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Should Fashion Brands Stand for Something More Than Sales?

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That’s the predicament facing fashion designers in the midst of the current political climate.

Some say politics don’t have a place in fashion, putting brands on blast for using political statements to sell clothes. Others argue that designers can’t ignore what’s happening outside their tiny bubble of frivolous fun and should shine a light on important issues.

“I have always believed that we, as designers, have a platform. We have an audience, even if it’s an audience of one,” said Prabal Gurung, speaking as part of a panel discussion titled “Fashion for a Cause” at last week’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit. “The conversation of change, of inclusion, all that stuff, is not one person’s conversation. For me it’s like a lifelong lesson. I don’t want it to be trending topic.”

The Nepalese designer has made no secret of his political leanings. He endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and actively campaigned for her. He attended the Women’s March in New York in January. He closed his Fall 2017 runway show with models wearing T-shirts emblazoned with empowering slogans, like “I Am An Immigrant,” “The Future is Female” and “Nevertheless She Persisted.”

And yet Gurung admitted that, if asked, he would dress First Lady Melania Trump.

“Knowing my own story as an immigrant coming from Nepal and chasing the American dream and realizing it—that was pretty much my storyline, that’s what the brand stands for—if the First Lady, knowing those brand values, still wants to be dressed by me, I’m going to assume she’s showing silent solidarity. And if that’s the case then I’ll dress her,” he said, noting that the same goes for Ivanka.

Moderator Simon Collins, founder of Fashion Culture Design, applauded Gurung’s “very smart answer,” adding, “In order to reach out to those people who don’t agree with you, you have to do something that makes you uncomfortable.”

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Pushing people outside their comfort zone was essentially the idea behind Public School’s Fall 2017 show.

“We’re from New York, our brand is based out of New York and everything that’s going on in the United States really hit home for us,” said designer Maxwell Osborne, who co-founded the label with Dao-Yi Chow in 2008.

The collection featured “Make America New York” hats and shirts, a nod to the city’s melting-pot culture as much as a play on Donald Trump’s infamous call-to-action, and various pieces printed with the mantra “We need leaders.” A narrow runway meant that attendees were forced to sit in extremely close quarters, potentially face to face with a rival retailer, buyer or editor.

“Of course you would find this bubble of liberalism in fashion in New York City during Fashion Week. Of course that’s a safe place for a lot of people. But we wanted to make it feel uncomfortable physically and conceptually,” Chow explained. “We can all be in this auditorium agreeing with each other and patting each other on the back and that won’t really get us anywhere. We have to be able to extend the conversation to people who might not necessarily agree with us.”

John Moore, co-founder of menswear brand Outerknown, agreed, recounting a conversation he and co-founder Kelly Slater had six months ago about the challenges around sustainability. At the time, the brand had launched an “It’s OK” slogan tee and someone had pointed out that it should be the opposite because they were always talking about how much hard work goes into being sustainable, which in turn led to a new campaign called “It’s Not OK.”

“We’re actually putting that message on products,” Moore said. “When we started it was really about the environment and a few other things that we wanted to bring awareness to and then the whole Trump thing happened and it became a rallying cry. With that, it’s not the happiest message but it also gets people thinking. What’s not okay? Then we can tell them about it.”

T-shirt activism might start a conversation but talk is cheap and real change requires something more tangible. That’s why the panelists donate money from the sale of their outspoken apparel to some of the non-profit organizations at risk of being defunded by the Trump administration.

“We ended up selling the hats after the runway show and 100 percent of the proceeds went to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union),” Osborne shared. “We weren’t even going to sell the hats but the demand was so high. That was about us using our voice.”

Similarly, Gurung will donate a portion of proceeds from the sale of his tees to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and Shikshya Foundation Nepal, the organization he co-founded to help educate underprivileged children in his home country. Outerknown will give 100 percent of profits from “It’s Not OK” sales to support the Ocean Conservancy’s mission to clean and protect the ocean.

By comparison, Inditex-owned Bershka is currently selling a slew of tees with messages like “There Is No Planet B,” “Girls Can Do Anything” and “We Are the Future of the World,” offering the illusion of activism and not much else.

“No matter what side you’re on, this is a time when human beings are coming together and I think that’s a powerful message,” Moore said. “Doing good feels good. It’s a pick-me-up. Do one thing better and you’ll want to keep doing it. I can feel that groundswell.”

Chow agreed: “It sounds cliché but the power is in the people and the power of the conversation. It can’t just be during these times. We can’t just have political conversations at the dinner table every four years.”