In Issue 08 of In the News, we consider the impacts of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, share an update on Shein’s problematic faster-fashion approach, unpack the tensions between inclusivity and luxury, and explore the complexities of artisan-designer collaboration.
This week, news broke of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as the Taliban took control. First and foremost, we would like to share the comprehensive community resource guide compiled by Hawa Arsala and Slow Factory Foundation, an organization featured in the Fashion and Race Database Directory.
The current crisis has forced many to reflect on the past twenty years of warfare, and even longer histories of political intervention driven by Western nations. Although these issues may seem far removed from fashion, the politics of dress and its intersection with religion are often central to Western narratives justifying such intervention. For decades, sensationalist media headlines have pointed to religious coverings and modest dress to portray Muslim women as oppressed and in need of being rescued. After this week’s news broke regarding Afghanistan, these narratives again took center stage. Recognizing the problematic nature of this commentary as seen in mainstream media, Zara Rahim took to Twitter and Instagram Stories to collect and share literature that “[unpacks] the weaponization of western feminist narratives to advance military occupation/Islamophobia.” One of the articles shared by Rahim is a powerful editorial published by Rafia Zakaria in The Nation, which details how white feminist leaders have been complicit in championing the idea that “war and occupation were essential to freeing Afghan women,” despite indigenous Afghan feminist groups actively voicing opposition to such American intervention.
This speaks to the broader Western narrative that Muslim women are unaware of their own oppression and thus need to be rescued – a concept directly challenged by anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod. Her book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, provides “an indictment of a mindset that has justified all manner of foreign interference, including military invasion, in the name of rescuing women from Islam.” Often, dress is a critical aspect of these justifications. A 2017 essay by Alex Shams explores how the narrative advanced by many Western feminists strips Afghan women of agency and instead promotes “the idea that only when women have thrown off their hijabs can they truly be free, that an Afghanistan without burqas is an Afghanistan where everything is good and free.” Interrogating how clothing has been utilized as a point of leverage in advocating for war, Shams finds that, “Instead of defining women’s freedom in terms of social, political, and economic rights – like literacy, access to healthcare,” the standard being used by Western media “reduces ‘freedom’ to how much skin is showing or not showing.”
In reflecting on these points of unlearning in her Instagram stories, Rahim concludes, “feminist liberation is a smoke and mirrors tactic of modern day imperialism.” She asks, “in moments like these, please pause before drawing a community in a light that weaponizes their trauma by using their images to shout vague outrage about human rights,” noting, “We were never in Afghanistan for 20 years on behalf of women’s rights.”
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hi! does anyone have any good articles or literature that unpack the weaponization of western feminist narratives to advance military occupation/Islamophobia?— Zara Rahim (@ZaraRahim) August 17, 2021
Consider nuanced interpretations of religion and culture with the essay, “Wrapped in Meaning: Modest Fashion as a Feminist Strategy.”
View our reading list on the relationships between Fashion & Politics.
Read Emma Tarlo’s book, Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith.
Business & Retail
In our last issue, we discussed the problematic practices involved in Shein’s faster-fashion business model. Since then, more information has come to light, drawing even more attention to the labor issues intertwined with this unsustainable approach. Reuters has reported that the retailer is under fire for neglecting to make “public disclosures about working conditions along its supply chain that are required by law in the United Kingdom, and until recently, falsely stated on its website that conditions in the factories it uses were certified by international labor standards bodies.” Further, last week Diet Prada called out Shein for one of its most blatant instances of copying a small designer, highlighting allegations by knitwear creator Bailey Prado that over 40 handmade designs from her latest collection were knocked-off.
While investors flock to Shein and other faster fashion companies, most intentionally-minded and BIPOC-owned small businesses find it especially difficult to secure funding for their brands. In a recent interview with Beauty Independent, Live Tinted founder Deepica Mutyala exposes some of the unexpected ways in which systemic racism shows up in the venture capital funding world. While many firms have made statements about supporting women and people of color, Mutyala feels that, “there’s still so much education to be done around investing in women of color, and there’s such tokenism involved. If a fund has already invested in a woman of color, they feel like they’ve checked off that box in their portfolio, and they can’t understand the scope of going wider than that one person. [That’s] my personal experience.”
Meanwhile, more large corporations continue to take steps towards embracing inclusivity. Soon after Victoria’s Secret unveiled an inclusivity-focused rebrand, its competitor Cosabella has now announced similar intentions. Whether or not these types of repositionings will be effective in swaying customers remains to be seen. A recent article published by The Fashion Law (TFL) explores the controversy around brands that have more recently attempted to address social issues – particularly in the luxury space – as many of these “apparent attempts to tackle social challenges have come after they received widespread criticism for their own apparent failings, as opposed to in a more proactive capacity.”
