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Balenciaga FW 2022 RTW

Illustration by © Courtesy of Balenciaga

August 23, 2022

The voice of fashion stands in solidarity with Ukraine

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On the 24th of February, I lost my previous life and became a refugee. It’s hard to comprehend that from that moment I can’t be with my closest people, live in my house, and see the well-known sky above my head. Hardly anyone had assumed that this kind of war would break out so close to the European Union’s border. Neither did we, the Ukrainians.

In such a situation, you realise how quickly some things can stop taking the first priority in your life, and at the same time – how some things, seemingly irrelevant in the face of war, do create our reality.

My family had to pack their belongings in less than one hour and face the challenge of squeezing a wardrobe into one bag. Material values might seem less important than such big concepts as people or homeland. But in the end, our everyday struggle is filled with such things as clothing, eating, keeping in touch through social media – and as we saw, although clothing seems insignificant in comparison to war, the fashion industry’s response to war turned out to be very important.

The connection between fashion and politics is not a new realisation. But for me, a person passionate about fashion, this industry’s voice and reaction to the war were especially significant. And it made me wonder: how big is the fashion industry’s influence on global and local matters? And in what ways can fashion be political?

Fashion industry statistics reported by the global network and news outlet, Fashion United, show how the international apparel sector has a combined labour force of 3,384.1 million. Its value is estimated at around 3 trillion dollars, which corresponds to 2% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product.

This market has a crucial impact on people. Not only can our outfits express our personality, but fashion also expresses our values. Choosing clothes can be a political decision – your preference in brand and materials can be a choice in a matter of supporting ecological activities or human rights. It’s a consumer’s choice which, in the long run, indicates labour conditions in textile factories, lengths of transport chains, and usage of planet-friendly materials.

Buying cheap fast-fashion means supporting brands producing 52 collections per year which are usually thrown in the trash after just one season. By making this kind of choice, we are not only harming the environment, but also promoting excessive consumption and the exploitation of people forced to work in unacceptable conditions.

But the connection between fashion and politics works both ways. Many political events have had an impact on fashion itself.

For instance, during the Soviet Union, political parties tried to fully control the range of clothes available to the public by approving fashion collections. Without official approval, designers couldn’t release their projects. The idea behind it was strictly political – to make people equal even on the level of clothes. So if the question is, whether fashion can be political, there was only one reply: wasn’t it always?

Fashion Historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbel stated how “fashion has always been political. We can go back to the French revolution, and much further back, and look at examples of fashion making political statements. Fashion is a tool of communication—whether we realise it or want it to be communicating for us or not. It is fun and it is frivolous, it is escapist, but it can also be very serious and very political”.

Indeed, during the French Revolution fashion underwent some radical changes, comparable with the revolution taking place in society. People began to show an increased political awareness through their appearance. They wore costumes that emphasised their support of political parties.

Clothing has long served as one of the most visible markers of social privileges and aristocratic status. No wonder that after storming the Bastille on July 14th in 1789, the government of the city of Paris established that all Parisians should wear the tricolour cockade, a round emblem consisting of ribbons, reflecting the red and blue colours of the city as a sign of equality. And as white was considered a colour of a monarchy, it was banned along with expensive materials, such as silk, taffeta, or velvet.

These stories have made their way into mainstream history, but not many people know how the founder of one of the world’s most famous brands, Hugo Boss, produced uniforms for the German army (SS) using slave force from occupied countries during WW2. When Boss was one step from bankruptcy, he chose the side of Nazism. In 1930, he became a member of the National Socialist German Workers Party, and by the beginning of WW2 the Boss factory became an important military enterprise.

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Chanel day suit, wool bouclé, 1967

Museum at FIT | flickr

Among more positive examples, the House of Chanel has made an inimitable contribution to women’s rights around the world.

Coco Chanel’s inspiration from male suits has led to the reshaping of female clothing towards being more convenient, easy, and matching regardless of the season or occasion. It was a completely new vision, devoid of corsets and restrictions, that had a huge impact on the global fight for gender equality.

Chanel sought to ensure that women got rid of massive dresses and finally were able to reveal themselves as individual, independent units equal to men. This way of thinking also created a new vision of female beauty, focused on noticing value in simplicity.

The fight for women’s rights through fashion is still present in modern times. For instance, Maria Grazia Chiuri, who took over the reins of Dior in 2016, made her statement by printing the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay about the meaning of feminism in the 21st century – “We should all be feminists” – on T-shirts. Chiuri declared to fashion magazine, Vogue, this move was her and “the maison’s – wish to step away from the stereotype of women by integrating feminist ideas is a way of keeping Dior’s heritage relevant. At this stage, being feminist should be the default”.

Previously, the house of Dior was mostly known for its emphasised femininity proposed by Christian Dior in his New Look style. The core idea was to create the image of the “ideal woman” with a thin waist, fragile shoulders, and graceful hips. It was the models of Christian Dior that used to be called “perfect” and set unrealistic standards for women’s beauty. Fashion is now forced to move forward, crowding out these “ideal” forms, but Dior has still not yet released any plus-size collection.

