Glossrags - Stay Woke
Glossrags - Stay Woke
Image: Othello Benaci

The expression "stay woke" derives from African-American Vernacular English. It was popularised in 2014 by the Black Lives Matter movement to promote a state of awareness about racial and social injustice, but has since entered the lexicon as an expression that encompasses many different social issues, from reproductive health to LGBT rights.

Beyoncé is woke because her song "Formation", released last year, touched on the subject of police brutality and the representation of black women in modern America. The sportspersons and celebrities currently joining the "take the knee" protest against racial injustice, in the wake of a tweet from President Trump suggesting that players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired, are woke.

Can the catwalk demonstrate a social consciousness? It's a question that came to mind as I read a review of the Prada spring/summer 2018 show which described the collection of studded bags, patchwork jackets and comic-book prints as being "in sync with the 'woke' generation's sensibilities".

Yes, the collection did feature cartoon portraits of American political activist Angela Davis alongside the words "Sister: you are welcome in this house." And yes, backstage, its designer Miuccia Prada described herself as being "angry", saying that the condition of women right now had made her more "combative" in her design. But that didn't get away from the fact that the prints were featured on coats and bags costing thousands of pounds.

Can designers raise awareness or bring about political change? Certainly, clothes have a long tradition of being used to highlight social inequity. The suffragettes wore white dresses with a purple-and-green sash to unite their common cause. The Black Power activists of the 1960s adopted berets and a single gloved fist to fight racial injustice. In 1983, British designer Katharine Hamnett launched a fashion empire built on slogan T-shirts advocating a woman's right to "Choose Life" and calling for a "Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now".

Ms Prada joins a number of designers who have used their recent collections to call out social injustice. For her debut collection at Dior last September, Maria Grazia Chiuri printed the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's essay "We Should All Be Feminists" on T-shirts. They cost a decidedly non-egalitarian £490, and promptly sold out. Her collection this week featured T-shirts asking, "Why have there been no great women artists?", the question posed by art historian Linda Nochlin in her landmark 1971 essay. The luxury streetwear label Vetements currently offers customers an EU flag-printed hoodie (£750), which would suggest a political empathy with a unified Europe. The fact that the brand recently shifted its entire operations from Paris to Switzerland, a non-EU country that has had to negotiate a series of agreements in order to maintain its economic partnerships with the EU, is an irony that shouldn't go unnoticed.

The garment industry is the second-most polluting on the planet after oil

The products may be prohibitively expensive, but that doesn't necessarily mean that a designer can't make a statement. And, as their sellout successes would suggest, the luxury customer today is increasingly likely to be the kind of person who considers themselves part of a broader political conversation. Specifically, they're younger. According to analysts at Bain, quoted in the FT last week, millennials and "Gen Z" clients are expected to make up nearly half of the luxury customer base by 2025. And those clients have very different attitudes about what they want their clothes to say about who they are.

Until quite recently, fashion has been more cautious about putting its money where its T-shirts are. The nuances of global expansion into China, the Middle East and the more conservative US states, places where advocating LGBT rights, social justice and freedom of speech might be seen as bad for business, have seen design focused more on splashy branding than slogans. But times seem to be changing. After all, those who couldn't afford Dior's feminist T-shirt could probably buy one of the numerous knock-off versions on the high street.

Which raises another problem. Because if you do want to wear your awareness on your chest, you should probably be thinking very carefully about where your clothes are being manufactured and what the human and environmental costs of making them might be. The garment industry is the second-most polluting on the planet after oil. Three out of four items of clothing we buy end up in landfill. Our T-shirts are made by children.

The most socially responsible among you have already cottoned on to this. To be truly conscientious about your wardrobe, you don't need a shouty symbol or slogan to announce your awareness. You need to buy clothes from companies that are utterly transparent about their materials, manufacture and distribution. Or make them yourself. Which is why those grannies in the haberdashery department are probably the most woke fashionistas you know.

This article was originally published by the Financial Times.Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.

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