What Fashion Doesn't Get About Black Lives Matter

Last week, Ports 1961 showed variations of Black Lives Matter merchandise at their men's runway show. Below, writer Dream McClinton shares why this kind of appropriation from fashion labels should not be tolerated.
As a Black person, Twitter can be fun but it sometimes yield the biggest of blows. When you’re Black, that often means a hashtag followed by a name. Just a few weeks ago, it was #PhilandoCastile. “BREAKING,” read the ABC News tweet, “Minnesota police officer found not guilty in the shooting death of Philando Castile.”
Many of you are well-aware of the story: Last summer, Castile was stopped by the police with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her daughter in the car. It had happened to him often, nearly 50 times before. But this pattern was to be disrupted. After Castile then disclosed he had a licensed firearm to Officer Jeronimo Yanez, he reached for his ID. Without a second thought, Yanez fired bullets into Castile’s body with Reynolds’s daughter less than three feet away in the backseat. Reynolds recorded the aftermath on Facebook Live, the soft coos of her young daughter just as piercing as the image of the blood stained white shirt on Castile’s lifeless body. To me, it was a clear case of murder. But the June announcement of Yanez’s acquittal denied that. I felt sick, disillusioned, and pained knowing a life like mine was taken and there was no justice.
Just a few days later, Ports 1961 released its Spring 2018 menswear collection with an attempt to be socially aware: Designer Milan Vukmirovic opened the presentation with a sweater emblazoned with a Black power fist, a second sweater followed that read “Only Love Matters,” then a third that said “Every Color Matters.” All three models wearing these pieces were Black. With symbols and language similar to the Black Lives Matter movement, it was clear the fashion company was trying rebrand a current social cause for capital. The sweaters weren’t honoring the fallen like Castile or 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who died in 2012 at the hands of George Zimmerman, rather they were commandeering the Black struggle and its symbols for commerce. Ports appropriated Black iconography not to say “We stand with you”, but “We stand over you.” What’s more, the label did not extend a donation to the movement or make any further steps to support Black Lives Matter, adding to the conclusion Ports 1961 does not know or care about the movement.
To me and many like me, Black Lives Matter is more than a call to action — it is a statement of worth. It means Black hopes and Black dreams matter. It is a struggle for liberation from all oppressive systems that refuse to acknowledge the value of our existence. It is all those things but there is one thing it is not, it is not a trend.
The sweaters removes Black struggle from an equation we are at the center of. “Every Color Matters” denies our struggle. “Only Love Matters” denies that I am judged by law enforcement for my skin. It denies that I pray for my loved ones to come home when they leave the house for a routine errand. It denies that law enforcement is getting away with murder. Moreover, it denies Black people their own fight.
Yes, art can be about self-expression. Jean Michel Basquiat created Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) after a young graffiti artist was beaten into a coma by the NYPD. Keith Haring created his “Once Upon a Time” bathroom mural after his diagnosis of AIDS. Since the 2016 election, fashion designers have used their art to fight for freedoms like the aforementioned, too. Think of The Council of Fashion Designers of America’s (CFDA) Fashion Stands with Planned Parenthood initiative or Opening Ceremony’s Action Capsule collection that sells hoodies and tanks emblazoned with the words “Defy,” “Fight,” and “Change” and benefits the ACLU. Even the lack of fashion can infer protest, like Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, and Sophie Theallet refusing to dress First Lady Melania Trump based on her husband’s proposed policies. Clearly, designers are absolutely correct to stand up for what they believe in and protest however way they deem fit, but Ports 1961’s lack of understanding of the cause is insincere. If the brand could not have just said Black Lives Matter, there should have been silence, not sweaters.