“Hypocrisy at its finest.” “A confusing message.”
Those are just two of the comments posted to Stella McCartney’s Instagram photos of her new campaign starring environmental activists from Extinction Rebellion, a climate awareness group that disrupted London Fashion Week earlier this year. We needn’t remind you of McCartney’s eco-friendly missive—she has never used leather or fur, doesn’t throw away or burn unsold products, champions secondhand, and invests heavily in sustainable technologies—but to cast climate activists as models in a luxury ad, as she did for her Fall 2019 campaign, still registered as eyebrow raising. Another Instagram commenter points out that XR, as the group is known, recently proposed a year-long boycott on buying new clothes. How can that possibly jibe with advertising that’s meant to sell them?
McCartney and XR don’t expect to be uniformly cheered here; they hoped the campaign would be provocative, that it would get people talking. They’re aware that the partnership doesn’t “make sense” within the very narrow definition of what a fashion campaign is supposed to be. (Plenty of other Instagram users understood the dichotomy, of course: “Beautifully defiant!”) Yes, the five women in Johnny Dufort’s photos have pledged not to buy clothing for a year, and they’ve petitioned the British Fashion Council to completely cancel London Fashion Week in September by proposing that designers, press, and citizens take the opportunity to meet and discuss the climate crisis instead. Yes, they’re wearing dresses and vegan boots from McCartney’s (thoughtful, environmentally-friendly) Fall 2019 collection, and you may just feel inclined to go buy them.
“I think there is a mutual understanding between Extinction Rebellion’s boycott on fashion and what Stella is trying to achieve,” Tori Tsui, a wildlife photographer and XR representative who models in the campaign, tells Vogue. “She understands the climate crisis and why people are frustrated [with the status quo]. What the boycott is meant to do is tell the story of an emergency. We know it won’t be realistic for everyone [to stop shopping], but if you can’t boycott fashion entirely, buy sustainable. If you can’t go vegan, try to eat less meat. If you can’t stop flying, then offset your emissions,” she continues. “People like Stella are achieving a lot just by making these ideas more mainstream.”
“Stella is using her platform to give us a platform, and that’s creating a conversation,” adds Sara Arnold, an XR coordinator whose resume includes positions at luxury fashion houses. “That’s the great thing the fashion industry can do—it’s one of the most polluting industries in the world, but it’s also one of the most influential. There are limitations on what it can do [to address climate change], but I don’t think there are limitations on how you can use that platform.”
In today’s image-obsessed, social media–driven world, McCartney’s choice to feature XR in a seasonal campaign—one that will appear not just on her own website and all over Instagram, but in print and digital media, too—feels more radical than using upcycled fabrics in a runway collection. Campaigns can transmit a message instantly and assertively, and in 2019, it’s only natural that they’d begin to feel political. “I’ve been thinking quite a lot about what it means for activists to be featured as models,” says Clare Farrell, another XR coordinator. “In a typical campaign, a model is usually presenting some kind of fantasy about who you might be if you buy this thing, or who you might wish you could be, or what you wish you could look like.… If a brand wants to put forward the idea of an activist being the sexiest, coolest version of a grown woman today, I think that’s culturally right-on. Activism hasn’t always had a sexy or fashionable image, and these days, everyone is so overloaded with super slick visual communications and branding. If people are going to protest more and more in the future, it has to look like the coolest thing.”
What is XR protesting, exactly? In short: the entire fashion system as it stands. They’re pushing for a complete reckoning (and not just fashion, but also entertainment, music, travel, etc.) They don’t have a rulebook or specific guidelines for designers as far as sourcing fabrics or choosing the “right” factories; that wouldn’t amount to a significant impact. They’re more focused on galvanizing policy makers and people in power to make sweeping, industry-wide changes, using protests and non-violent civil disobedience to project a greater sense of urgency. (April’s 10-day protests throughout London resulted in more than 1,000 arrests and marked the biggest civil disobedience event in recent British history.) “We aren’t here to give exact solutions [for designers],” Arnold says. “We believe we should have citizens’ assemblies to do that, with groups of normal people informed by experts. The industry should be getting together in crisis talks to work out a way forward. It’s not just about switching from regular cotton to organic cotton—you need to be in an emergency mindset. We aren’t going to fight this problem unless there is complete systemic change, and that happens through targeting the government, not through individual actions alone.”
“What this brings to the table is that trying to change the system from within the system isn’t going to work,” Farrell adds. “The way the fashion industry is set up is not going to allow the change to happen that needs to happen. As long as we’re saying that we want to save the planet and we’re still engaged in these activities, it’s making the problem worse. Mixing up the way you do business within this model isn’t going to be sufficient [when] the scale of mass production has reached this point of insanity,” she continues. “To me, it feels like we’ve lost a lot of time by trying to tackle the problem with the means that caused it in the first place.”
That echoes what McCartney has been saying for roughly two decades, but particularly in the past few years. In March, she spoke out against the “throwaway” sustainability messages so many brands are using; the dishonesty around fashion’s use of leather (she says it’s the worst offender in terms of environmental impact); and the general lack of action from her fellow designers. It’s fair to assume that McCartney and members of her team will be participating in Extinction Rebellion’s “international rebellion” in October: In the UK, they’re shutting down all roads into Westminster in central London, and will “non-violently disrupt the government until our leaders agree to TAKE EMERGENCY ACTION NOW,” according to the group’s website. “Leading scientists and public figures (including the UN Secretary-General) have estimated we have as little as 18 months to turn it around,” the site continues. “The situation is urgent, and we need to ACT NOW. We will rebel for as long as it takes for our government to wake up and realize the death sentence they are giving our young people.”
If that language feels extreme, Tsui, who is also a photographer with a background in conservation science, says what drew her to XR is its openness. “I feel like a lot of people are scared of what it means to go to a protest, or they’re afraid of being seen as hypocrites,” Tsui says. “But at the end of the day, we’re all hypocrites. It’s really hard to be perfect in an imperfect system. I’ve come to realize that we are literally all in this together, and it doesn’t matter if you can’t stop flying or you aren’t vegan. The system we’re in prevents us from being perfect, and I think the best thing we can do right now is show up and have a conversation about it.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue