Is It Possible To Be Anti-Capitalist And Love Fashion? It’s Complicated.
People are struggling to reconcile their personal style with their politics.
Really great memes have a way of crystallising that thing that’s been nagging at you but that you don’t fully know how to articulate. I had a moment like this when @fatannawintour, an Instagram account run by fashion student Anastasia Vartanian, posted a picture of a young boy scratching his head. Above the photo, the text reads, “Me: fuck capitalism. My mum: aren’t you obsessed with fashion?” Me: ... ” It’s an exchange I’ve had, if not with my own mother, then with myself on several occasions recently, as the ills of late-stage capitalism become increasingly apparent, thanks to factors like the coronavirus pandemic, racial justice protests and reckonings, and soul-crushing unemployment numbers — and I nevertheless sit here plotting my next dress purchase. Vartanian makes me feel only slightly better when she says the dissonance between loving clothes and hating fashion industry practices is “something all of my fashion-loving friends think about.”
Tansy Hoskins, fashion journalist and author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, agrees. “Capitalism is what is wrong with fashion,” she says. “And we don’t need the fashion industry to make fashion or beautiful clothes — any glimpse into the margins shows that the global explosion of design and creativity that would occur without this harmful industry would be far more exciting than anything it has achieved.”
Abandoning what makes fashion bad while keeping what makes it good — the beauty, the creativity — is a lofty goal, one that, prior to a year like this one, would have mostly been a pipe dream. But, as those who frequent leftie Twitter know, we’re living in the Cool Zone now — a period of time when a set of uniquely terrible, eye-opening circumstances converge in a moment where anything and everything feels possible. Including, in this case, a mass rejection of the capitalist, consumer-driven system into which we were born. Among young people especially, anti-capitalist sentiment has been building for years, championed by democratic socialist politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and bolstered by the fact that the old way of doing things just doesn’t seem to be working for most Americans. Many are calling for policies once considered “fringe,” like defunding the police, providing a universal basic income, and enacting single-payer health care — ideas that make even more sense now that America’s many injustices and inequalities have been made glaringly apparent.
Across social media, you’ll increasingly find the testimonies of young internet revolutionaries, like Vartanian, who want to overthrow the government, but also a cool pair of boots to do so in. Is it possible to have both? Is it possible for the fashion industry, a mighty tentacle of our late-stage capitalist social order, to reform itself, to be less sexist, racist, classist, fatphobic, shitty to workers, and both literally and metaphorically toxic? What do we want from fashion designers and brands in a post-2020 world — and which ones are willing and able to give it to us? Fashion has always been good at reflecting the zeitgeist, but can it actually be a 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.
“Fashion brands are not people, they don’t have personalities or hopes or dreams,” notes Hoskins. “They are corporate entities who have one goal: To make more money than their competitors. If they stage a hollow imitation of a protest, it is because they are responding to swells in public opinion which they are no longer able to ignore.”
She adds: “Social change will never come from fashion corporations, and it is wrong to believe that it ever could.”
It’s true that social change isn’t going to start on the catwalks at Paris Fashion Week. But the question is, if change does come from a place that can actually enact it, can fashion even evolve accordingly? In many ways, the fashion world has already been undergoing its own revolution. Coronavirus has called into question the traditional fashion calendar, with many brands pledging to show their collections online, rather than having packed aisles of highfalutin insiders at 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 have been a long time coming. In addition to not making sense seasonally for designers, many in the industry have complained that the twice-yearly global fashion month spectacle is exhausting, wasteful, and no longer even really about clothes or creativity, but rather an endless and increasingly boring parade of celebrities and influencers in designer outfits they’re being paid to wear. The constant churn of the industry and its desire to pressure consumers into buying new clothes every season has also felt out of step with larger cultural imperatives to pair down, appreciate what we have, and consider our environmental footprint. But there’s still a lot more work to be done, especially in terms of inclusivity, labour policies, and the abolition of environmentally damaging practices. And it’s still unclear what it might take for old-school luxury brands, especially, to remain culturally relevant beyond a small circle of uber-rich patrons.
