Can You Be Anti-Capitalist and Love Fashion? It’s complicated.

person holding pin using right hand and red mesh cloth using left hand

Great memes can help you to express that thing you’ve been struggling with but don’t know how. This was the moment I experienced when I was in high school. @fatannawintour is an Instagram account that Anastasia Vartanian runs. It posted a photo of a young boy scratching his head. The text above the photo reads “Me: Fuck capitalism.” My mum: Aren’t fashion obsessions a problem?” Me: “Me: Fuck capitalism.” This is an exchange that I have had with my mother and myself as well as with others, especially since the devastation of late-stage capitalism has become more apparent due to factors such the coronavirus pandemic and racial justice protests, reckonings and soul-crushing unemployment figures. I still sit here planning my next fall dress purchase. Vartanian’s statement that fashion industry practices are “something all my fashion-loving friends consider” makes me feel slightly better.

Tansy Hoskins is a fashion journalist and author of “Stitched up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion”. She says, “Capitalism” is the problem with fashion. And we don’t need the fashion industry for fashion or beautiful clothes – any glance into the margins will show that the global explosion in design and creativity that would take place without this harmful industry is far more exciting than what it has accomplished.”

It is an ambitious goal to abandon what makes fashion ugly and keep what makes fashion beautiful – the beauty, creativity – a goal that was, before this year, a pipe dream. We live in the “Cool Zone” now, which is a time when an assortment of horrifying, eye-opening situations converge into a moment in which everything seems possible. In this instance, it is a rejection of the capitalist, consumer-driven system in which we were born. Young people are particularly affected by anti-capitalist sentiments. This sentiment is backed by democratic socialist politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and fuelled by the fact that the current way of doing business doesn’t work for most Americans. Many people are calling for policies that were once considered “fringe” such as defunding police and providing a universal basis income. These ideas make more sense, especially now that America’s inequalities and injustices have become so obvious.

woman riding escalator

You’ll find more and more social media testimonials from young internet revolutionaries like Vartanian who not only want to overthrow government but also have a pair of boots to do it in. Is it possible for both? Is it possible that the fashion industry, which is a powerful tentacle of late-stage capitalist society order, can reform itself to become less sexiste, racist, classist and fatphobic and more toxic to workers and to its employees? What are we looking for from fashion brands and designers in a post 2020 world? And which brands are willing to provide it? Fashion has been a great way to reflect the current zeitgeist. But can it be part of it? These are questions industry watchers have been mulling over for a while, but they feel more pressing now, in the midst of, well…everything, and especially as brands both big and small fumble and come up short in their attempts to meaningfully align themselves with social justice and sustainability initiatives.

Hoskins says that fashion brands aren’t people. They don’t have hopes and dreams, personalities or even hopes. They are corporate entities with one goal: to make more money than their competition. They are responding to public opinion surges that they can no longer ignore and stage hollow protests.

She says that fashion corporations will not be able to bring about social change, and it would be wrong to think it could.

While it is true that social change won’t start at Paris Fashion Week, it’s not impossible. But the question is, if change does come from a place that can actually enact it, can fashion even evolve accordingly? The fashion industry has been experiencing its own revolution in many ways. Coronavirus has challenged the fashion calendar. Many brands have pledged to sell their collections online rather than bringing in high-falutin insiders to physical shows. Gucci announced in May that it will abandon the “stale,” “worn-out” ritual of producing what has long felt like an unnecessary cavalcade of seasonal collections, with other brands following suit, and buyers at sites like MatchesFashion, Net-a-Porter, and MyTheresa expressing interest in seasonless looks.

These calls for change were long overdue. Designers are not able to plan their seasons properly. Many in the industry complain that the twice-yearly global Fashion Month spectacle is exhausting and wasteful. It’s no longer about clothes or creativity. Instead, it’s a boring parade of celebrities and influencers wearing designer outfits. The industry’s constant churn and desire to push consumers into buying new clothes each season have also been seen as out of sync with larger cultural imperatives to reduce our consumption of clothing, to appreciate what we already have and to consider our environmental footprint. There is still much to be done in terms of inclusion, labor policies and the elimination of environmentally harmful practices. It’s not clear what old-school luxury brands will need to be culturally relevant beyond a small group of wealthy patrons.

Fashion design, at its best, is about imagining the future and reflecting the present while paying homage the past. Fashion design is an art form, a medium of communication and self expression. It’s ironic, then, that it has become all too involved in the business of making money, just like many other types of art. Designers and fashion media are not exempted from the problem. Many creatives and editors are also part of it. However, it’s important not to confuse the fashion industry for all those involved. Designers have used their platforms to do good. They have created brands that are rooted in activism and rejecting industry norms. Vivienne Westwood is a strong independent designer who is loudly anti-capitalist and who recently suspended herself in a huge birdcage to protest Julian Assange’s extradition. Norma Kamali is another long-standing independent designer who champions gender-neutral clothing way before it was fashionable. Kerby Jean Raymond, who has integrated activism into his brand Pyer Moss since its inception via .clothing often reflecting Black Lives Matter messaging. Stella McCartney, who was a pioneer in eco-friendly and vegan fashion. It’s difficult for brands, even “good” ones, to get away from capitalist practices while we live under capitalism. But, young designers have a strong desire to succeed.

