A Comprehensive Guide to the Protest Tees of New York Fashion Week
Alot has happened between September 2016 and February 2017. A reality-TV bulldozer became president of the United States, sparking one of the largest protests in the country’s history. He instituted a travel ban against seven Muslimmajority nations that invited more wide-sweeping protests at the nation’s airports. He antagonized allies. Eighteen million stand to lose health-care coverage if he moves forward with his campaign promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act. People are scared, and yet the show must go on. Or shows.
We’re talking about New York Fashion Week, where, like creatives in other industries, designers were faced with the challenge of how to continue with business as usual under these circumstances. For many, the answer was a familiar one: T-shirts bearing political messages.
Take Prabal Gurung, who sent models down the runway in soft-knit tees that declared “The future is female,” “I am an immigrant,” “Our minds, our bodies, our power,” “Revolution has no borders,” “Stronger than fear,” “Nothing more, nothing less,” “Awake,” and more.
“In the good old days, fashion was an escape and a fantasy, and all of that is gone. The world we live in is so uncertain, people are really taking to action,” designer Gurung, who was raised in Nepal, told Vanity Fair this week. “I think what fashion has is a responsibility to provide not an escape, but a reality. An optimistic reality.”
Gurung’s T-shirts were directly inspired by the Women’s March in New York, which he attended with hundreds of thousands of other people on January 21, less than a month before his runway show. “I feel like this country has given me an opportunity that no other country could do, and I owe it to this country,” he said, explaining the impetus for the shirts. “After creating this platform, that I speak up when I see there’s justice not being done, or when I feel like I can use my voice.”
“We’re a multi-billion-dollar business,“he added. “Not only is my position as a brand to make 90 percent of my clothes in New York, I’m an immigrant. I have a foundation back in Nepal that educates more than 200 children, from inmates’ children to streetworkers’ children. Yes, I make beautiful clothes and that brings me joy, but all these other things also bring me joy.”
His shirts pair well with action or, as he says, “I don’t just do T-shirts. I don’t just tweet. I do make an effort. I hope the next step is that people are actually getting their hands dirty and going to organizations that might need their help or the audience that they can share.”
Gurung says that the buyers of his T-shirts will eventually be able to choose between a couple of different organizations as recipients of the proceeds, though nothing has been made final yet.
The message tee’s presence on fall 2017 runways is a testament to how quickly things can change, and how the fashion industry’s pace puts it in a unique position to react and reflect the sentiment of its consumers. While designers by-and-large have leaned on subtle tools like texture, cut, and color to signal their collection’s point (all-white as a hat tip to suffragettes, for example, or purple as a symbol of cross-party conciliation), outright messaging seems to be the order of the day in the placard and protest era. Against fashion’s more subtle backdrop, a message T-shirt might seem like it’s screaming. But the models were already walking anyhow—might as well talk too.
Fashion activism spoke loud on this year’s NYFW runways.