A protester at the Dior spring 2021 show.

PARIS At the end of the Dior fashion shown in Paris last September, a woman got up from the audience and walked down the runway carrying a yellow banner painted with the words “We Are All Fashion Victims.”

Maria Grazia Chiuri, creative director of women’s collections at Dior, frequently uses her runway as a platform for feminist slogans, such as “Patriarchy = Repression.” Was this a way to question the meaning of the fashion system during the coronavirus pandemic?

“You couldn’t tell if it was part of the show or not,” Sidney Toledano, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH Fashion Group, commented afterward. As it turned out, the protester was a member of climate action group Extinction Rebellion, which had previously disrupted London Fashion Week with a series of demonstrations.

The moment illustrated the extent to which fashion and activism have become entwined in a year marked by widespread upheaval, from the global lockdowns designed to curb the spread of COVID-19, to the Black Lives Matter protests and a divisive U.S. presidential election. 

“Fashion as activism was stronger than ever in 2020,” fashion search engine Lyst said in its “Year in Fashion 2020” report. “From shopping Black-owned businesses to Michelle Obama’s famous ‘Vote’ necklace, clothes and accessories expressed views on social and political issues.”

Benjamin Simmenauer, professor at the Institut Français de la Mode, said the Dior incident could be seen as a watershed moment. “It wasn’t the first time a fashion show was disrupted by a protester, but it was the first time that people were not sure what they’d seen,” he remarked.

He noted that until recently, luxury brands generally refrained from getting involved in political and social issues. “Once they take a stance, it reverberates,” he said. “If the show itself can take the form of a militant protest, how can you justify excluding a real activist from the event?”

Speaking two months later, Chiuri appeared to bear no grudge against the gate-crasher. “I would have liked to meet her, because I’m very interested in her point of view. I think it’s true: what she wrote is not so strange,” she said, adding that the protester vanished after the show. 

“I think the whole system has understood that it has to participate, to be more cautious about what we do with what we produce, how much we consume,” Chiuri said. The difficulty, she added, is how to move toward a more sustainable pace of production while preserving the thousands of jobs along the fashion supply chain. “I’m no hypocrite. We are in a capitalist world, and it’s not easy to change,” she reflected. 

When Chiuri joined Dior in 2016, she was the first woman to take the design reins in the history of the French fashion house. From her first show, she made her values clear by sending out a T-shirt with the message “We Should All Be Feminists.” Since then she has consistently promoted female creatives, and the brand’s sales have soared.

“For me, feminism is super important. I speak in a particular way from a point of view of women, because it is something that is more close with my personal story,” Chiuri said.

A still from Virgil Abloh’s first ad campaign for Louis Vuitton

A still from Virgil Abloh’s first ad campaign for Louis Vuitton.  Courtesy Photo

The same can be said of Virgil Abloh, who in 2018 was named men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton, becoming one of the highest-profile Black designers in the industry. The Off-White founder has used the platform to promote a message of diversity and inclusion, starting with his first Vuitton show, staged on a rainbow-colored catwalk.

“Different ethnicities being accepted within, and allowed the opportunity to shine within fashion or within creative industries, is my story to a T,” he said. “That’s where I come from. It was and is still the uphill battle that I face, and I want the younger generation to have an easier path to do the same type of work that I do.” 

LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the parent company of Dior and Louis Vuitton, was among the first major luxury groups to give their creative directors the freedom to speak about issues like racism and misogyny. Abloh said LVMH chairman and ceo Bernard Arnault and his executive teams deserved credit for being forward thinking.

“I really take my hat off to them for being brave enough to make that decision in an era that was very different from 2020. It shows their intention and shows how they were thinking in 2017, which is when I was having that conversation. It’s not because it’s the mood of the day today,” he said. “From the first show, they gave me free rein.”

Julie Hardy, partner at brand tech firm You & Mr Jones, said companies began the switch to purpose-driven messaging in the Eighties, with slogans like Nike’s “Just Do It” replacing traditional product-centric campaigns. With the advent of social media, consumers have become powerful advocates for change, holding companies ever more accountable for their actions.

“Gen Z were the first to ask the question, ‘What more can a brand bring to society?’ They no longer believe in politics or religion, but they recognize that brands and companies have a role to play that previously, they were not expected to play,” she said. “In response to this need for radical transparency and these new expectations, brands have been required to engage with activists.”

That has been accentuated by the dramatic events of 2020. “Fashion brands have a responsibility to reflect the times,” said Simmenauer. “If they don’t do that, they are not fulfilling their purpose.” 