Esther Leslie is a professor of political aesthetics at Birkbeck University of London and a researcher of Marxist theories of aesthetics, culture and society. She suggests that the fashion industry could look very much like Etsy under an anti-capitalist system. She explains that there are many small producers who create not only to survive, but also to make money from others’ incompetence. They do this to show their talents and their ideas. I suspect that an anti-capitalist forum,’marketplace’ sounding already and irreversibly capitalist, would have so many micro fashions, so much experimentation, that fashion would cease to be meaningful and instead allow for self-expression to its fullest.

There has been a surge in maker-driven startups on platforms such as Instagram and Depop. They are crafting small-batch clothes and accessories that sell out quickly, thanks to superfans who have a dedication rivaling Supreme collectors. While it is still about selling and buying things, it is not far from the decentralized, experimental fashion utopia professor Leslie envisions. One thing is that wares are often more affordable than the labels they come from, and there’s an added mystery to getting them. This hasn’t been seen since H&M collaborations. It’s called Zara Fatigue. But the consensus seems to be that if you are going to spend money on a new dress, why don’t you get one you love? And that is hopefully better made and will last longer than standard mall clothing.

Kimberley Gordon is the designer behind Selkie, an independent brand that has gained a lot of attention on Instagram due to its iconic puff dress and feminine, yet inclusive aesthetic. Sizes range from XXS-5X. Many of her customers use AfterPay to save money or pay for her pieces in bulk, with most of them being between $100 and $300. She says that buying something unique or small-batch is so nostalgic. Think of your parents. These are the items that your mom has kept forever. They could be things she made or bought at the local shop. That part of us wants that for our children’s future generations, I believe.

Small brands can create original products and use social media to grow their audiences organically. This is a boon for those who believe it’s impossible for the industry not to move away from its old ways. The old hierarchies and structures will continue to hold power, but it is the consumers who are the true power in fashion. We have always known this. It was just that we didn’t realize it until recently. This is also complicated.

Vartanian argues that it is unfair to place all responsibility on consumers. She says, “I love the fashion industry. But it’s deeply flawed. It needs to change.” This must be encouraged from within the industry as well as outside, as low-income customers who support unethical companies out of necessity cannot be held responsible for the wrongdoings by large corporations. Gordon, on the other hand, hopes customers push for more sustainable and eco-friendly practices. It would be a lot easier for big companies to make it happen if more people wanted it. “That’s how you get the prices to be competitive is when people order a lot of it.” A Nielson 2018 report states that 75% of millennials are willing to pay more to buy sustainable goods. However, data from Nosto’s 2019 survey shows that customers don’t necessarily want to pay more to see products made sustainably.

There are also those on the opposite end of the spectrum, who may be called true anti-capitalists. They are so frustrated by the wastefulness and hypocrisy of the industry, they have stopped buying new clothes altogether. Lily Fulop the author of “Wear, Repair and Repurpose: A Maker’s Guide to Upcycling Clothes” limits her purchases to vintage or secondhand clothing. She shares tips and strategies to make and repair your clothes. This is both a way for her to express herself and to challenge the status quo. She believes it is crucial to question how the industry, with its insatiable appetite to sell, buy, and buy, has poisoned our minds.

“We must change our habits and mindsets to support this unsustainable industry? Why do we feel we have to be in-style? Why is it that we are so quick to throw away things?” She asks, “Why are we so afraid to wear the exact same thing twice?” These are important cultural conversations, which can be helped by showing visible mending. Wearing a patch on your shirt means that you are saying ‘I repaired it instead of buying new. I am concerned about reducing waste. I reject what capitalism says .'”

person holding pin using right hand and red mesh cloth using left hand

There is no simple solution to the fashion industry’s problems. There is no easy way to simultaneously love clothes and hold anti-capitalist views. Leslie says that it is possible to have both and that this happens all the time.

It’s not easy, though, as it means letting go of some long-held beliefs about fashion and how it affects your life. You might not really need that Chanel bag, those Gucci loafers, or that silk skirt every celebrity has. But you have been taught for years that you do. You might think you do, and that’s fine, too. It may mean making sacrifices depending on what works best for you and what you value most. This could mean avoiding fast fashion or buying a portion of your wardrobe used. This will likely mean examining your relationship to money. If you have fallen into the trap that you feel you need to spend more to feel better about yourself or to fit in, it may be necessary to question your financial relationships. These thoughts are so helpful! How can you use that money to help yourself and others get out of the work-earning-spend cycle? This means being bold and open about your opinions to companies, publications, and people you follow on Instagram.

However, capitalism will continue to capitalise until significant changes are made in society. Mega-conglomerates still dominate the industry. It is still dominated by wealthy white people and a narrow view of the world. It doesn’t matter what cost, it’s still all about making money. It is possible and desirable to do so, but it is not easy.

However, we can take comfort in the fact the fashion industry doesn’t adapt with the times, not only in terms marketing and design, but also in terms how things are done. This could lead to a generation of people realizing they are more passionate about equality and fair treatment than beautiful objects. And that there may be enough in this world. It’s no longer about doing the right things, but about self-preservation. The revolution can often be difficult to see for those at the top of the system, the people who have the system working perfectly.

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