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In an era where social justice is controversially commodified by fashion’s power players, we examine the “activism” of fashion brands and their questionable effects on global political movements, while shedding light on a few African brands who do practice what they preach.

By Lindsay Samson

Mar 23, 2021

In 2014, French fashion house Chanel turned the SS’15 Paris Fashion Week Runway into the grounds for a political statement. Led by a megaphone-toting Cara Delevingne and industry icon Gisele Bündchen, models marched down the catwalk with signs and placards that featured statements like "History is Her Story", "Boys Should Get Pregnant Too", and "Ladies First”, as Whitney Houston’s "I'm Every Woman" blasted from the speakers.

While some hailed the moment as a breakthrough for feminism that was sure to spark genuine conversations about equality, others were more critical. “The co-opting of protest polemic as a tool instigating you to buy… struck a bum note,” The Independent said of the faux-protest, while The Guardian observed the inevitability of the co-optation of any counter-cultural movement: “The market dictates, and the market has decided feminism is cool,” noted writer Alexandra Topping.

Chanel SS'15 at Paris Fashion Week. Photo: Dominique Charriau via Time

Social justice issues have become a massive talking point over the last few years and this is undoubtedly a good thing. But when the opportunity to turn a profit becomes involved, it’s time to start asking some questions, including whether feminism is being used merely as a tool to sell certain company’s products. The resurgence of feminist activism has been regularly accompanied by feminst-themed commodities, particularly within the fashion world. In 2017, Christian Dior unveiled a shirt reading "We Should All Be Feminists'—the title of Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk and subsequently published essay—at Paris Fashion Week runway which retailed at the exorbitant price of $710. And while the brand later revealed that a percentage of those proceeds would benefit Rihanna's non-profit organization, The Clara Lionel Foundation, it didn’t negate the fact that it encouraged an expression of solidarity not through action but through consumerism.

Dior isn't the only label that could be viewed as cashing in on the global fight for women’s equal rights. At the 2017 edition of New York Fashion Week, models walking for designer Prabal Gurung closed the show wearing graphic T-shirts with slogans speaking to women's rights issues including “Our Minds Our Bodies Our Power” and “We Will Not Be Silenced”. In 2020 online fashion retailer Net-a-Porter launched an exclusive limited-edition collection of T-shirts that featured phrases like “You Go Girl” and “Divine Feminine.” And while it is true that all of the profits went to a charity supporting women survivors of war, this collection too emphasised performative activism.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong about wanting to visibly declare your allegiance to a political movement. But what is questionable is the sanitization of major brands’ behind-the-scenes practices through their sartorial lip-service to current causes.”

Many fast fashion brands have at one time or another utilized sweatshop labor to manufacture their low-price clothing. High street brands such as H&M and Primark have all produced their own cheaper versions of feminist slogan t-shirts but they also have histories of exploiting factory workers overseas. These companies have unsustainably high turnover rates wherein more affordable takes on international trends are released at a rapid pace. In 2020, Teen Vogue noted that fast fashion is unquestionably a feminst issue due to its disproportionate disempowerment of women. Quoting Remak—a nonprofit group established with the aim of putting an end to fast fashion—the publication noted that “80% of the people making our clothing are young women, ages 18 to 24, most of whom earn less than $3 a day.”

There are however a number of fashion brands making strides toward a practice that could be considered a more authentic embodiment of feminst principles, and many of them happen to be African. Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah have been utilising their Studio 189 label as a mechanism for empowering women in Ghana through job creation, education and skills training from the very beginning, focusing on the humans that make their clothing as much as those buying them. “Fashion is a multi-trillion-dollar industry that employs mostly women, particularly in the informal sector” Abrima said to Vogue Czechoslovakia . “There are so many social issues tied to the purchase of a garment. Fashion impacts… countless amounts of people, and contributes to the growth of economies, which contributes to the social welfare of people.”

Sindiso Khumalo SS'20. Photo: via @sindisokhumalo

Studio 189 SS'20 at Lagos Fashion Week. Photo: Courtesy of Studio 189

Sidai Designs. Photo: Coutesy of Sidai Designs

Tanzanian accessory brand Sidai Designs has similarly made it a priority to make a tangible difference in the lives of disadvantaged women. “We hope that people who wear these pieces feel connected and empowered knowing they have empowered [a] woman with their purchase,” Sidai co-founder Rebecca Olivia Moore told Industrie Africa. The brand employs a community of over 100 local Maasai craftswomen and beaders to create high-end, exclusive designs, powered by a mission to not only preserve an age-old African beading tradition, but also to create sustainable jobs and economic opportunities for these artisans.

Another fashion designer quietly addressing the goals of feminism is South Africa’s Sindiso Khumalo. Through the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative, she has connected with underprivileged artisan women around the continent and employed them in the production of her garments. She’s also established a partnership with a Cape Town NGO, Embrace Dignity, that helps women get off the streets and guides them toward long-term careers. Toward this end, Khumalo trains these women in hand embroidery and crochet with the goal of empowering them to support themselves and their families

Essentially, the value of high-profile fashion brands bringing awareness to social issues on a large scale is undeniable. But despite this, there’s also no way around the fact that by doing so while making a profit, they’re also supporting the dominance of global capitalism. This is an action that in the long-term only hurts the women who are most vulnerable to the harm enacted through patriarchy, and if brands like Dior want to honestly embody the values for which they purport to stand, they need to reconsider their approaches to activism. “Feminism is not just a word that can be printed on a t-shirt,” stated journalist and author of The Anti-Capitalism Book of Fashion, Tansy Hosking. “It’s also a set of beliefs and it’s actions behind those beliefs.”