New York Fashion Week begins on Friday, in a city gripped by a new sense of political engagement and social awareness. First, there’s the flurry of protest around Hudson Yards, whose developer, Stephen Ross, came under fire in August for hosting a fundraiser for Donald Trump in August. There’s also a revitalized Council of Fashion Designers of America, newly overseen by Tom Ford (dad!!!!), who earlier this week appointed four new board members to increase the diversity of the industry trade association that supports and promotes American designers. Although the schedule is truncated—another of Ford’s wise changes—the shows begin with a background narrative that has more real world implications than the usual palace intrigue.
“I’m rearranging the board so that it is more diverse in age and more diverse in every way,” Ford told WWD’s Bridget Foley, who first reported on the addition of Virgil Abloh, Pyer Moss’s Kerby Jean-Raymond, Maria Cornejo, and Carly Cushnie to the board. Their new roles also mean the exit of four older board members (or the transition to “non-voting emeritus status”): Georgina Chapman of Marchesa, jewelry designer Mimi So, rag & bone’s Marcus Wainwright, and Kara Ross, a jewelry designer and wife of Stephen. Ford assured Foley that Ross’s exit was unrelated to the protests around her husband: “This has absolutely nothing to do with her political views or her [husband’s] fundraiser for Trump,” he said.
Still, the new board reflects an industry that feels more aware of its potential to speak out against injustice and drive political change than ever. In August, Out editor Phil Picardi set the tone with an op-ed declaring that “New York Fashion Week Has a Donald Trump Problem,” calling on designers and press to sharpen their awareness of Ross’s influence over the fashion industry, which far exceeds his ownership of fashion scene pillars SoulCycle and Equinox. Since then, a number of designers who were planning to show at The Shed, the performance space plunked into the middle of New York’s schmanciest mall, announced that they would show elsewhere. For the most part, these designers said, their decisions weren’t influenced by Ross’s support of Trump, although Prabal Gurung tweeted that his departure for another venue most certainly was.
What’s notable about this wave of political activism is its brawn: in the wake of the election, fashion’s political engagement was mostly expressed through slogan T-shirts and quilted fabrics that suggested a desire for protection. Now, “we are living in crisis mode,” Gurung tweeted. Even Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty lingerie show, which will be the feel-good highlight of the week, carries political undertones: The Cut wrote that Rihanna has “officially taken over” the market space vacated by the embroiled, Jefrrey Epstein-adjacent Victoria’s Secret.
Outside the confines of the fashion industry per se, the American garment industry is under a growing amount of pressure from Trump’s trade war with China. While it’s too early to measure the effects of the higher tariffs that went into effect on September 1, The Wall Street Journal reported in August that a number of apparel companies fear the tariffs will hurt their profits. In another story, the paper reported that the tariffs will affect womenswear more than menswear, because the quicker pace of women’s fashion means more women’s clothing is made in China, which has the infrastructure and manufacturing skill to better support trend-driven fashion. Should these predictions bear out, will we see a new wave of activism, particularly as some companies begin to move production from China to Bangladesh, which has yet to adequately address its poor treatment of factory workers?
America’s fashion industry isn’t the only one being driven by a new political energy. The British Fashion Council last week released a statement against a no-deal Brexit, announcing that leaving the European Union without ratifying a withdrawal agreement could cost the industry up to £900 million in a single year. With the deadline for an agreement looming at the end of October, the London season—which takes place next week—will also be a charged one. That mood was already an influence on designers during the men’s shows in June, with British designer Martine Rose, for example, producing a dark, cheeky collection influenced by “the terrifying things that govern us.”
France, in the meantime, is leading its own revolution, with a global charge to address the climate crisis formally announced at the G7 last week. President Emanuel Macron is staging for a new era of innovation and leadership in environmental awareness in fashion, appointing Kering boss Francois Pinault as the leader of the initiative. LVMH has also been upping its sustainability efforts, and with most brands in Paris owned by Kering or LVMH, and a record number of young designers, for whom activism and environmental consciousness come more naturally, running luxury houses as well as their own buzzy brands, it seems this mood will drive Paris Fashion Week, as well.
Politics and fashion aren’t exactly strange bedfellows, with Ivanka and Melania Trump’s fashion choices presenting themselves regularly as sartorial tea leaves. But generally, the questions animating each season of fashion week tend to be more industry focused—editors and buyers heading off to the men’s Spring 2020 shows this past summer, for example, wondered how designers would grapple with their newfound status as the industry’s darlings. (The answer: with a new attitude towards gender fluidity!) This season, the questions feel more urgent, reflecting not only a desire to link the industry to the wider world, but also fashion’s connection to (and even complicity in) the world’s changes and turmoil. How will these ideas bear out in the clothing and in the front row? The world awaits.
Originally Appeared on GQ