The most public moment in the fashion industry calendar has arrived at a moment when the industry is in turmoil. The Bottega Veneta catwalk show, held at the American Stock Exchange on Friday night, opened New York fashion week just three weeks after Mario Testino and Bruce Weber, two of the most powerful photographers in the American fashion industry and front row regulars, faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, which they have denied. The most hotly debated issues of this week will not be hemlines, but whether an industry facing its own #MeToo moment can retain its dignity in the oversexed and underdressed environment of fashion week.
The blackout on the Golden Globes red carpet, when actresses wore black as a statement of feminist solidarity, proved the power of fashion as a lever to engineer change. Last week it was announced that the Baftas, which will be held during London fashion week, would have the same dress code. Yet internally, the fashion industry is proving slow to embrace the collective mood of reflection and re-evaluation that the red carpet blackouts signify in the film community. While Condé Nast International and major brands have cut ties with the named photographers for the foreseeable future, a root-and-branch overhaul of an industry that the Vogue cover girl Edie Campbell described in an open letter to Womenswear Daily as “too accepting of abuse in all its manifestations” has not been instigated. “The ritual humiliation of models, belittling of assistants, power plays and screaming fits … we have come to see this as part of the job,” wrote Campbell.
The activist Myriam Chalek is one of those using the spotlight of fashion week to fight complacency in the industry. Her event, the Time’s Up Show, is a catwalk show that doubles as a protest, with models sharing their experiences of sexual harassment. Chalek told the Daily Beast she chose a fashion show format for the event because “many times [women] get blamed for what happened to them. There is a strong connection between the clothes that somebody is wearing and the blame that society puts on the victims.” The Council of Fashion Designers of America has moved to address an issue that has long affronted models’ dignity. For the first time, models will be entitled to private changing areas backstage, a departure from an industry-wide norm in which models are required to change out of their catwalk outfits and into their own clothes in the same backstage area used by designers as a post-event meet-and-greet area and for media interviews. The CFDA has partnered with the advocacy group Model Alliance to provide working models with a respectful and safe working environment.
Prabal Gurung’s past shows have pioneered casting diversity in ethnicity and body size, championed feminist causes and served as fundraising launches for humanitarian relief after the 2015 Nepal earthquake. “Fashion is not the land of the stupids,” Gurung recently told the Washington Post. Gurung sees his New York fashion week show, which last season drew the activist Gloria Steinem to the front row – her first catwalk show, at the age of 83 – as “a platform, a way to speak to issues that are important to me”.
Gurung, 38, who was born in Singapore and has helmed a fashion brand in New York for almost a decade, represents a world that is no longer about hemlines. Fashion week has shapeshifted from a business-to-business model for designers and retailers into a platform for politics, popular culture and protest – the publicity from which, almost as an afterthought, helps shift clothes. Tuesday’s Black Panther show will be the first official fashion week collection to be presented under the name of a Hollywood film rather than a designer or fashion brand. It features clothes inspired by the afrofuturistic world of Marvel’s first black superhero movie from a stable of designers including Ikiré Jones, who told Womenswear Daily that the film was “an attempt to help uplift the voices of people who have been marginalised historically … It’s beautiful aesthetics but it’s a way to talk about the refugee crises, globalisation, ethical labour.”
Gabriela Hearst, whose show will be held in SoHo early next week, told Vogue the new collection was based on the masculine clothes women wore as they entered the workforce in the second world war. “The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are addressing something that is so ingrained in our society and is especially vital in its workforce. I don’t know any industry, nation or society that hasn’t been affected by gender inequality or abuse.’
The most-anticipated front row moment will come at Calvin Klein. Under Raf Simons, a name that once embodied a milk-fed version of American sex appeal has become a fashion week lightning rod for the liberal, progressive, arthouse leanings of Manhattan. September’s sophomore show, which he dubbed “American horror meets American beauty”, held up a black mirror to the fractious issue of American identity, with reference to Twin Peaks and cowboys, cheerleaders and Andy Warhol. To the rollcall of A-list friends of the house – Gwyneth Paltrow, Brooke Shields and Paris Jackson, daughter of Michael, all take their front row seats – the Kardashian family, who star en masse in the latest advertising campaign, may be added.
The transfer of Bottega Veneta, an insider-favourite name from Milan, to New York this season has softened the blow of losing Proenza Schouler to Paris, but the absence of Rodarte and Altuzarra are keenly felt. Rihanna, whose Fenty show was the out-of-the-box hit of last New York fashion week, is not showing this week. Household names such as Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Coach and Oscar de la Renta can be relied upon to provide catwalk glamour. But with Victoria Beckham moving her show to London next season and Alexander Wang’s show on Saturday night his last before he moves his events to an off-season calendar, the trajectory of once mighty New York fashion week is looking less than positive. Georgina Chapman, whose divorce from Harvey Weinstein has been set in motion, last week quietly cancelled the Marchesa show.
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