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What the Fashion Industry Should Learn from 'Je Suis Charlie'

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Fashion is not Charlie. Runway shows may celebrate aesthetic expression, physical freedom, evolving standards of beauty, or even gender fluidity, but few take deliberate aim at cultural oppression, much less terrorism. As Helen Mirren's makeshift fountain pen brooch at the Golden Globes reminds us, however, fashion is a potentially powerful conduit for free speech.

To the extent that fashion houses have provoked religious or cultural controversy in recent decades, they have usually made enemies by accident. After Karl Lagerfeld embroidered Koranic verses on gowns worn by Claudia Schiffer and other models, Chanel apologized and pledged to destroy the offending designs. When a Lisa Blue bathing suit featuring an image of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi provoked public demonstrations in India, the company canceled plans to produce the item. Everyone from Victoria's Secret and model Karlie Kloss to Elle UK and Pharrell Williams has apologized for cultural appropriation of Native American feathered headdresses. And while Jean Paul Gaultier defended his "Chic Rabbis" collection, he emphasized that he meant no offense.

Only occasionally do high-fashion runways serve as a venue for overt commentary on cultural issues. Hussein Chalayan's spring 1998 collection juxtaposing female nudity and chadors of varying lengths comes to mind, as does Rei Kawakubo's spring 1997 collection fusing individuals with their burdens in a body-distorting manner. Alexander McQueen similarly challenged audiences with collections ranging from "Highland Rape," subsequently identified as a commentary on British actions in Scotland, to a meditation on Darwin's The Origin of Species and climate change.

Lighter notes include Jeremy Scott's 2013 "Arab Spring" collection and Kenneth Cole's advertising via political puns. But for the most part, such experiments are bracketed as at best intellectual exercises, and retailers deemphasize the relationship between the runway and the more mainstream designs waiting in the showroom.

Even the staging of the most recent Chanel show as a feminist rally was more trend- than statement-driven.

Socially conscious fashion designers do, of course, regularly deploy their talents to decorate t-shirts or one-of-a-kind items to raise money for various causes. Fashion has targeted breast cancer and raised millions of dollars for AIDS research, fought against fakes, and supported the victims of natural disasters from Haiti to Japan. A new generation of designers is also building social consciousness into every aspect of production, from sustainably sourced materials to fair labor standards, and making these commitments a public part of brand identity. Careful reading of show notes sometimes hints at a deeper inspiration as well; Bibhu Mohapatra's forthcoming spring line, for example, was inspired by heiress and political activist Nancy Cunard.

In general, however, current fashion shows do not display the express communicative power of clothing in political and cultural terms. Although the internet has transformed fashion weeks from New York to Paris into public spectacles with an infinite front row, recent seasons have displayed a collective tendency to emphasize commerce over commentary—perhaps due to the significant financial investments at stake.

This weekend's unity rally in Paris. Image: Getty.

Even the staging of the most recent Chanel show as a feminist rally, following the previous season's supermarket, was more trend- than statement-driven. Apparel and accessories that convey a specific message are more likely to be found on the tables of sidewalk vendors selling t-shirts and campaign buttons than on the runways of fashion week.

Fashion once had a proud history of working in tandem with political expression, whether in its intrinsic forms or overt statements. Women from the U.S. to Europe to Japan adopted woven and printed textiles expressing their patriotism during World War II; Vietnam War protesters donned black armbands and risked arrest by wearing American flags in places deemed unseemly by the police. Suffragist Amelia Jenks Bloomer's adoption of the loose trouser style to which her name was later attached, Paul Poiret's corset-free silhouettes, Coco Chanel's use of jersey for outerwear, Mary Quant's miniskirt, Yves Saint Laurent's embrace of high-fashion trousers for women, and Diane von Furstenberg's wrap dress all advanced freedom of movement, an important predicate for and symbol of other cultural and political freedoms.

Since the recent terrorist attacks, fashionable Parisians and those who love the City of Light have declared their unity and commitment to freedom of speech by wearing "Je suis Charlie" headbands, armbands, and buttons. Perhaps this is the moment for fashion to reinvigorate its own commitment to cultural engagement—and what better place than in fashion's historic global capital, with its traditions of intellectual debate, artistry, and recognition of fashion as both a significant industry and a creative medium?

This season's fashion shows, precisely because they will take place in an atmosphere of anxiety, are more than walking catalogs or even artistic visions. They are an opportunity to make a fashion statement.

Susan Scafidi is the founder and academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School.