Seven months after the election of Donald Trump, we’ve seen numerous designers and brands wearing their politics on their sleeves (or at least, placing them on the sleeves of their models), and it’s clear that the fashion industry is still trying to grapple with the reality of conservatism creeping at its doors. At last week’s Fashion Culture Design conference, now in its second installment, industry heavy hitters discussed how fashion can move forward, affect positive change, and express political opinions in a way that feels genuine.
For Simon Collins, creator of FCD, the most important thing we can do is have open conversations. “I’m not going to waste my time talking to people that already agree with me. It’s just not worth doing,” said Collins. This is why he joined forces with MSNBC and Fox Business contributor Hitha Herzog, who co-hosted this year’s conference. “Hitha, she’s a conservative. She’s not a crazy conservative. She’s a very normal, very smart, intelligent woman with whom I have some disagreements and I thought I can’t tell people to talk to people they don’t agree with if I don’t do it,” Collins explained.
The day-long conference, held at The New School’s University Center in Manhattan, included eight panels that covered such topics as creativity in the current political climate, public versus private lives, sustainability, and the death of fashion week. Speakers included Ian Schrager (the creator of Studio 54’s velvet rope), Marlo Tablante, H&M’s sustainability manager for the U.S, Vogue Runway’s Nicole Phelps, and many more.
“To me, this was about bringing together the smartest people I know, both in the audience and on stage, and asking questions that we can all get together to answer, rather than looking for ways we disagree,” said Collins.
But the theme of the day was conversations, and hard ones, I might add. One particularly complex topic was “Creativity in the Time of Trump,” a panel that was moderated by New York Times fashion director Vanessa Friedman, and included historian Jeremy Varon and designer Zac Posen.
As more designers choose to put politics on the runway (pussy hats at Missoni; Make America New York hats at Public School), it’s important for the industry to ask itself if a t-shirt, like Dior’s “The Future is Female” style, is enough. The panel’s conclusion was a resounding no. After all, a t-shirt cannot resolve the lack of women in positions of power or diversity in fashion. So, Posen asked his colleagues to practice what they preach. “You can’t say you believe in something and not attempt to follow through,” he said.
But the real question posed in the panel was the state of creativity in a time of increasing authoritarianism. Varon feels it’s up to each individual artist to choose what he or she wants to do about it. Translating that to fashion means rethinking the role of the designer. Is it to make people feel better, or is it to make them feel something? To Posen, it’s both. “Creativity can be beautiful without being an escape,” Posen added.
Reconsidering what a fashion designer does and should be is what led Collins to assemble this panel in the first place. Collins asserts that fashion shouldn’t exist in a bubble, considering it affects every individual in the world. “Fashion touches everybody in the country, whether they like it or not,” he said. “So, you may think you’re designing for the West Village, but you are not. You are designing for western Idaho.”
The FCD conference also endeavored to hold fashion accountable for the impact it has on individuals and the world at large. Furthermore, it aimed to build upon the lessons learned during last year’s conference. “I think last year, I proved to myself that there’s a crying need for this kind of engagement. There simply isn’t anyone else doing this,” said Collins.
Next, Collins will take the Fashion Culture Design conference to China, where he will be hosting a three-day conference with translations in English and Chinese. “When I go there, I’m impressed constantly by the desire to create and innovate,” explained Collins. FCD has also added a podcast to the mix.
Fashion is trying to find answers and a genuine role in the resistance, and if we are taking the FCD conference and Collins as examples, the answer is simply a collective dialogue. “I’m just interested in what we can do positively,” said Collins.