In 2017, Fashion Must Do More than Make (Statement) Clothes

Almost everyone has been notably hard on New York fashion as of late. Not too long ago, we looked at what was drawing big names, like Altuzarra, Thom Browne, Proenza Schouler, and Rodarte, away from NYFW. Since then, WWD asked if NYFW is on its way to becoming a "ghost town" and BoF posted an Op-Ed penned by Eugene Rabkin of Style Zeitgeist declaring that “there is not much left on the New York Fashion Week calendar that is exciting,” and calling the week a “creative snooze-fest” compared to its international counterparts. Other publications have expressed similar sentiments.

While the future of and the level of creativity associated with NYFW is still being hotly debated, one aspect of the bi-annual domestic womenswear weeks – and the organizations and designers that take part in it – that is indisputable is the level of awareness and advocacy that is being put forth during these weeks (and carried over throughout the rest of the year), especially when compared against the other major fashion weeks. This is something for which New York’s fashion establishment is potentially not given enough credit.

As an industry, fashion – although often considered tedious and/or frivolous compared to other endeavors – has a footprint that is enormous. Whether by way of the actual garments purchased, its visibility on red carpets, or its presence on social media, fashion touches more lives than it doesn’t. As a result, the industry – and those within its orbit – have the ability to impact culture on a sizable scale and in very tangible ways. With this reality comes the need for fashion – despite its primary operation as a business – to do more than just create and sell garments and accessories.

Despite any potential shortcomings with NYFW, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (“CFDA”) and the designers under its umbrella seem to understand this more than many of its fashion industry bedfellows. Unlike the rise in symbolic efforts made to merely boost public relations (and thereby, sales, social media followers, and/or readership clicks) – a stunt that we have seen from many brands and publications in recent seasons – New York consistently puts its money where its mouth is, so to speak (even if this does stand to come with good press as a result).

To be specific, New York is at the forefront of efforts to ensure diversity on the runway (as noted by TheFashionSpot, NYFW had the highest diversity rating of the four fashion centers, as usual, for the F/W 2017 season). It has worked to help ensure that healthy models are being cast for shows (the CFDA specifically addresses this each season and a New York City law has been enacted to ensure underage models are properly cared for) and has be at the center of awareness-raising campaigns for an array of additional important causes.

For instance, just this week, the CFDA, the organizer of NYFW, announced that it will team up with the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) to raise awareness about the non-profit organization’s fight to protect civil liberties and oppose “racism, bigotry, and hatred in our democracy.”

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, said he is optimistic about the concrete effects that will come from the support of the CFDA – and over 50 of its designer brands. “I have no doubt that the individual and collective voices of the fashion industry proclaiming, ‘We the People’ will resonate far beyond the runway this September,” says Romero.

The CFDA also had a hand in bringing about another element to this partnership. It called on Lyft, a longtime supporter of the ACLU, to get involved. As a result, the ride-sharing app has pledged to donate $5 of every ride to and from Fashion Week events, up to $10,000, when passengers enter the promo code FASHIONSTANDS into its app.

“We want to be on the front line, not the sidelines, to boldly fight to protect our precious rights and freedoms, which has taken on a renewed urgency after the heart-wrenching events of Charlottesville,” said Steven Kolb, President and CEO of CFDA.

Such efforts are hardly a novel concept for the CFDA. It has long dedicated itself to helping to promote causes close to its heart, including disaster relief efforts – whether it be Hurricane Sandy or more recently, Hurricane Harvey – and initiatives devoted to breast cancer, HIV/Aids, sustainability, and immigration reform, among others.

Last season, the organization teamed up with Planned Parenthood, distributing bright pink buttons that read “Fashion Stands With Planned Parenthood” to NYFW participants and encouraging them to wear them to shows and document them on social media. According to the New York-based trade group, they donated $5 to Planned Parenthood each time a photo of the pin with #IStandWithPP was shared on social media. 

And this level of responsibility and awareness is something the CFDA appears to pass on to its members. Case in point: More than 40 designers and brands participated in the Planned Parenthood initiative last season, including Diane von Furstenberg, Carolina Herrera, Cushnie et Ochs, Public School, Jonathan Simkhai, Kate Spade New York, Rosetta Getty, Proenza Schouler, Mara Hoffman, Narciso Rodriguez, Prabal Gurung, Tory Burch and Zac Posen.

On its own, New York-based brand Altuzarra, auctioned off tickets to its F/W 2017 show, to benefit Planned Parenthood. Opening Ceremony donated 100% of the profits from its "Action" collection to the ACLU early this year. And Prabal Gurung, one of the CFDA’s most humanitarianism-focused members, put strongly-worded tees on his runway, a move that – unlike many others’ attempts – did not fall short.

Why did Gurung’s tees come off as authentic as opposed to opportunistic, you ask? Well, you will not have to look hard to learn that Gurung, a Nepalese native based in New York, has, for years, devoted a huge portion of his time to activism and philanthropy, whether it be his earthquake fund – which raised upwards of $1 million after the April 2015 tragedy in Nepal – or his involvement with the Women’s March, the ACLU, his own Shikshya Foundation Nepal, and sustainability-specific initiatives.

Gurung –  who has also been celebrated for embracing diversity, both in terms of race and size – is a good example of the type of designers that are being fostered in New York. “My job as a designer is to create a beautiful wardrobe that inspires,” he told Footwear News some time ago. “My job as a person is to make sure all the attention I’m getting for my work does not stay within these walls. It needs to go somewhere else.”

This level of awareness and dedication to using fashion as a catalyst for positive change - as opposed to merely a way to simply drive press attention - is worth factoring into the discussion about the merit of NYFW and New York as a fashion capital, no?