Bethany Williams RTW Spring 2021

Bethany Williams RTW Spring 2021  Ruth Ossai / Courtesy of Bethany Williams

A survey of European consumers conducted by market research company Forrester in May found that after their experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, 51 percent of respondents said they will go out of their way in the next 12 to 24 months to buy from brands that are committed to reducing their impact on the environment. 

A further 50 percent said they would pick companies that find ways to help their local communities, and 49 percent stated they would favor brands that prove that they treat their employees well. 

“Price is still key, obviously, but the preference on these elements has increased,” Thomas Husson, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, told a recent webinar held by data research firm Launchmetrics. 

“And it’s not just consumers who are willing to give meaning to their purchases. Employees too strive for meaning. They want to understand how they contribute to the broader customer experience, and more importantly, they want to give meaning to their daily jobs,” Husson added.

“It’s increasingly about closing the gap between brand, customer and employee experiences. You cannot say one thing to a category of stakeholders, of shareholders, or one thing to customers and one other thing to employees. You need to make sure that everyone is aligned,” he said. 

“The challenge is to move from storytelling to story-making, and to simply do what you say, or as my American colleagues often say, to walk the talk. Because if you don’t, you’re going to get exposed to social backlash, and there is a risk of a boomerang effect,” Husson warned. “It really matters to the point that the value of the brand could be destroyed if you don’t pay attention to this.” 

Among the brands that have felt the heat this year are Boohoo, which was rocked by a scandal over sweatshop working conditions and dodgy financial practices within its British supply chain; Everlane, which was accused by former employees of union-busting, and Reformation, which faced allegations of racism that led to the departure of founder Yael Aflalo in June.

Countless other brands have risen to the challenge, whether by producing emergency supplies of face masks and hand sanitizer; donating funds to the BLM movement, supporting Black-owned businesses and providing scholarships, mentorship and opportunities to Black students, or producing vote-themed merchandise to mobilize people in the U.S. election.

The Los Angeles Apparel facility has produced more than 100,000 non-medical masks.

The Los Angeles Apparel facility has produced more than 100,000 non-medical masks.  Michael Buckner/WWD

“Brands that weren’t doing this kind of thing before did not suddenly switch strategy in 2020,” said Simmenauer. “But what we did see was that those who already had strong commitments reinforced this positioning. That’s why it has emerged as a strong trend.”

Prabal Gurung, who describes his New York-based label as “a luxury brand with a soul,” donated more than 10,000 masks to hospitals, clinics, shelters and food banks, in addition to partnering with organizations including The Bail Project, When We All Vote, Planned Parenthood, the CDC Foundation and Gold House. 

“This year, and time spent in quarantine, offered everyone the opportunity to consider the change they want to make in the world and the legacy they wish to leave behind. Without the distractions that come with everyday life and routine, it was impossible to look away from the crises being experienced all over the world. We also realized how closely tied we all are to one another,” he said. 

“Fashion is an industry full of influential creatives with large platforms, and I believe it is our responsibility to use these spaces to make a positive change in the world, which includes speaking out against injustices, taking a stand, and making marginalized people feel seen and heard,” he added.

Gurung has been putting this belief into practice for years. The finale of his fall 2017 show featured models in T-shirts with slogans such as “The Future Is Female” and “Break Down Walls,” while his 10th anniversary show explored American identity, with models wearing beauty pageant sashes that said: “Who Gets to Be American?”

“We can leverage everything from collections to runway shows, marketing, social media, who we dress, how we produce and so much more. No matter how big or small a brand, there are levers you can pull to ensure you are contributing to the larger conversation,” Gurung noted.

London-based designer Bethany Williams has incorporated a social purpose into every aspect of her three-year-old brand. Her clothes, which are made using recycled materials, are produced by Making for Change, a program cofounded by the London College of Fashion that helps to train female prisoners, and San Patrignano, a drug rehabilitation community in Italy.

Each collection focuses on the work of a charity, which receives 20 percent of the profits from the sale of the clothes. This year, Williams launched the Emergency Designer Network with fellow designers Holly Fulton, Cozette McCreary and Phoebe English, in response to a shortage of personal protective equipment in U.K. hospitals.

“It’s just gotten a bit crazy for us business-wise. We’ve had a lot more interest this year, definitely, and more of an understanding of what we’ve been trying to do for the last three years. I feel like people are ready to perceive this, whereas before I didn’t think that was the case,” she said.

“People are understanding a bit more that we need to put people before profit within business, and think about our responsibility to the planet and the people that we employ, and being responsible to the people that make our clothes also,” added Williams, who last year received the Queen Elizabeth II Award.

The designer recently moved her studio into Making for Change’s new fashion training and manufacturing unit in east London. “We’ve taken on sample machinists and in-house people that are part of the Making for Change community, so it filters down into our workforce,” Williams said. “It’s been really beneficial for us as we’re growing.”

