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Is There a ‘Right’ Way for Designers to Get Political?

The hottest trend at New York Fashion Week was political protest.

A model wears a “Feminist AF” shirt.
Models backstage at Public School’s runway show.
Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

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February’s New York Fashion Week usually coincides with some nasty weather. A snowstorm, or face-destroying cold whipping down the West Side Highway, where many designers show. This time around, it synced up with a maelstrom of crises in the young Trump administration: the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn over conversations with the Russian ambassador, Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway’s ethics violation in promoting Ivanka Trump’s clothing line on air, ongoing protests, and legal challenges to the president’s travel ban, to name a few.

The fashion industry, while liberal-leaning, doesn’t always get into the sticky business of making political statements. This Fashion Week, it was the dominant trend.

Prabal Gurung concluded his show with a parade of slogan tees stating “My Girlfriend Is a Feminist” and “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” a nod of solidarity to Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was silenced while opposing Jeff Sessions’s confirmation as attorney general. More bluntly, Chromat played a song (later identified by Fashionista’s Maria Bobila) that repeated the phrase “Fuck Donald Trump” on a loop.

The question of the week was not where designers fell on the political spectrum — with few exceptions, that was clear and consistent — but whether there is a “right” way for them to express their sentiments.

Describing her reservations about attending Fashion Week at such a politically fraught time, Racked’s Tanisha Pina wrote, “I was worried that no one, from the designers to my fellow editors, would pay attention to or acknowledge what was going on in the world outside of our tiny fashion bubble.... Arguably worse, I was worried that brands would be so desperate to be part of the larger conversation that they would offer up flat, disingenuous, opportunistic demonstrations, à la your favorite feminist Karl Lagerfeld.”

A model wears a “Nevertheless, She Persisted” shirt.
A model walks the runway at Prabal Gurung.
Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Indeed, the feminist march Karl Lagerfeld staged at Chanel’s spring 2015 runway show provided a template for vacuous activism in fashion. Models carried signs that were meaningless at best (“Free Freedom,” “Be Different!!”) and undermining at worst (“We Can Match the Machos,” as though macho culture is something to aspire to).

There was some of that this week. Creatures of Comfort designer Jade Lai peppered her show with shirts that read “NO!” and “We Are All Human Beings.” Similarly, Business of Fashion asked showgoers to wear white bandanas “as a sign to the world that you believe in the common bonds of humankind — regardless of race, sexuality, gender or religion.”

When Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon is being called a “white supremacist” by prominent Democrats, and when women’s reproductive rights are under siege, it may be necessary to reiterate that we are all, in fact, human beings. But it’s not a very specific statement, and it doesn’t risk alienating many people. It’s a tepid use of the visibility that comes with participating in Fashion Week.

Some brands used slogan tees and hats to slightly more pointed effect. Public School, for instance, sent “Make America New York” hats and shirts down the runway.

Models walk down the runway, one of them wearing a “Make America New York” hat.
Public School’s runway show.
Photo: Slaven Vlasik/Getty Images

Other designers stepped into the political gray area of inviting a member of the Trump family to their shows. Specifically, Tiffany Trump, who attended Taoray Wang, Philipp Plein, Dennis Basso, and Vivienne Tam’s runway shows.

Taoray Wang designer Wang Tao, whose white coat Tiffany Trump wore on Inauguration Day, said backstage that they met at her show in September and have stayed in touch since.

“I’m very proud and grateful for Tiffany choosing Taoray Wang to wear on different occasions. I love Tiffany. She’s such a wonderful young lady,” she says.

Because Taoray Wang is a made-to-measure business with little ready-to-wear retail presence, however, Tiffany Trump’s influence has not caused a major sales rush.

Tiffany Trump sits in a white dress, front row.
Tiffany Trump at Taoray Wang.
Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Remaining fans of Ivanka Trump’s brand have made the argument that adult children should not be held responsible for their parents’ politics, a position much more easily applied to Tiffany Trump, who has largely stayed away from her father’s administration, than to Ivanka Trump, who has attended several official functions. Nonetheless, designers who invite a member of the Trump family to their shows are saying something. That something may just be that the importance of a media moment surpasses politics.

Just before the shows began, the Council of Fashion Designers of America announced that it would be distributing “Fashion Stands With Planned Parenthood” pins to attendees to raise awareness for the organization, and that initially seemed like low-lift activism. But two days later, the trade group added that it would donate $5 to Planned Parenthood for every photo of the buttons with the tag #IStandWithPP. Joseph Altuzarra also auctioned off two seats to his show, with the proceeds going to Planned Parenthood.

That’s tangible. So was the speech that the co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington — Tamika D. Mallory, Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour, and Bob Bland — gave at the start of Mara Hoffman’s runway show. The collection found strength in the softness of cocooning separates and joy in colorful abstract prints. The models didn’t just walk. They danced.

Models dance on the runway.
Mara Hoffman’s models.
Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images
The four women throw their fists in the air.
The Women’s March on Washington co-chairs at Mara Hoffman’s show.
Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Which brings us to an underrated way for designers to speak to the moment: by communicating through design, and not just through words on a T-shirt.

Raf Simons, a Belgian, focused his debut collection for Calvin Klein on America. It’s impossible not to read something into that, with politics where they are right now. There were no pink Planned Parenthood buttons or riffs on Trump merchandise in sight, but the coats and feathered dresses trapped under a layer of plastic, sheer men’s athletic jerseys, and a wrapped American flag dress signaled a weirdness and discomfort that wasn’t entirely bad. Relying on clothes’ structure, color, and texture to send a message leaves plenty of room for misinterpretation — the preceding line might be totally off-base, for instance — but it has the potential to shake the viewer more deeply than a slogan tee would.

At M. Martin’s presentation, co-designer Jennifer Noyes said that the election prompted a discussion among the brand’s team of seven women about using design to evoke female strength. A collection of images behind the models showed Venus and Serena Williams, Meryl Streep, Gloria Steinem, Michelle Obama, and Carrie Fisher in Princess Leia costume.

A model wears a navy corduroy jacket.
M. Martin’s best look.
Photo: Albert Urso/Getty Images

A soft, double-breasted corduroy suit jacket, which could be worn boxy or tied at the waist, emerged from that conversation. It was the best piece in the collection, and, for all its quiet elegance, not hard to place in the history of feminist apparel.

It’s easy to critique designers’ efforts to get political as unsubstantial, and that was my line of thinking throughout most of the week. On Wednesday, however, I met up with an old editor who was in town for a few shows. She follows fashion but doesn’t work in it.

When I asked her what she thought of those slogan tees, Planned Parenthood buttons, and white bandanas, she brightened. It’s visibility, she argued, and, in the same way that going to the Women’s March bolstered a feeling of solidarity in the face of the new administration, feeling that you’re a part of a united front is a powerful thing.

It’s certainly more powerful than doing nothing.