2020 has been a doozy of a year—from the COVID-19 pandemic to politics, race relations, horrendous fires, tropical storms and scorching temperatures. These issues throughout the year have affected all of us. Throughout most of history and especially during trying times, fashion has traditionally played a dual role.
For many, elements within our wardrobes can be stabilizing features of our daily lives. Think of the comfy sweatshirt that never lets you down or the dress that, no matter how you are feeling, will always give you a boost. Yet, at the same time throughout difficult periods, fashion has played the role of voicing the zeitgeist of the era. It seems that right now, more-thoughtful fashion is back in style. Exploring how some designers and brands are navigating this moment without losing their design DNA and becoming lost in the message can provide an important lesson for all of us.
Whether it is politics or race relations, some brands have landed on thoughtful or thought-provoking imagery within their fashion brands and allowed their collections to deliver a directive. But this is where things can get tricky and the authenticity of the statement becomes of utmost importance.
Because social media has grown to become so important in the marketing, selling and promotion of fashion, it is understandable that many designers and brands have decided to attach themselves to the latest cause or movement in order to further their brands’ identity. And while you can’t blame a company for trying to keep its name in the limelight, if the message is not authentic, then today’s social-media army, with a keen eye on social correctness, will chew you up and spit you out like last season’s rejects. Time and time again, we have witnessed brands being decimated by Twitter and Instagram followers as they attempted to post about inclusivity and diversity only to be revealed as not being quite so thoughtful in their own business practices.
With some designers, it has become part of their DNA to be social advocates with their designs. Case in point: Christian Siriano. Christian is known for his all-inclusive collections and was one of the very first apparel companies to transition his entire workroom into creating thousands of masks at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic instead of continuing to design glamorous gowns. Recently, during New York Fashion Week, he showed dresses entirely covered in the word “Vote,” with matching face masks. No one batted an eyelash because it did not seem forced—just the opposite, it was almost expected of him to create these politically conscious designs, albeit in gown form.
Just because you may be a “glam-only” designer does not mean you cannot be socially and politically thoughtful. Southern California designer Natalia Fedner, known for her sexy custom, sequined-mesh designs worn by A-list celebrities, has some fabulous face masks that display the word “Vote,” and, yes, they are made in sequined mesh. The L.A.-based Emmy Award–winning costume designer Perry Meek, who never met a rhinestone and paillette he did not like, has face masks with bedazzled politically conscious messages that can be programmed through a cell phone.
Some designers are bringing this message along with their fashions through organizations such as Fashion Our Future 2020. Founded by Abrima Erwiah, co-creator of Studio 189, and actor Rosario Dawson, FOF was created with the hope of bringing awareness to voting through fashion. Its creative director, Virgil Abloh, of Off-White and Louis Vuitton menswear, have brought in many fashion designers, including Marc Jacobs and Brandon Maxwell, to create items especially for Fashion Our Future in the hopes of raising voter awareness.
In these times, it is important for fashion to be involved and not just by a single supportive post on social media. Fashion and what one wears always send a message. Sometimes it is obvious and other times it is circuitous, but now more than ever it is essential for designers to be genuine and consistent in the messaging and directive. With some designers, this is easier to accomplish than it is for others. Being careful not to let the message overtake the brand’s style identity can be a hurdle that is hard to overcome. People might remember the message and not the brand and, ultimately, whether that message aligns with the designer’s true identity. For fashion designers, mixing strong of-the-moment statements with style can be a comfortable or tricky road to navigate. My advice is that if it comes naturally—be thoughtful!