Thank you 2020 for Waking Fashion the F*ck Up

By Rhianna Jones

In pre-pandemic times, the fashion industry devoured this month like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Designers clamor to seduce influencers and editors in a jam-packed runways-for-days Fashion Month spree. Binging on Street-Style, BTS and catwalk coverage; the collections are consumed by social media within hours and knocked off by fast fashion in weeks. An unspoken competition for most internet-breaking show and after party ensues, as does an avalanche of memes. Creative directors whip said samples into million dollar campaigns and of course, magazines drop their biggest issue ever. This circus of clout, content and chiffon is the paragon of a broken system – overpriced, over the top and out of touch – and yet it has been the model of choice for decades, until 2020, when COVID-19 shut the world down, challenging the industry to reimagine itself overnight.

As we swapped stilettos for #sweatpantsforever, settling into a 2D world of waist-up cozy chic, consumer perceptions and behaviour changed writ large. Is fashion superfluous in a survivalist moment ravaged by a pandemic, unemployment and social unrest? Can natural beauty be the new norm, after months sans salons, manicures and gyms? Why have all these clothes when we barely leave the house? All these questions espouse a “less is more” approach – the most cardinal pillar of sustainability. Quarantining in our apartments forced us to reckon our relationships not only with ourselves, but with our stuff, in its often excessive, capitalist glory. This inspired a growth of consumer consciousness, confronting the greater impact of our clothes, shopping locally and mindfully. But more than reawakening consumer ethics, the seismic economic fallout magnified the racial, infrastructural and environmental inequities the industry’s long ignored.

At COVID’s April peak, the International Labor Organization claimed nearly 80% of the world’s workforce would be drastically impacted by the pandemic, with retail, agriculture and manufacturing being most susceptible – i.e. the backbones of the garment trade. For the industry’s juggernauts, their pandemic response became a social test of principle and performance. Most companies took the loss, closing factories and stores responsibly, with some brands – big and small – mobilizing to fashion frontliners in solidarity. LVMH pumped hand sanitizer from its perfume factories, and donated tens of thousands masks, gowns and other medical supplies produced with love from its ateliers. Others continued to prioritize profits to people, jeopardizing their employees’ health in COVID-unsafe distribution centers, or abandoning their staff and suppliers altogether for fiscal gain. 

As retailers declared bankruptcy left and right, furloughing employees or leaving them unemployed, an even deeper injustice surfaced in supply chains. Brands en masse canceled and postponed billions of orders globally, leaving millions of garment makers unpaid, shuttering factories, and ghosting communication entirely. Fast Fashion, i.e. Exploitation Nation, was unsurprisingly the biggest offender, with H&M, Primark, and Zara’s parent groups leading the pack. While the devastation was global, Bangladesh alone reported $3.7B in canceled orders

Credit: Fashion Revolution

Leave it to social media warriors to hold the industry accountable, however, and with the world quarantined on the internet, digital activism could wage war with revolutionary success. Sustainable fashion nonprofit Remake launched the #PayUp campaign on March 30th to expose and demand these brands pay, and a #NoNewClothes 90-day challenge for consumers to stop supporting them until they did. Both campaigns were successful, with 21 major brands signing thus far, but the biggest win is the mass exposure of Fast Fashions blatant disposability of human labor. There’s nothing “essential” about getting a $10 sweatshop dress delivered next day, so we must commit to shifting away from buying cheap products for the likes to championing human-centric consumerism for change.  

Nothing has felt callout culture’s wrath recently quite like the industry’s profound passion for racism. The past few years have seen strides in diversifying campaigns and runways, giving POC a surface-level sliver of representation, but behind the scenes, it’s still whitewashed as hell.    

Then came George Floyd’s callous murder, and finally a vision and video the world at home could not ignore. His heart-wrenching story ripped through our feeds like wildfire, reigniting the #BlackLivesMatter movement that started back with Trayvon Martin in 2013. The industry expressed solidarity at large, issuing statements of “standing with #BLM,” proudly publicizing their monetary contributions, and promising to “do better” – important steps, but none leading to sweeping infrastructural changes or relinquishing positions of power. Just as the global oppression of Black and Brown people is deep-rooted and multi-layered, so too is the industry’s systemic exploitation. Fast fashions modern slavery supply chains breed environmental racism as the inhumane working conditions, cheap production and harmful toxins disproportionately impact BIPOC. The artistic racism manifests in flaunting inclusive campaigns of every size, color and creed of human. Countless Black models do their own hair and makeup on sets because the professionals hired are neither trained nor take it upon themselves to learn. And even when designers hire Black creatives, they can still smother the vision with European narratives. Just this July, despite the global conversation around Black cultural exploitation, Marni released its SS20 campaign, evoking racist imagery of stereotypically savage, uncivilized Black people. Intended by Afro-Brazilian photographer Edgar Azevedo to showcase the beauty of his community with local models, in post-production Marni left shackles around a model’s feet, juxtaposing reductive colonial copy in tribal paint strokes and of course entitled the campaign “Jungle Mood.” There was yet another empty apology.          

To be truly inclusive, fashion needs a makeover from the top down, from who is hired to design the clothes, to how they are made and campaigned, and who can afford and wear them. Established houses need to pull up marginalized cultures and emerging creatives rather than just profit off them. It needs to stop sponsoring influencers to promote unsustainable quantity-driven consumerist models. It must stop practicing performative allyship where taking a day off Instagram and posting a black square equates to unpacking centuries of systemic injustice. The future of the industry is fragile and uncertain, but fashion, like humanity, is a resonant and resilient force. We’ve called the industry out of the complacency closet, now it must get back to work and redesign a more sustainable and socially-aware tomorrow.

Rhianna Jones

Rhianna is a Brooklyn based writer championing cultural inclusivity and sustainable fashion narratives. She strives to inspire through style, storytelling and self love, and the world is her dance floor. Her work has been featured in Bustle, Coveteur, Metro UK, Nylon amongst others.