The fashion industry has come under increasing pressure to be as politically correct and “woke” as possible in recent years, but some designers have had enough and are speaking out against social “tyranny.”
Scandals have rocked the fashion world, with brands like Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Prada, and Saint Laurent all coming under fire for varying social sins; too sexy, too racist, too white, too colonial, too skinny, too much cultural appropriation. Too much sensitivity?
“Demagogic political correctness has become a kind of tragic tyranny of the literal,” Hedi Slimane of luxury French brand Celine said in an interview last month. Slimane described the movement as “disguised neo-conservatism” and said “it feels [like] tolerance has switched sides.”
Admittedly, some of the fashion industry’s biggest controversies have been avoidable and self-inflicted. D&G, for instance, should have been able to predict the backlash at having an Asian woman clumsily attempt to eat pasta and spaghetti with chopsticks. Gucci could also have anticipated the uproar sparked over its “blackface” sweater this year.
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But the demands go much further than simply avoiding outright racism. Some have called for racial quotas on the catwalks. Others have called for more body shapes and sizes to be represented in “real” fashion shows.
Brands have faced uproar online for expressing the ‘wrong’ political views; D&G, for example, felt the wrath of the ‘Resistance’ when it endorsed Melania Trump as a #DGWoman in 2017. Then there’s Saint Laurent, which was slammed for its apparently overly sexy ads, dubbed “porno chic.”
Slimane’s fashion at Celine has been described by the Financial Times as “super-skinny and near exclusively white.”
In this culture war, it seems there are two camps, those who believe fashion has a deep responsibility to espouse the edicts of modern liberal society, always furthering the ‘correct’ political causes with slogans and awareness campaigns, and those who believe that fashion should be more frivolous and, similar to comedy and art, should not be afraid to offend or find itself constrained by the boundaries of modern political correctness.
Saint Laurent’s Anthony Vaccarello told AFP on the eve of Paris fashion week that a “witch-hunt atmosphere” has taken over the industry, making it “impossible” to even have an opinion that goes against the mainstream.
Indeed, there’s even a full-time Instagram watchdog account just waiting to pounce on any brand that makes an unacceptable fashion faux pas or political misstep. Dubbed “the most feared Instagram account in fashion,” by Business of Fashion, Diet Prada was founded by Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler and began with the goal of calling out copycat designs in the industry.
Yet, Diet Prada quickly appointed itself arbiter of right and wrong in the fashion world and now polices the industry for real or perceived sexism, racism, and cultural appropriation. The account boasts 1.6 million followers and while some hail the founding duo as modern-day heroes, others say they are promoting censorship.
Right or wrong, Diet Prada fits perfectly into the “cancel culture” world where one professional misstep or questionable comment made ten years ago can threaten to ruin a public figure’s career today.
Dior was recently forced to pull an ad for its ‘Sauvage’ perfume which featured Native Americans performing a traditional dance. Critics jumped on the brand, accusing it of promoting the idea that Native Americans are “savages” only to discover that ‘sauvage’ in French actually means “wild.”
The outrage police also accused the brand of “cultural appropriation” and harmful stereotyping. The ad only survived a few hours on social media before Dior chopped it. Diet Prada called it “triggering imagery.”
So, is all of this PC pressure stifling creativity and innovation? Italian fashion journalist Angelo Flaccavento recently slammed the suffocating nature of these “violently moralistic times” which he said are “destroying freedom of expression and invention.”
He is clearly not alone in his assessment. More and more fashion industry figures are daring to challenge the liberal authoritarianism of the mainstream. “You can’t say or do anything anymore,” Richard Rene of Guy Laroche told AFP after his show last week during Paris fashion week.
Not everyone feels totally stifled by the demands of these woke times, however.
Some brands have capitalized on the latest social trends. Michael Kors, Coach, Chanel, Gucci, and Burberry, among others, have all gone fur-free. Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood have also won fans for their eco-conscious stances and promotion of climate activism. McCartney even hosted a roundtable discussion on climate change before her recent Paris show.
Westwood’s husband and design partner, Andreas Kronthaler, told AFP that he includes male models in all his shows because men “can be just as beautiful as women in a dress.” Meanwhile, male model Leon Dame became a viral internet meme after he dramatically strutted down the catwalk in black shiny high-heeled boots last week.
That kind of thing might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s the point really, isn’t it?
Each fashion statement does not need to be universally loved and appreciated by everyone. While woke, eco-conscious, liberal designers will appeal to some, others will be drawn to the anti-PC types who take bigger social risks.
That’s diversity, after all.
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