It is the first day of London Fashion Week SS20 and outside the event’s main show space on The Strand, Extinction Rebellion protestors lie covered in fake blood, staging a die-in.
After the Swedish Fashion Council’s decision to cancel Stockholm Fashion Week, Extinction Rebellion penned an open letter to the British Fashion Council, asking for London Fashion Week to be cancelled too. "We have a unique opportunity to consider how fashion can be reborn as a cultural medium with a regenerative effect on the people, planet, animals and generations to come." With a reply from BFC Chief Executive Caroline Rush inviting the group to meet and exchange plans for internal change, but no alterations made to the LFW schedule, the group’s actions are set to take place from today until Tuesday at 5pm, which will see a funeral procession departing Trafalgar Square to "pay respect to the legacy of LFW and put it to rest forevermore."
Founded in October in London last year, Extinction Rebellion, also known as XR, seized the world’s attention in April when what began as a small non-violent protest spiralled into a 6,000-person-strong shutdown of the city. With five of the capital’s major bridges blocked, trees planted in Parliament Square and protestors superglued to the gates of Buckingham Palace, XR propelled the climate crisis from a slow-burning mumble to an urgent rallying cry.
How did a group that has been around for less than a year change the climate conversation so quickly and dramatically, when organisations like Greenpeace have been working tirelessly for environmental action for decades? Distinctive branding, led by graphic designer Clive Russell and featuring a now instantly recognisable sand-timer (to stress that time is running out), has helped. The group’s lurid green stickers featuring the graphics can be spotted around cities across the globe, from alleyways in Berlin to lampposts in Zurich. Celebrity endorsements, including from Emma Thompson and Margaret Atwood, have also played a part, but more than anything it feels like XR was in the right place at the right time.
The Amazon rainforest is burning, Greta Thunberg is sailing across the Atlantic to attend UN climate summits, the terrifying beginnings of a "climate apartheid" became apparent in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, and we’ve been warned by world leaders that our readiness for the oncoming effects of the climate crisis is "gravely insufficient". Extinction Rebellion is only highlighting what we already know, and actions like fashion week die-ins and city shutdowns – while seemingly extreme when you’re just trying to get on with your morning commute – are absolutely necessary when the horrifying facts about the state of our planet are reeled out.
While the LFW protests may be the most visible action taken by XR against the fashion industry, they're certainly not the first. The group has called for a total fashion boycott, urging people to take part in a yearlong ban on buying new clothes. When I meet members of XR to discuss their intentions for action at London Fashion Week, they explain their three demands on the government: tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, act now to halt biodiversity loss by 2025, and create and be led by a citizens’ assembly. "The feeling is that demanding the BFC to cancel London Fashion Week is a big ask, but it becomes less of a big ask when you understand the context in which we’re asking it: once you know the truth, you’ll know what we need to do."
While this is true to some extent, the message overlooks several issues within fashion and the climate crisis. We live in a late-capitalist society where brands equal identity and platforms such as Instagram fuel our desire for novelty; to expect a total shutdown of consumerism within our current cultural context is naive. It also puts the onus on us as individuals, and while individual action is vital – going vegan is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental footprint, for example – it’s very convenient for global corporations and world leaders to blame a statistic-less general public. What difference does it make if one person shops ‘better and less’ when Brazil’s climate minister is holding meetings with climate change deniers? What impact will your self-imposed ban on plastic bags have when Missguided sells a £1 bikini?
The criticism that XR faces is that they are misdirecting their anger. The designers showing at London Fashion Week may influence what’s sold on the high street via The Devil Wears Prada’s much-referenced "cerulean blue" theory but, really, it’s the see-now-buy-now fast-fashion machines that should be boycotted, not the young designers who are in fact more closely aligned with XR’s sustainability mission than our most loved high street brands. Projections by the Global Fashion Agenda suggest that by 2030, the global apparel and footwear industry will have grown 81% - when more and more young designers are having to show off-schedule due to lack of funding, but new fast-fashion brands pop-up on your IG feed every week, it's clear who is to blame for the industry's excelerated growth. Once more the responsibility is shifted from the most powerful to the individual.
But still: no last-minute holiday shopping, no new dress for your best friend’s wedding, no fresh kicks from your favourite Insta store – nothing new for a whole year. Could you do it? Of course you could; it would be very hard, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a shot. Thankfully, there is a growing number of tools to help us reevaluate and improve our relationship with clothes.
Resell culture is thriving: Vestiaire, Depop, eBay, ASOS Marketplace, Etsy and Vinted are much loved by Gen Z and closing the fashion loop, while vintage sellers are experiencing a boom for the first time in years. Activist platforms like Birdsong, Fashion Revolution and Good On You are leading the way in public education and providing valuable – and accessible – resources for those looking to alter their shopping habits. Oxfam has launched #SecondHandSeptember, encouraging people to avoid buying anything new for the month (I am currently taking part – come back at the beginning of October to find out how I got on).
It’s worth noting that XR doesn’t want to end fashion altogether; they do not want to put a stop to creativity or self-expression, they just see that progress cannot be made within the current framework. But that goes two ways: the current framework is also what leads individuals to think that they can’t commit to such drastic action. Change is hard, and even harder when it involves unlearning everything we’ve been taught. New is best! Brands are king! Self-improvement via consumerism! It’s an ideology we’ve been fed since the 1980s, when fast fashion really gained pace. In a world where anyone can be the face of Boohoo.com by winning a reality TV show in which viewers can shop the looks live, it’s even more ingrained.
Extinction Rebellion’s London Fashion Week protests are symbolic, not literal. They’ve made it clear that they do not propose solutions (that’s up to the government and a citizens’ assembly). When people feel like their agency has been taken away – and in today’s sociopolitical climate, the world is saturated with that feeling – the way to mobilise them and effect real change is by handing it back.
During our conversation, the most galvanised I feel is when we discuss climate anxiety and eco-grief – something that is affecting swathes of people and rendering them inactive in the face of relentlessly horrifying news. Their advice for climbing out of the pit of despair? Community. "Grief is a logical response to what we are seeing – if you try and shut that down, you’re divorcing yourself from reality," one member, Bel Jacobs, explains. "It takes a lot of moral and emotional courage to sit in it, but the next step is taking action – without that community support you’ll end up sitting in your room, going mad with despair."
Just sitting with the members of Extinction Rebellion and discussing the emotional side of the climate crisis spurs me on more than reading the morning news, an overload of terrifying photos and even scarier statistics. While both XR and the wider sustainable fashion movement have issues to address before their missions can be fully realised – accessibility, classism and racism, for example – on the whole, big public actions shouldn’t be criticised. What they’re doing is admirable, and while not all of us can take time off work to stage die-ins on The Strand, we can reduce how much we buy (try one week at a time and see how you go; perfection isn’t the aim) or, better yet, find our community. Hopefully, they'll pull us out of the darkness just in time to take action.