At its best, fashion design is about envisioning the future, reflecting the present, and paying homage to the past. It’s an art form and a means of communication and self-expression. Which is why it’s so painfully ironic that, like so many other kinds of art, it’s gotten all mixed up in the business of making money for faceless, soulless shareholders. That’s not to let designers or fashion media off the hook — plenty of creatives and editors are part of the problem as well. It’s important, however, not to conflate the fashion industry machine for every person within it. There are, and have always been, designers using their platforms for good, who have built brands with activism and a rejection of industry norms in their DNA. Consider Vivienne Westwood, who has always been fiercely independent and loudly anti-capitalist (and who recently suspended herself in a giant birdcage to protest the extradition of Julian Assange); Norma Kamali, another longtime independent designer who has championed gender-neutral clothing since before it was on trend; Kerby Jean-Raymond, who has baked activism into his brand, Pyer Moss, since the very beginning, via clothing that often reflects Black Lives Matter messaging; or Stella McCartney, a pioneer of eco-friendly and vegan fashion. But it’s hard for brands — even the “good” ones — to break away from bad capitalist practices when we’re, you know, living under capitalism. And yet, among many young designers, especially, there’s a palpable desire to try.
Esther Leslie, a professor of political aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London, and a researcher of Marxist theories of aesthetics and culture, posits that under an anti-capitalist system, the fashion industry might look a lot like Etsy. “Lots of tiny producers, creating not to stay alive, to make money out of others’ incompetence, but in order to showcase their abilities, their ideas,” she explains. “I suspect that a genuine anti-capitalist forum — ‘marketplace’ sounds already and irreversibly capitalist — would have so many micro fashions and so much experimentation that fashion itself would become meaningless and, instead, there would be self-expression to the max.”
Indeed, there has recently been a spate of maker-driven upstart brands taking off on platforms like Instagram and Depop, crafting small-batch clothing and accessories that have been known to sell out in a matter of hours, thanks to superfans who rival Supreme collectors in their dedication. And while it’s obviously still about buying and selling things, it’s not far from the experimental, decentralised fashion utopia that professor Leslie imagines. For one thing, wares often have much better price points than those of more established labels, and the difficulty of getting them adds a certain mystique that we haven’t seen since back when people cared about H&M collaborations. Call it Zara Fatigue, but the consensus increasingly seems to be that, if you’re going to shell out for a new dress, why not get one that you really love, that you won’t see on every other girl on the street, and that hopefully, is better made and will last longer than the standard mall fare?
Kimberley Gordon is the designer behind the independent brand Selkie, which has made a name for itself on Instagram thanks to its iconic “puff dress” and unapologetically feminine yet inclusive aesthetic, with sizes ranging from XXS-5X. She says many of her customers use AfterPay or save up to buy her pieces, most of which are in the £100-to-£300 neighbourhood. “It’s so nostalgic,” she says of buying something custom or small-batch. “Think of our parents — think of the things in your mum’s wardrobe that you wanna take from her, those are things that she’s kept forever, that she maybe had made, or that she bought from the shop down the street. I think that part of us knows that we want that for our own future generations.”
The promise of small brands that create unique things and leverage social media to grow their audience organically, rather than being beholden to the whims of big investors, buyers, influencers, and editors, is a balm for anyone who thinks it’s not possible for the industry to break away from the old ways of doing things. Those individuals who have enjoyed power under the old structures and hierarchies will fight this evolution, of course, but the secret is, it’s consumers who have the real power in fashion. We always have. We just didn’t fully realise it until recently. But that’s complicated, too.
