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At the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Designers Discuss the Nuance of Making Political Statements

Prabal Gurung, Dao-Yi Chow, Maxwell Osborne and more spoke to moderator Simon Collins about how the current climate has changed what it means to participate.
Dao-Yi Chow, Maxwell Osborne and John Moore on the "Fashion for a Cause" panel at the 2017 Copenhagen Fashion Summit. Photo: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Dao-Yi Chow, Maxwell Osborne and John Moore on the "Fashion for a Cause" panel at the 2017 Copenhagen Fashion Summit. Photo: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

In the current political landscape, people are using whatever platform they have to make a statement, be it social media or blogs or demonstrations. Designers and brands, too, have become more political in their work, and at Thursday's Copenhagen Fashion Summit (CFS), that action was a recurring topic throughout the day. In the panel discussion "Fashion for a Cause," Simon Collins, founder of Fashion Culture Design and ex-dean of the Fashion School at Parsons, sat down with Public School's creative directors Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, designer Prabal Gurung and John Moore of Outerknown to further explore fashion's role in culture, however political that may be.

The Danish Fashion Institute-backed CFS, now in its fifth year, is the fashion industry's foremost conference on sustainability, where company leaders, sustainable officers, designers and influencers from around the world meet at Copenhagen's impressive concert hall to discuss the current state of sustainability and the footprint fashion is leaving on the world. It was a fruitful and interesting day filled with inspirational panels, with "Fashion for a Cause" coming as a much-needed energy boost late in the afternoon. (As the four charismatic and stylish Americans came to the stage, Simon noted to the audience's amusement that "here comes the boy band.")

Although designers like Vivienne Westwood have been on a political mission for years, both on and off the runway, politics was a particularly hot topic at the fashion weeks this season — especially following the inauguration of Donald Trump in January. On the Fall 2017 runways, we saw feminist statements at Dior and pink pussy hats at Missoni; at Gurung's Fall 2017 show, models sported T-shirts with statements that included "The Future Is Female" and "I Am an Immigrant;" at Public School, sweatshirts and caps came emblazoned with "We Need Leaders" and "Make America New York." 

On the panel, Osborne elaborated on Public School's statements. "Us being a small brand, our only voice is using our brand," he said. "We ended up selling the hats after the show and 100 percent of the proceeds went to the ACLU." But it's not just during fashion week that labels are getting involved: Outerknown, not active on the runway at NYFW, is a company with a core around sustainability and have also produced T-shirts stating, "It Is Not Okay," with proceeds benefitting the Ocean Conservancy. Another T-shirt — reading "Tides Turn. We Rise." — was created to raise awareness about climate change; Moore revealed that the product was set in production the day before the inauguration.

Sitting at the conference, there was a strong sense of unity in both the audience and speakers around the designers' various causes, and you could tell from the perfectly timed cheers and applause that we all felt (and feel) the same regarding a sustainable world and a sustainable fashion industry. Both Collins and Chow agreed on the fact that you will have to do something uncomfortable to reach people with whom you don't agree. Public School discussed how they went so far to create a concept and set design for their show in February to make sure that their point came across in the otherwise liberal fashion industry; the runway was considerably small, so the guests, some of whom were competitors, would sit close together face-to-face to make it feel uncomfortable.

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Simon Collins and Prabal Gurung. Photo: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Simon Collins and Prabal Gurung. Photo: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

But does activism come at a price? Osborne and Chow only experienced negative feedback from some users on social media who were of the opinion that it is not the designers' place to take a stand in the political debate. Gurung, meanwhile, noted that although sales from the T-shirts were benefitting causes such as ACLU and Planned Parenthood, he was accused of copying Dior's now-ubiquitous "We Should All Be Feminists" tee. He thanked Maria Grazia Chiuri and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (who used the same phrase as the title for her Ted talk), adding: "The conversation of change and inclusion is not one person's. You continue forward. For me it’s a lifelong message. I don't want it be a trending topic." Chow, for his part, agreed. "It sounds pretty cliché, but the power is in the people," he said. "And the conversation needs not only to start with us, but continue with us. We can't just have political conversations at the dinner table every four years."

The current situation stateside reminds Collins of the UK in the late-'70s and early-'80s under Margaret Thatcher. There was a large anti-Thatcher movement which, in music, gave rise to punk rock and the New Romanticism movement and allowed for a very prolific period in pop culture. How can the current political state of affairs give rise to a similar change? 

"The uncertainty of the future is kind of like a positive thing," said Osborne. "Everything is being shaken up — in fashion weeks, from where brands show, how they show and what they are designing. The rules are now changing. And that's the best time to grow and break out of the traditional mindset." While designers reacting through design is just one example, Moore from Outerknown commented: "Regardless of what side you're on, this is a time when human beings are coming together and I think that is a really powerful message. Doing good feels good. It's addictive."

A common sense of responsibility came of out the panel discussion — that each designer, each person, all has a responsibility to leave a positive mark on the world by sustaining a brand, focusing on political topics and utilizing whatever platform is at your disposal. In one of the closing remarks, Moore summed up the whole panel debate perfectly: "Be the change you want to see in the world."

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