Washington is the destination of choice for 2017. Since the presidential inauguration, the immediately historic Women’s March on Washington and the annual March for Life have filled the National Mall in quick succession, to be followed by a March for Science, a Tax March, a Pride March and an Immigrants’ March. But amidst the red hats and the pointy-eared pink ones, a question remains: Where is fashion’s march on Washington?
Business interests are more often represented through conversing in the corridors of power than by chanting in the streets or posting on social media. At least two of fashion’s leading ladies, Diane von Furstenberg and Anna Wintour, did make strategic appearances during the campaign, and after the election some designers debated the ethics of dressing the female family members of a victor for whom they hadn’t voted. As large industries go, however, fashion is thin on the ground in terms of a comprehensive political agenda.
While lobbying expenditures are only one measure of influence, fashion barely registers in a summary of federal disclosure reports. Nike, at just over a million dollars, may be fashion’s biggest spender for 2016 and the only one in the seven-figure range. Indeed, it appears that among fashion-specific entities, the American Apparel & Footwear Association is one of only a few reporting expenditures of over half a million. Several organizations and companies in general retail sales or in cosmetics and personal-care products have more substantial lobbying budgets, but nothing like the tens of millions of the pharmaceutical or tech industries.
Fashion has not always been functionally invisible to Washington in the years between inaugural galas. In the early twentieth century, when the American industry consisted largely of manufacturing, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire shocked the nation, galvanized unions and led to extensive legal reforms. Frances Perkins, who personally witnessed the fire, later became Secretary of Labor and the first woman to hold a U.S. Cabinet position. Fashion’s periodic efforts to obtain intellectual property protection have been less successful, apart from jewelry and fabric designs, but the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s recent campaign drew widespread bipartisan attention and support.
Modern divisions within the industry pose a challenge, but not an insuperable barrier, to reestablishing an effective, unified voice. The growing class of creative designers will never see eye-to-eye with their copyists. There is general agreement, however, that fashion is a global industry. At a moment when a new administration is engaging in comprehensive restructuring of international policies, fashion needs its own shopping list.
Fashion’s deep-rooted globalism points to two topics in particular: tariffs and immigration. Approximately 97 percent of apparel and footwear purchased in the U.S. is manufactured overseas. While fast fashion and luxury items are often imported from different nations, they all cross borders to reach the American consumer — and proposals like a 20 percent border adjustment tax levied on imports but not exports could, if inexpertly crafted, have an immediate negative effect. Granted, the footwear feud that developed over the now-defunct TPP trade agreement highlighted divisions between companies that manufacture largely overseas and those that retain domestic manufacturing. The industry can agree, however, that reshoring all manufacturing immediately is neither logistically possible nor wise in terms of supporting economic stability elsewhere.
Immigration enhances the creativity and competitiveness of American fashion through personal roles, such as those of designers, executives, garment workers, models and editors, as well as diverse student bodies. Promoting Made in America isn’t feasible without a sufficient number of people willing and able to run the sewing machines. Like other developed countries, the U.S. can profit from advances in robotics and other technologies in the revitalization of manufacturing, but transition takes time and calls for shared expertise. Reform of visa categories may ultimately benefit fashion, but only if the industry is part of the conversation.
To claim a regular place at the negotiating table, even more important than investment of money or time is a proactive rather than reactive agenda that is reflective of the industry as a whole, as opposed to discrete segments. Incisive tweets and statement accessories can be an important part of public discourse, but fashion ultimately needs to draw from deeper wells of examination and expertise to advance a sustained strategic program.
Infrastructure investment, sustainability, health and safety, employment law, regulation of advertising, intellectual property, data privacy — even a partial list of policy changes and initiatives poised to affect the fashion industry is impressive. But so is fashion’s unacknowledged advantage: a First Family linked to the industry and aware of its economic significance. At the very least, Washington may stop using the f-word — frivolous — in reference to fashion, provided that we mount an intelligent virtual march of our own.
Professor Susan Scafidi teaches at Fordham and is founder of the Fashion Law Institute.