Why fash­ion in­dus­try must speak out on race

Fash­ion has be­come a stealth weapon for white su­prem­a­cists.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - INSIGHT - By Robin Givhan

Fash­ion has been weaponized. And the fash­ion in­dus­try has been all but silent.

In the days since white su­prem­a­cists marched in Char­lottesville and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump as­serted that some “very fine peo­ple” walked shoul­der-to-shoul­der with them, cor­po­rate CEOs have is­sued state­ments of protest and bolted from White House panels. Artists fled the Pres­i­dent’s Com­mit­tee on the Arts and the Hu­man­i­ties, and three of the five Kennedy Cen­ter Hon­ors re­cip­i­ents said they might skip the tra­di­tional White House pre-gala re­cep­tion, prompt­ing the pres­i­dent and first lady to can­cel it.

Law­mak­ers have con­tra­dicted the pres­i­dent over his re­marks, late-night co­me­di­ans have de­liv­ered scathing com­men­tary, and prom­i­nent ac­tors and ath­letes have ex­pressed out­rage.

But the fash­ion in­dus­try has said very lit­tle.

Sev­enth Av­enue’s fa­vorite soap­box, In­sta­gram, has been dom­i­nated by ad­ver­tis­ing pitches, fall mer­chan­dise and va­ca­tion snapshots. Buried in the glo­ri­ous pho­tog­ra­phy of shoes and hand­bags, a few de­sign­ers posted state­ments about love. Bar­neys New York quoted Martin Luther King Jr. Diane von Fursten­berg’s states­man of choice was Nel­son Man­dela by way of for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

But it was the rare stylist or de­signer, such as Jef­frey Banks and Kerby Jean-Ray­mond, who men­tioned the pres­i­dent un­bid­den or spoke di­rectly to the issue of white na­tion­al­ism.

Notably, there was noth­ing for­mal from fash­ion’s lead trade or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Coun­cil of Fash­ion De­sign­ers of Amer­ica.

“We never con­sid­ered a state­ment di­rectly in re­sponse to Char­lottesville,” wrote the CFDA’s pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive, Steven Kolb, in an email. “We are con­tin­u­ing our com­mit­ment to civic re­spon­si­bil­ity and will be an­nounc­ing news on a fash­ion week cam­paign we started plan­ning weeks ago ... that will touch on this.”

Not every in­dus­try needs to make a pub­lic state­ment with every turn of the news cy­cle. And few mem­bers of the pub­lic have been stand­ing by breath­lessly won­der­ing: What does Michael Kors think of Char­lottesville? What does J. Crew have to say?

Still, the fash­ion in­dus­try is

an­chored by large pub­lic com­pa­nies that carry just as much cul­tural clout as any ath­lete or ac­tor. Many fash­ion brands have built their busi­nesses on the mythic melt­ing pot of the Amer­i­can Dream. Fash­ion owes an es­pe­cially large debt to those com­mu­ni­ties tar­geted by white su­prem­a­cists: De­sign­ers reg­u­larly draw artis­tic in­spi­ra­tion from com­mu­ni­ties of color. Some of fash­ion’s ear­li­est and most in­flu­en­tial mer­chants and ed­i­tors have been Jewish. And the in­dus­try has ben­e­fited greatly from the cre­ativ­ity and in­ge­nu­ity of those who iden­tify as LBGT.

Why wouldn’t fash­ion speak up? Es­pe­cially now that fash­ion has be­come a stealth weapon for white su­prem­a­cists. Neo-Nazis have bought into fash­ion’s abil­ity to cam­ou­flage, dis­tract, em­bolden, re­as­sure, flat­ter and, quite sim­ply, lie.

In the mul­ti­tude of im­ages from Char­lottesville, the race-bait­ing pro­test­ers are decked out in white polo shirts and khakis. Oth­ers are wear­ing neat jeans, but­ton-down shirts, cargo shorts. They are wear­ing jeans and striped pullovers that look like they could have come from the sale rack at a lo­cal Gap.

Some of the at­tire is brand spe­cific: Fred Perry golf shirts, for in­stance. That com­pany, along with New Bal­ance ear­lier in the year, is­sued a state­ment de­nounc­ing the white su­prem­a­cists who’d de­clared a fond­ness for their prod­ucts.

But the rel­e­vance of fash­ion in the con­ver­sa­tion about racial ha­tred goes well beyond any par­tic­u­lar brand. For an ob­server cog­nizant of the in­ter­nal sym­bols and vis­ual lan­guage of white su­prem­a­cists, there was a lot to read: neo-Nazi, Proud Boy, skin­head, al­tright. But for the unini­ti­ated, the style of dress was un­re­mark­able. This wasn’t a crowd filled with white robes and hoods.

The pro­test­ers rec­og­nized the power of fash­ion’s vis­ual lan­guage, and they em­braced it. More than one young re­cruit tak­ing his first ten­ta­tive steps into white na­tion­al­ism has re­counted the de­light — and per­haps re­lief — in find­ing that these con­spir­a­tors in hate look so nor­mal. They look like any 20-some­thing or 30-yearold with their short-on-the­sides, long-on-the-top hair­cuts, their skinny suits, and hood­ies and base­ball caps.

Fash­ion has al­ways helped peo­ple cre­ate the pub­lic per­sona of their choice. That ex­te­rior may have lit­tle to do with what is in a per­son’s heart or mind — or what is said be­hind closed doors or in the shad­ows. It’s sim­ply their pub­lic nar­ra­tive. In the past, those sto­ries have in­cluded women re­ly­ing on the power suit to help make nav­i­gat­ing a male-dom­i­nated busi­ness world a lit­tle bit eas­ier.

Dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties have used fash­ion to draw the me­dia spot­light and am­plify their voice. The full potential of gen­der-neu­tral fash­ion and the way it is shap­ing our un­der­stand­ing of sex­u­al­ity is yet to be mea­sured.

The glory of fash­ion is in its abil­ity to make us feel as though we be­long.

White su­prem­a­cists are mov­ing through com­mu­ni­ties cloaked in the most mun­dane, ba­nal kind of fash­ion. Clothes that do not in­spire a dou­ble-take. Clothes that are ac­cept­able and ap­pro­pri­ate. Clothes that make them look like they be­long. And the fash­ion in­dus­try has yet to tell them that they do not.


White su­prem­a­cists march at the University of Vir­ginia in Char­lottesville on Aug. 12. The pro­test­ers were decked out in polo shirts and khakis. Oth­ers are wear­ing neat jeans and but­ton-down shirts. They wore striped pullovers that look like they could have come from the sale rack at a lo­cal Gap writes Robin Givhan.

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