Before she stepped out for the finale of Prabal Gurung’s show last week, Bella Hadid caught a glimpse of the designer’s face. “I’ve become really close with him, and I was just so proud of him,” she says. “Looking into his eyes as he was about to [take his bow] and as he was watching everyone walk out, that’s when I started crying. It was really intense and really beautiful.”
Hadid and her fellow models created one of New York Fashion Week’s most talked-about moments when they walked Gurung’s finale wearing stark T-shirts of black or white, each adorned with a straightforward message. “The Future Is Female,” read Hadid’s shirt, while others sported “Love Is Love,” “Break Down Walls” and “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”
Gurung wasn’t alone in using his runway to express his views on the Trump presidency and the political climate. The statements made by him and other designers spawned perhaps the most prominent trend of New York Fashion Week: protest merchandise. But now that the shows are over, will those political sentiments hit store racks, too? In this age of wallet activism, when a brand’s leanings can spawn hashtag boycotts and stock market dips, can designers and retailers afford to take sides?
Gurung says yes. In fact, versions of the short-sleeve T-shirt styles are already for sale on his website for $130 each. Proceeds benefit the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the designer’s Shikshya Foundation Nepal, which raises funds to provide education to underprivileged children in that country.
“People on the outside and even some in the fashion industry think that fashion people are maybe not the smartest. It’s a constant battle,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But we have the platform, we have the audience. We’re not living in a normal situation. So I feel passionately about it.”
The “People Are People” T-shirt that closed Christian Siriano’s show is selling for $25, with proceeds benefiting the ACLU; designed by Siriano’s husband, Brad Walsh, the tee is already sold out on Siriano’s site.
And Jonathan Simkhai’s “Feminist AF” T-shirt, which awaited front-row guests at his Feb. 11 show, is available on his site for $95, with proceeds going to Planned Parenthood as part of that organization’s partnership with the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
Some industry watchers see activism not only as a trend but as an opportunity for the apparel industry.
“We have one of the greatest opportunities in fashion in a long time. It’s not that difficult to create an avant-garde statement on a T-shirt, but these become collector’s items and statement pieces. These are key driving factors that get consumers excited,” says Marshal Cohen, chief retail-industry analyst for NPD Group.
“Brands will play the political card, and it will serve them well to do it,” he continues. “They’d almost prefer that stores don’t do it because designers would rather have that direct connection. That’s why most of these items are available exclusively through their sites.”
Retailers will tread more lightly, Cohen says.
“We’re going to see this messaging going forward in seasons to come, as long as there continues to be things that outrage and upset people in the world overall,” predicts Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus. He admits, however, that the Dallas-based retailer likely wouldn’t be open to carrying some of the statements seen in various shows. “There are certain messages that we do not feel should be in our stores at retail,” he says. “We like a message that’s positive, that’s born out of hope and makes people think, but think with a positive point of view as opposed to feeling destructive.”
But activism in some forms is already making the transition from runway to retail. On Tuesday, Chanel kicked off a new marketing campaign, including a short film titled Gabrielle, a Rebel at Heart that casts the luxury house’s founder in a trailblazing feminist light. The initiative will include a forthcoming fragrance and handbag.
Barneys New York used Fashion Week as the launch pad for a campaign titled “We Will Be,” currently on view at its Madison Avenue flagship windows through the end of February.
Produced by the Barneys New York Foundation, “We Will Be” highlights female empowerment through video installations featuring Hillary Rodham Clinton, Lena Dunham, Jane Fonda, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Helen Mirren, Christiane Amanpour and other celebrated women, while a short film, I Will Be, showcases 34 female students from New York’s High School of Fashion Industries.
#JonathanSimkhai is proud to participate in the @CFDA’s Fashion Stands with @PlannedParenthood. In honor and support of all the strong women in our lives and yours, we will donate all proceeds of our “Feminist AF” t-shirts sold on JonathanSimkhai.com—shop via link in bio. #IStandWithPP #FeministAF #SimkhaiAF
Why would Barneys use its most valuable real estate for a platform wholly unrelated to selling merchandise? “Back in November, with such a negative and divisive tone in the world, we felt we needed to kick off the year with a message of inclusion, diversity and women’s empowerment,” Daniella Vitale, CEO of Barneys, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “With a group of us sitting around talking about how women, in general, had been treated so poorly during the campaign, [we thought] what could we do to change that narrative into something wonderful?” Abbreviated versions of “We Will Be” also can be found at Barneys’ Chelsea location and in-store at flagships across the U.S.
It’s not the first time Barneys has put its windows to use for social activism — previously the retailer partnered with former first lady Michelle Obama on her “Let Girls Learn” initiative and with Amy Schumer on her StyleFund project. And Vitale is confident it won’t be the last.
“The movement within Barneys to work tirelessly for equal rights across all demographics is something that should be recognized and celebrated,” she says.
This article was originally published in The Hollywood Reporter.