TFL specifically points out that Gucci, Prada, and Dior have all made pledges and announced plans to create change around racial equity, but only after being called out for racism and cultural appropriation. And while inclusivity may be on trend within advertising and branding; representation behind-the-scenes remains highly skewed. A New York Times report earlier this year showed that “among the top designers and creative directors in the fashion world, only four are black.” Based on surveys of British consumers, TFL concludes that most people are unsatisfied with luxury brands’ current approaches to inclusivity – “The question remains whether an industry that revels in exclusivity can embrace inclusivity in a way that drives real societal change?”
Digging a bit deeper, this tension between inclusivity and luxury is problematically rooted in Eurocentric standards of ‘good taste.’ The aesthetics of aspiration are inherently exclusionary and, throughout history, have been dictated by the white gaze. This is further unpacked in a recent essay on The Fashion & Race Database, “The Racist Underbelly of Instagram Mood Boards.” Author Kathryn C argues that, “The upper echelons of the fashion industry have long reinforced the aesthetics of the elite,” with an emphasis on centering “purportedly aspirational figures: thin, white, paragons of Western beauty.” Despite increasing consumer demand for inclusivity, many fashion leaders and influencers continue to aestheticize this type of exclusivity under the guise of nostalgic escapism. The continued proliferation of this type of imagery via highly popular niche moodboard accounts suggests that, “despite the profitability of relatability,” these problematic definitions of ‘good taste’ remain deeply embedded in culture. Kathryn contends, “Without analyzing why these aspirational images are so popular…diversity becomes a money grab.” In reality, the only way to make luxury more inclusive is to center diverse perspectives behind-the-scenes in positions of power, who can begin to reframe our aesthetic perception and redefine ‘good taste.’
Design & Imagemaking
A recent article published in Business of Fashion takes a deep dive into exploring how a new wave of global brands are “changing the conversation around cultural appropriation.” In this piece, Lolita Maesela profiles young designers around the world who are “seeking more sustainable ways to work with indigenous artisans to support and promote their craft.” These emerging BIPOC creators are reclaiming the designer-artisan relationship by collaborating with craftspeople who are connected to their own cultural heritage.
Working with artisans does not, in of itself, absolve a brand from being culturally appropriative. Maesela briefly points out that, “Though skilled artisans in countries like India are responsible for some of the most exquisite detailing in fashion’s couture creations, their work has been routinely underpaid, undervalued and uncredited by the fashion industry, which has instead promoted a western-centric view of what should be considered luxurious.” The global artisans creating pieces for major luxury brands are often hidden from view to preserve fallacious notions of European craftsmanship as preeminent. Alternatively, another common trope seen in the fashion industry is the superficial glorification of these artisans while they are simultaneously disempowered. Oftentimes, American and European brands use their employment of global artisans to justify culturally appropriative design choices, even though artisans are not offered any input in the designs. Many brands claim a mission around helping these communities, and in some cases, the artisans are even featured in marketing editorials as if they were props in creating an ‘exotic’ or ‘bohemian’ aesthetic. This storyline relies on the problematic notion that the creations of global artisans are not valuable without Western-led direction and curation, and that these brands are somehow rescuing artisans by giving them work. By capitalizing on the skills of artisans without offering them any creative agency in what they are producing, Western brands that take this approach are often simply perpetuating a form of white saviorism.
The brands featured by Maesela are unique because they are led by BIPOC designers who have chosen to partner with artisans who are intimately connected to their own culture. These relationships are mutually beneficial, built upon respect, and avoid the problematic power dynamics of conventional brand-artisan contracts. For instance, Ghanaian designer Akosua Afriyie-Kumi works with female artisans in Ghanaian villages to craft handwoven Raffia bags for her brand AAKS. Meanwhile, Angel Chang’s womenswear line is handmade by indigenous artisans in rural Guizhou, China, explaining that her goal “is for consumers to value the traditional techniques she’s working with, in the same way they do the work of Italian and French luxury ateliers.” Both brands pay their artisans significantly higher wages than major corporations, with AAKS offering their craftspeople about three times the local rates. As noted by Ayesha Barenblat, founder of labor rights advocacy group Remake, “If done right, this is an opportunity for dignified work and empowered work.”
Also on our radar:
After years of underrepresentation and marginalization, Indigenous Australian fashion designers are creating new spaces to share their perspective via the First Nations Fashion and Design (FNFD) non-profit collective.