“It's not fair to put all the responsibility on consumers,” argues Vartanian. “I love the fashion industry, but it's deeply flawed in many ways, and it needs to change. This needs to be fostered from within the industry as much as without, since low-income customers who support unethical brands out of necessity can't be held accountable for the wrongdoings of massive companies.” Gordon, meanwhile, wants to see customers push harder for brands to invest in more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices. “If more people demanded it, then it would force these big brands to have to do it, and then the prices go down. That’s how you get prices to be competitive, is when people start ordering a lot of it.” While a 2018 report from Nielson says 75% of millennial consumers are willing to spend more for sustainable goods, other data, like a 2019 survey from the ecommerce platform Nosto, reveals that while customers want to see products crafted sustainably, they’re not necessarily willing to pay more for it.
But then, there are some on the other end of the spectrum — call them the true anti-capitalists, perhaps — who are so disillusioned with the hypocrisy and wastefulness of the industry that it’s put them off buying new altogether. Lily Fulop, author of the book Wear, Repair, Repurpose: A Maker's Guide to Mending and Upcycling Clothes (as well as a designer at Refinery29), limits her purchases to vintage and secondhand clothing. In her book, she provides tips and strategies for making and mending your own clothes, both as a means of self-expression and as a way of rejecting the status quo. She thinks it’s crucial that we question the ways the industry — with its insatiable hunger for us to buy, buy, buy — has poisoned our minds by making us feel habitually less-than should we not attempt to measure up to its inflexible standards of beauty and style.
“We need to adjust our own habits and mindsets — the ones that support this unsustainable industry. Why do we feel like we need to be on-trend? Why are we so quick to get rid of things? Why are we afraid to wear the same thing twice?” she asks. “These are cultural conversations that need to be had, and ones that can be facilitated by embracing visible mending. When you wear a patch on your shirt, you’re saying, ‘I repaired this instead of buying new. I care about reducing waste. I’m rejecting what capitalism tells me.’”
Like most things, there’s no easy solution for fixing the fashion industry. Nor is there one for simultaneously holding anti-capitalist beliefs and loving clothes. “It is possible to do both, and that happens all the time,” says Leslie.
But it’s still tricky, and it likely means breaking up with some potentially long-held beliefs about what purpose fashion serves in your life, what style looks like, and what’s actually worth coveting. Maybe you don’t really want that Chanel bag or those Gucci loafers or that same silk skirt that every influencer has, you’ve just been conditioned for years to think that you do. (Or maybe you really, really do — and that’s okay, too.) It likely means making sacrifices, depending on what works for you and what you decide you really value. It could be shunning fast fashion, or committing to buying a percentage of your wardrobe secondhand, or something else entirely. It likely means interrogating your relationship with money, especially if you’ve often fallen into the trap of feeling like you need more money to buy more clothes to feel good about yourself, or feel like you fit in. How helpful are those thoughts? What else could you be doing with that money to free yourself and others from the work-earn-spend hamster wheel? It also means speaking up and not being afraid to tell companies, publications, people you follow on Instagram — whoever has power and isn’t wielding it for good — how you want to see them do better.
But until major changes happen across society — and hey, they might, it truly feels like we’re closer than ever — capitalism is gonna capital. The industry is still dominated by mega-conglomerates. It’s still overwhelmingly white and wealthy and prioritises a very narrow worldview (and body type, for that matter). It’s still about making money, no matter the cost. We can and should try to change that, but we can’t beat ourselves up too much when it doesn’t happen overnight.
We can, however, take solace in the fact that if the fashion establishment doesn’t change with the times — not just in terms of design and marketing and the incorporation of trendy new buzzwords, but in terms of the way things are actually done — it runs the risk of alienating a generation of people who, as much as they love beautiful objects, are quickly realising that they love the beauty of equality, fair treatment, and our planet more, and that maybe there are enough things in this world already, anyway. At this point, it’s not just about doing the right thing, it’s about self-preservation. But then, for those at the top, the people for whom the system is working just perfectly, the revolution is often impossible to see until it’s too late.