, pointing to Lagerfeld's long history of making disparaging comments about women.
"Runway shows are marketing exercises," said head of fashion at Dazed Digital, Emma Hope Allwood, over email. "And while it can be great if designers choose to use that media attention for good, when brands jump on social causes it can feel profit driven and insincere. It's a fine line."
Recent editions of NYFW have been especially charged. Last year, Prabal Gurung brought the #MeToo movement to the runway when models carried white roses, a symbol of the movement. And in Pyer Moss' SS19 show, clothes featured slogans like "Stop Calling 911 On The Culture," a reference to recent incidents of white people calling the police on black people for completely innocuous activities like sleeping in a college common room or waiting in Starbucks.
Models walk the runway for the Pyer Moss SS2019 show at New York Fashion Week.
Models walk the runway for the Pyer Moss SS2019 show at New York Fashion Week. Credit: ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images
That same week, Jeremy Scott took a bow at his SS19 show in a T-shirt reading, "Tell your senator no on Kavanaugh," in protest against Donald Trump nominating Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. And Trump's administration has been a fashion week talking point beyond the US -- at Missoni's Milan show in February 2017, models wore so-called "pussyhats" -- pink knitted hats designed in response to the president's comments about women.

Capturing the zeitgeist

Brexit has also been a talking point in previous editions of London Fashion Week. The British Fashion Council (BFC), which organizes London Fashion Week, has been vocal in its opposition to a no-deal Brexit, which it estimates could cost the fashion industry up to £900 million ($1.09 billion). A BFC survey held before the 2016 referendum found that 90% of British fashion designers supported remaining in the EU.
Designers have, unsurprisingly, already responded to the referendum result on the runway.
Take British designer Jenny Packham, who told Vogue that she was reexamining "what it means to be British" at NYFW in 2016 through biker jackets, tartan, pearls and punk. Or Ashish Gupta's SS17 show at London Fashion Week, which took the opportunity to celebrate Britain's diversity by drawing heavily on Indian garments, fabrics and jewelry.
"I was absolutely horrified by Brexit," Gupta told Refinery29 at the time. "It broke my heart. I just wanted to make a statement about it and celebrate this culture which is so beautiful and an integral part of life in this country."
Ashish's SS17 at London Fashion Week incorporated Indian design.
Ashish's SS17 at London Fashion Week incorporated Indian design. Credit: Catwalking/Getty Images
In light of this recent history, it seems almost inevitable that the coming month will produce runway protests of some form, according to Rhonda Garelick, dean of the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons.
"I have no doubt we will see a response to and a reflection of the current political climate on the runway," she said in a phone interview.
While Garelick added that "It's a mistake ... to look too literally at it as a barometer of specific politics," deputy editor of Fashionista.com, Tyler McCall, pointed to individual topics -- namely recent mass shootings and debates over border control -- that she thinks are likely to be referenced by designers in the US.
"I'd be surprised if there aren't at least a few designers who somehow note that at their shows," she said, while leaving open the possibility that other react in quite the opposite way.
"Sometimes, when things are rough, designers will retreat away from politics altogether as a form of escapism, so I do expect to see more of that this season," she said.

Diversity watch

As well as responding to outside controversies, the fashion industry has been creating its own. Beyond the aforementioned scandals, the past year has also seen a $790 Gucci turban that angered Sikh groups, Prada merchandise that resembled racist blackface imagery and a D&G ad that was criticized for its stereotyped portrayal of a Chinese model eating Italian food with chopsticks.
A number of legacy fashion houses have since appointed new councils and executives to champion diversity and equity. And Fashion Month observers will be watching closely to see what lessons -- if any -- labels have learned from the outrage caused.
Garelick expressed doubt that the root causes of high-profile fashion gaffes have been tidily resolved. "My real concern is that these fashion moments reveal the terrible rise in racism, nationalism, white supremacy and other noxious movements that are increasing globally," she said.
Meanwhile McCall believes that diversity appointments at brands like Prada and Gucci's were made too recently to affect this season's runways.
"My understanding of those roles is that they're meant to impact internal structures and company cultures," she explained in a phone interview, adding: "Of course, as you change a company's culture to become more naturally inclusive, I believe that does reflect in matters like casting choices. But that may take some time."
Yet, recent fashion months have seen a wide range of labels pushing for greater diversity on the runway, by rejecting the overwhelmingly white, cisgender, slim, ableist ideal the industry has long promoted. Through their casting choices and other creative decisions, designers have made potent statements about who fashion belongs to -- and who it has repeatedly excluded.
Kid Cudi walked in Louis Vuitton's menswear SS19 show, at Paris Fashion Week.
Kid Cudi walked in Louis Vuitton's menswear SS19 show, at Paris Fashion Week. Credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Men's artistic director at Louis Vuitton, Virgil Abloh, has continually cast black musicians like Kid Cudi, Playboi Carti, Octavian, A$AP Nast and Dev Hynes as models since his first runway show for the brand at Paris Fashion Week in June 2018.
His shows, as Callia Hargrove wrote in Teen Vogue, offer "hope to a whole community of black boys who may have never been able to imagine reaching that level of success in an industry that continuously borrows from their culture without giving anything back."
At last year's NYFW, Shanel Campbell cast all black models to debut her new collection, while recent fashion months have seen groundbreaking appearances by plus-size, hijabi, disabled, trans and pregnant models.
Last week's news that a 9-year-old double amputee will appear at NYFW, meanwhile, is a promising sign of what this season may hold.