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Fashion Brands Reveal the Gap Between Statement and Action

A weekend of immigration protests give an opportunity for brands to speak out — but only some did.

A man, wearing a yellow shirt that says “Defy” on the back, embraces a woman in purple.
Opening Ceremony’s spring 2017 collection in the New York City Ballet’s performance of “The Times Are Racing.”

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Over the weekend, social media flooded with photos taken of crowds both outside airports around the country and at the White House protesting President Trump’s executive order issued Friday blocking all refugees from entering the United States for 120 days, Syrian refugees from crossing the border indefinitely, and citizens of seven largely Muslim countries from entering for 90 days.

It was just the latest opportunity for companies to take political stands. Company executives, since they’re people, have the choice to speak out through official channels on behalf of their companies, or just personally for themselves. A number of CEOs from the tech industry did the former, including execs at Box, Lyft, Google, Netflix, and Airbnb.

But as Business of Fashion found, and as was readily visible on social media, voices from the fashion sector were relatively hushed.

Nike was one prominent exception. Speaking out on behalf of his company, Nike CEO Mark Parker wrote an email to his employees (which found its way onto Twitter) that explicitly stated “This is a policy we don’t support.”

Nike aside, the comments were mostly personal outpourings, not official corporate stances. Public School’s Dao-Yi Chow posted photos on his own Instagram from New York’s protests, and Irish designer Jonathan Anderson added his own anti-Trump imagery. Naeem Khan, an Indian immigrant who dressed Michelle Obama as First Lady, posted an Instagram asking his followers to “stand for who is patriotic” and “not for a pompous self promoting racist snake oil salesman.” Diane von Furstenberg, who serves as chairwoman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, told Business of Fashion, “I am personally horrified to see what is going on.”

Other companies let their viewpoints speak through their work. Opening Ceremony found itself in the rare position of debuting its spring 2017 collection, which happened to tap into the theme of immigration, just before Trump’s executive order took place. (Rather than presenting at Fashion Week next month, Opening Ceremony aired the range as the costuming for a New York City Ballet piece that opened on Thursday.) Coincidence turned the clothing, which drew on 19th-century photographs of Ellis Island and had words like “Defy” and “Unite” written across it, into an unforeseen political statement.

But that statement is limited to just that — a statement — on the Opening Ceremony website. Scroll down on the main page, where the spring 2017 collection is available for preorder, and a big banner prompts shoppers to “Take Action.” Take action, that is, by purchasing some clothing.

Dancers wearing brightly colored shorts and T-shirts lift a woman up.
Opening Ceremony for the New York City Ballet.
Photo: Paul Kolnik

Words are undeniably important, and as James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker earlier this month, consumers have grown eager to boycott companies on the basis of their stated political stances.

“In the past few decades, we’ve grown accustomed to holding corporations responsible for their labor practices and environmental records,” writes Surowiecki. “So it’s not surprising that they are being called to account for their real or imagined political messages.”

In one such instance, L.L.Bean had to make a public statement of non-partisanship after it got caught in a Trump-related boycott by shoppers. It was just one of the many companies on the #GrabYourWallet list of companies with Trump family ties.

But political messages aren’t always necessarily indications of tangible action, like Starbucks’ plan to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years or Airbnb’s vow to provide “free housing to refugees and anyone not allowed in the US.” Opening Ceremony, too, had people at its September Fashion Week show registering attendees to vote.

As the political climate heats up, should shoppers anticipate more action — and not just statements, subtle or explicit — from fashion companies? And more pointedly, will they demand it?