How London Fashion Week totally led the way with activism and sustainability

The last twelve months have seen marches against Brexit, Trump, animal cruelty and in support of women’s rights (hello #metoo). And, these days, veganism is pretty much mainstream.

For an industry so centred around obsessive detailing (just a seam in the wrong place can be the difference between a style super-hit and a badly-fitting catwalk fail), it’s incredible, really, how vague the language of fashion is.

New trends are ‘looks’ or a ‘thing’, designers are ‘hot’ or ‘having a moment’. But however irritatingly opaque fashion speak can be, there really is no escaping the fact that, right now, the ‘hottest’ new trend, the ‘thing’ that is having its ‘moment’ isn’t clothes – it’s activism.

But if anything was to epitomise the current political tinderbox that is the UK, it’s the extraordinary series of events that unfolded against the backdrop of this season’s London Fashion Week.

Early morning on fashion week’s so-called ‘mega Monday’ (where London’s most celebrated designers show pretty much back to back all day), seven Labour MPs decided speaking up against their leader wasn’t enough. They decided to act – and announced they were quitting the party to form their own ‘Independent Group’, in protest at Brexit, Corbyn and anti-Semitism. Just three days earlier, on the very day that LFW kicked off, thousands of teenagers and children (the increasingly influential Gen Z-ers and Alphas) skipped school to march for action on climate change. And the climate change protest part two took place the next day – with marchers attempting to block fashion week attendees in order to highlight the ruinous toll clothing production takes on the environment.

While protests outside catwalk shows aren’t necessarily new – a number of design houses across the fashion capitals have faced huge backlash for their use of fur – it was what happened on the catwalks this season that was the most surprising. Because, for once, huge brands, big name designers, found their voices. In their roles as tastemakers, and future-shapers, they understood that, today, it is actions that count.

As a result, this was one of the most astonishing London Fashion Week’s to date, as Riccardo Tisci’s #newBurberry, Victoria Beckham, Grace Wales Bonner and Amy Powney’s Mother of Pearl all took to the stand to declare their positions on class, Brexit, race, sustainability or animal cruelty.

Tisci’s Burberry show was dedicated to the ‘youth of today’, with audience members split across an effective class divide of seats (half plush, half harsh) – with Union Jack flags bombastically showcased, reminding fashion fans that, just weeks before Britain is due to leave the EU, this most British of brands is now helmed by a European. All this alongside the company’s new commitment to ditch fur and enhance their sustainability credentials – they announced last year that they’re no longer burning unsold goods, in order to re-use, donate or repair them.

Victoria Beckham, who appears to have quietly relocated her show from New York to London on a more permanent basis (to an exceptionally warm welcome because our beloved Spice Girl is home!), used LFW to confirm that her brand will no longer be using exotic skins – and revealed exclusively to GLAMOUR’s Josh Smith that she is attempting the same level of ethical production with her soon-to-launch make-up brand: “I am on a mission to make a beauty brand of the future that’s not tested on animals, something I feel VERY strongly about, can be sustainable as possible – not just in the product but the packaging too – AND my customers know what is actually in it.”

Grace Wales-Bonner’s show was set to the lyrics of a specially commissioned poem by Ben Okri: the words ‘All Genius is Black’ hung in the air as models came down the catwalk.

And Mother of Pearl’s Amy Powney took centre stage at a special BBC Earth evening, as she talked sustainability and her inspiring ethical collection ‘No Frills’.

This was also the first year that Oxfam’s ‘recycled’ fashion show, styled by industry veteran Bay Garnett, took place as part of mega Monday, and menswear designer Bethany Williams picked up this year’s Queen Elizabeth II award for her recycled, inclusive and sustainable collection.

As big name designer after big name designer made their voices heard, British fashion suddenly came to the forefront of an activist uprising.

What’s so fascinating, though, is ‘why now?’

For decades, the Grande Dame of fashion protest, Vivienne Westwood, has been something of a lone voice at London Fashion Week (vegan designer Stella McCartney, while British, has long shown in Paris).

Year after year, she has used her shows as a platform for her passions. She has stood up against fracking, Brexit, come out in support of Scottish independence, and for Julian Assange. She has never cared whether activism has been on trend or not. She doesn’t give a hoot if her messages are fraught with controversy – much like this season, when models including #metoo figurehead Rose McGowan railed against fashion’s sustainability problem (i.e. how our shopping habits are ruining the planet) while simultaneously trying to sell us more clothes. She has kept on protesting because she passionately believes in change.

Now, of course, she’s making headlines again – because the messages she’s putting out there are what the public are also taking a stand against.

But it’s impossible to look at the wider fashion’s industry’s sudden embrace of activism and at least examine whether it’s merely a ploy to connect with – and sell to – their all-powerful Gen X, millennial and Gen Z audience? According to the 2018 annual Edelman brand survey, 64% of consumers (across all three generations) around the world now buy based on their ethical, social or political beliefs – a remarkable increase of 13% in just one year. And according to Weber Shandwick and KRC research, 83% of millennials today would boycott a brand for ethical reasons.

Because, while this rising activist spirit has freed today’s designers to express what they feel with much less fear of investors objecting, right now there’s no getting away from the fact it also PAYS to have an opinion.

In an interview with Vogue.com that came out on the day LFW started, Stella McCartney hit out at the brands jumping on the ethical bandwagon: “It’s one thing to give up fur, but many of those brands weren’t really selling fur. Or to give up exotic skins when, really, who’s buying exotic skins anymore? That’s not really a market. It’s a good message, but those statements can feel a little throw-away.”

Her biggest frustration is that if you’re prepared to stop exotic skins, why not leather too? “What’s the difference between an exotic skin and a cow skin? I don’t get it – that’s the same conversation to me.

“People really don’t want to talk about the fact that the fashion industry’s biggest impact is its use of leather. The animals it kills, the toxins, the chemicals, the cutting down of rain forests, the food and water and electricity it takes to make a leather bag. If you really mean it, stop using leather, full stop.”

It’s a provocative view point, and she’s right that change can only come when everyone is prepared to embrace full-blown activism together. But surely the fact that, whatever the benefits to the brands who took a stand, we’re all talking about more than just the clothes. It’s what they can come to stand for – and what we can too. And surely, surely, this is just the start of something much greater?

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