Welcome to this week’s edition of In the News! Our latest recap includes discussions of the cultural significance of the keffiyeh, risks of expiring protections for garment workers, the pitfalls of performative brand marketing, and global design movements gaining traction.

Dress Politics

Over the past few weeks, people in nearly 100 cities around the world have gathered to protest in solidarity with Palestine. During these marches and rallies, the traditional checkered keffiyeh cloth is a common sighting. Although conventionally draped around the head and face as protection from desert winds, global protesters are often seen in city streets wearing the cloth more casually as a scarf. But the keffiyeh is much more than a simple scarf – it embodies “complex political semiotics,” as described by The Fashion and Race Database Research Assistant Safia Sheikh in the Objects That Matter series.

This cloth did not originate from political struggle, and was historically worn by traveling Bedouin tribes seeking relief from the elements. Its political associations are traced to The Arab Revolt in the 1930s, when the scarf was adopted by those involved in resistance efforts opposing the occupation of Palestine under the British Mandate, primarily as a means of concealing identity.
closeup on a few people among hundreds at a demonstration in support of Palestine; a young man holds up a protest sign

Photo on Flickr by Elvert Barnes is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

But it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that the cloth become internationally recognized as a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian people, popularized by iconic imagery of former President of Palestine Yasser Arafat and rebel leader Leila Khaled. The cloth began being worn by people around the world as a signal of support, while its political associations solidified during the First Intifada (1987) and Second Intifada (2000). However, over this time period, and increasingly throughout the 2000s, the keffiyeh style and pattern was appropriated as a fashion garment by Western consumers who were often unaware of its cultural significance.

black & white photograph from the 1930s, with four people posing in front of a white car

Dray, Joss. Student Council Elections, Birzeit University, ca.1992, still image (negatives). The Palestinian Museum, Birzeit, 0006.06.0047.

screenshot of a product on the Urban Outfitter's website which reads, 'Anti-War Woven Scarf' - $20.00

Screenshot taken from Urban Outfitters website with the product listing for ‘Anti-War Woven Scarf’

This fashionalization resulted in knockoffs produced cheaply in other countries and sold by fast fashion retailers like Urban Outfitters, eventually pushing many of the original Palestinian producers out of business. And although the frenzy for this appropriative trend has faded over time, its problematic impact persists, with only one remaining factory in the region (Hirbawi) still producing keffiyehs. The loss of Palestinian agency in the commoditization of the keffiyeh is particularly devastating when contextualized within the political struggle that imbued the cloth with its cultural meaning. 

Sustainability & Labor Issues

Tensions are rising as we approach the May 31 expiration of The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which was passed in response to the Rana Plaza Disaster in 2013. The Accord was uniquely successful because it involved legally binding penalties and independent audits to hold brands and factories accountable. But while garment workers unions hope to expand the Accord to other countries, brands and factory owners are lobbying to replace it with an alternative new agreement. Business of Fashion reports that “unions allege the new agreement lets brands off the hook when it comes to paying for and enforcing improvements and protections because it isn’t legally binding.

Photo by Sharat Chowdhury, CC-BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Also on our radar:
thumbnail image of California's state capitol building

The California state senate voted in favor of a landmark SB62 Garment Workers Protection Act, which holds brands accountable for the treatment of garment workers. The GWPA has made it through 2 votes and will need to go through a total of 9 votes to pass. Supporters across the US and internationally are encouraged to sign the PayUp Fashion petition in favor of GWPA.

Photo by Alex Proimos is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

Business & Retail

Old Navy, owned by Gap Inc, came under fire this month for its problematic approach in attempting to coordinate an influencer campaign to celebrate Juneteenth. The company worked with an influencer agency, Mavrck, which engaged in campaign outreach that offended many of the Black content creators who were contacted. Influencers took to their social platforms to call out Old Navy for requests they perceived as thoughtless and inconsiderate, which included being asked to purchase a special branded Juneteenth t-shirt with their own personal funds in order to participate in the campaign (rather than being gifted the merchandise). Additionally, the same rate was quoted to all 300 influencers who were contacted, despite them having a wide range in followings – some with 100,000+ and others with just a few thousand. This meant that some creators were offended by comparatively low rates, and the lack of personalization in these mass emails suggested an overall carelessness in campaign management.