But speaking out is not without pitfalls, especially when it comes to politics. “It would be naive to say there is no danger, there is no risk, in taking a stance on something. There’s always a risk, but there are much bigger rewards, unless it’s badly executed, or it’s not genuinely done,” said Hardy.

Christian Siriano, who has been outspoken on issues ranging from LGBTQ rights to body positivity, was among the designers encouraging people to vote in the U.S. election, showing a floor-length gown printed with a graphic “vote” pattern — with a matching face mask — as part of his spring 2021 collection. Celebrities including Lizzo, Julianne Moore and Laura Linney wore the print. 

Lizzo

Lizzo  Amy Sussman/Courtesy of BBMA2020

Though the industry-wide drive to mobilize voters did not explicitly take sides, it was widely seen as supporting Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. “That was probably the biggest challenge. Obviously, I have a very strong opinion. I was voting for Biden, that was what I was interested in, but I never, ever wanted to have people feel that that’s the only way to go,” said Siriano.

To him, dressing Jill Biden for the Democratic National Convention was a way of supporting the campaign without antagonizing any of his clients with overt political messaging. “And lots of people, I’m sure, didn’t like that dress and didn’t like her and all those things,” he acknowledged.

“That’s the challenge with any designer: you’re making a product and you don’t want to alienate your customer, but then you have to feel good about who’s consuming your world. I don’t think it’s just about making money,” Siriano added. “I don’t think I would be able to sleep at night if I felt like I was not saying what I want to say.”

Abloh also found himself in hot water for criticizing the looting of some stores following BLM protests in Los Angeles and posting a receipt for a $50 donation to Fempower, an artist collective raising funds to bail Black women out of jail. Critics accused him of being tone-deaf and stingy.

Abloh subsequently clarified that he had in fact donated $20,500 to bail funds and other causes related to the protest movement, which started after the police killing of George Floyd in May. But the experience prompted him to be more explicit about the issues he supports. In July, he revealed he had raised $1 million for a scholarship fund for Black fashion students.

“What makes me unique is that my style is not media trained. It’s not what anyone tells me to say. I started my career from my own intuition, and I follow my own intuition. The only thing that I realized within the scope of the miscommunication is that the scale that I exist on has grown considerably in a short amount of time, so just factually, there’s a lot of new people to my practice that didn’t know me two years ago,” he said.

“They don’t know about my hiring practices, how I’ve launched the career of many Black designers, and I don’t think that it’s their job. I would like to think that they would do research to see if the sensational news story of the day checks up with what I stand for, but I’m not so idealistic as to think that that would happen. So in response, I’ve moved. I’ve just been more vocal and present,” he continued. 

“That hadn’t been my style before, just because it steps into a different realm, which I am against, which is sort of doing good for marketing’s sake. But I realized, in my case, there was room to move that message louder to the forefront, just to educate the newcomers to my atmosphere on exactly what my practice is about,” Abloh explained.

“For me, 2020 is a hyper year, but in 2030, I will be doing the exact same thing, because it’s been embedded in my existence since I was born in 1980. I want to lead by example. I want to be a figurehead in the industry,” said the designer, who was born in Rockford, Ill., of Ghanaian parents. “I want to keep the flame going, and that’s where my momentum comes from.”

Gurung also thinks it’s important to speak out, at the risk of courting haters. “I believe in having difficult conversations with those who might not agree with you and reaching across the aisle,” he said. “If you are just practicing activism in spaces that make you comfortable, you will not make the same impact, and that is a bigger concern.”

Simmenauer noted that U.S. consumers are quicker to cancel a brand or designer that they feel doesn’t align with their values. That highlights the challenges facing brands operating across global markets, where social and political attitudes can vary widely.

“The fact that fashion, beauty and luxury are becoming politicized, and having to take a stance on a number of urgent social issues, will reinforce the need for brands to have a multilateral positioning, in other words, to adapt their messaging and their actions to regional specificities that are no longer just cultural,” the IFM professor said. 

“These specificities will be tied to current events, politics and emerging social values,” he added. “It’s obvious that what’s trending on Twitter or Instagram has nothing to do with what’s happening on Weibo or on the Chinese version of TikTok.”

Simmenauer warned that aligning a brand’s global strategy with issues that only concern a small portion of the planet could lead to big missteps. “But I would not recommend for brands to have contradictory stances in different geographic zones in order to satisfy everyone,” he said. “So it’s definitely a balancing act.” 

See also: 

Brands Answer Tumultuous Election Year With Merch and Initiatives

The Black Lives Matter Movement: Change Comes to Beauty

Face Masks: The New Global Must-Have Accessory