street-level view of the storefront of Old Navy on a busy city street

Old Navy store in San Francisco. Photo by Alex Bierwagen on Unsplash

These missteps aggravated existing tensions in the influencer community, with Business of Fashion reporting that Black content creators often “say they are still treated differently than their white peers. Many report getting paid less than white influencers with comparable followings. Top-tier Black influencers say they aren’t gifted merchandise as often.” Old Navy responded by “pausing” the campaign and making a statement about their intentions to realign their marketing efforts with their commitment to “amplifying voices that have been historically underrepresented.” While the company seemed to place some of the blame on its agency, influencer Latoya Shauntay Snell pointed out, “it’s on the brand to actually investigate the third party they hire and make sure they are a company that values Black talent.” As big brands attempt to address consumer demands for inclusivity and representation, they continue to struggle in their approach. Without first taking steps to address the deeply rooted biases within their ways of working, corporations inevitably end up perpetuating these same problematic power dynamics despite any positive intentions. Influencer and diversity consultant Chrissy Rutherfold explained to Business of Fashion, “If you’re looking to profit off the proximity of a Black influencer, you need to be doing your part against systemic racism and that means paying Black talent fairly.” When it comes to Juneteenth, Rutherford pushed for action beyond performative marketing: “I don’t want to see a T-shirt, I want to see how brands are going to help move the needle.” 

This perspective aligns with Dr. Jonathan Square’s analysis in his essay, ‘The Problem with All-Black Castings,’ published on The Fashion and Race Database just before Black History Month. He points out that these types of performative campaigns only serve to superficially commemorate specific occasions without taking action to create structural change behind the scenes. Square argues that, instead of attempting to capitalize on inclusivity as a temporary marketing gimmick, “Diversity should be made intrinsic to a brand’s ethos and an ongoing conversation.”

Business & Retail

Also on our radar:

As consumers increasingly demand action from corporations, some fashion brands have begun to take a stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict. This week, retailers including Harvey Nichols Kuwait, Galeries Lafayette Doha, Bloomingdale’s Middle East and luxury online platform Ounass announced they would be removing the brand Cult Gaia from their shelves. The action came after consumers called out social media posts by the brand’s founder, Jasmin Hekmat, who defended Israel’s recent actions.

After reneging on their original hiring choice due to accusations of racist statements, Conde Nast names Versha Sharma as the new Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue.

The CEO of Japanese beauty brand DHC has been called out for discriminatory comments expressing anti-Korean sentiment and using racial slurs.

Italian luxury brand Prada recently announced new diversity and inclusion initiatives focused on internship, mentorship and scholarship opportunities for BIPOC.

Design & Imagemaking

While the fashion industry has conventionally revolved around a Eurocentric perspective, the pandemic has shifted this focus in many ways. As conventional fashion week calendars were disrupted, this created more opportunities for a diverse range of global designers to take the stage.

In Lagos, nine designers presented work in partnership with Fashion Revolution during a three-day online showcase, “Woven Threads II: Moving in Circles.” The event highlighted emerging creatives, like LVMH Prize nominee Lagos Space Programme,  while also providing a platform for discussions about waste reduction and circular design. The virtual edition of South African Fashion Week wrapped up in the first week of May after presentations from 28 designers, including LVMH Prize finalist Lukhanyo Mdingi. This event also had a focus on slow fashion, with features like MC Alpine’s ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ collection made using leftover fabric from previous seasons. Meanwhile, in Shanghai, China, a busy fashion week calendar included over 100 livestreamed shows. Emerging designers that made waves included Angel Chen, Shushu/Tong, and Private Policy.

Design & Imagemaking

Also on our radar:

A recent piece by Business of Fashion highlights collaborations and partnerships between Black fashion talent across generations, like renowned costume designer Ruth Carter and emerging jeweller Jameel Mohammed, founder of Khiry.

Designers Christopher John Rogers, Bianca Saunders, and Rui Zhou were named among the nine finalists for the 2021 LVMH prize.

Louis Vuitton names K-pop band BTS as their new house ambassadors