The question of whether it’s truly supporting women is still relevant today. Especially because fashion is well-known for misrepresenting history and differences. We can now see some non-standard models of all types of appearance at the shows of Balmain, Gucci, or Balenciaga. Even though fashion has not always been supportive towards the right values, now it is on the right track to change. Not ignoring the war in Ukraine was one of these examples – and for me the most important one.

The situation in Ukraine is still scary and complicated. Ukrainians are being killed, raped, and robbed by Russian invaders every day.

Over five million people have fled Ukraine because of the war. Families are being ripped apart as women, children, and the elderly are leaving their loved ones and all their possessions behind. The war is not over but even in the face of explosions, rockets, and shelling, we continue to fight for our freedom. It is vital to make a change. We will never forget this help.

That’s why every kind of support is so incredibly valuable. Ukrainians can feel that people from different parts of the world are truly caring about the situation. It not only brings hope to the nation, but also puts pressure on the economics and moral side of Russians. Actions in support of Ukraine can help make people in Russia leave their former comfort zone, and feel detached from the rest of the world.

An unexpected attack of Russia happened in the middle of Milan Fashion Week, a few days before the start of Paris Fashion Week. It was one of such reasons why many designers, models, and influencers responded against the war so fast. One of the first looks corresponding to the colours of Ukraine (blue and yellow) was demonstrated by the New York fashion project, Young Emperors. On the 28th of February they posted on their Instagram: “Paris Fashion Week. Day one. Our thoughts are with you, Ukraine”.

One outfit may not mean sincere sympathy, but all small actions and gestures were, at that time, more than valuable, because they raised global awareness of the situation.

The chain of reaction was wide. Demna Gvasalia, famous Georgian designer and the creative director of Balenciaga, who is himself a refugee from Sukhumi, was one of the first people in the fashion industry to speak both openly and loudly in condemnation.

Mentioned in this article:

Vogue

Balenciaga showed its Fall-Winter 2022-2023 show in an artificial snowstorm

by HÉLOÏSE SALESSY

“The war in Ukraine has triggered the pain of a past trauma I have carried in me since 1993, when the same thing happened in my home country and I became a forever refugee” which he wrote in a letter left on the seats during his fashion show as covered in an online article by Vogue.

The note continues, “Forever, because that’s something that stays in you. This show needs no explanation. It is a dedication to fearlessness, to resistance, and to the victory of love and peace”.

The Balenciaga brand deleted all posts on their Instagram page and left only one post in support of Ukraine. Gvasalia also dedicated his latest collection to Ukraine and announced financial support for Ukrainian refugees.

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Balenciaga FW 2022 RTW, Ukraine T-shirts for each guest

@demnagram

Fabulous designer Vera Wang, who specialised in making high-fashion dresses, also added on her Instagram a post with all her team in Ukrainian coloured T-shirts.

French luxury brand Louis Vuitton, on the other hand, has announced the transfer of funds intended for UNICEF will be contributed to the Ukrainian children. “Louis Vuitton is deeply moved by the tragic situation unfolding in Ukraine” – they wrote on their Instagram page on the 3rd of March.

Continuing to state, “As millions of children and their families are facing immediate danger, the Maison, through the Louis Vuitton for UNICEF partnership, pledges to support UNICEF’s emergency response on the ground, responding swiftly to any emergencies by providing children and families in Ukraine with humanitarian aid including access to clean water, healthcare and education supplies, child protection services and psychosocial care.”.

Personally, I really appreciate all of these gestures of support by the fashion industry, because fashion was always my passion. Although I must admit, it was a strange feeling to see posts about the war in my country, and pictures from celebrities at Fashion Week not caring at all, at the same time.

Many people from the fashion industry talked about the necessity to help us while simultaneously posting their outfits and scenes from splendour life. Petitions against Amber Heard, Johnny Depp’s ex-wife against whom Depp brought a public trial, gained more publicity than the pictures of ruined cities and petitions for helping Mariupol.

This shows the spirit of our times, but despite this dissonance, the fashion industry's response to the war was one of the strongest and loudest.

Numerous international brands and luxury fashion groups, from Zara and H&M, to Louis Vuitton or Prada, have announced that they were temporarily stopping their commercial activities in Russia. This came as a sign of protest against the war in Ukraine to closed down Russian branches of their stores in order to make a clear statement and put pressure on Russian consumers and economics.

It is important to mention that Russia and Ukraine have a total share in sales of luxury goods estimated at around 4-5%, as reported by Apparel Resources, a global textile news and information network. The reasons for a decline in these sales are of course different, but because of the war, the companies will therefore lose at least billions of dollars.

This kind of reaction also had a marketing value that cannot be omitted, and in addition, at the beginning of the war there was even risk of a consumer boycott if the brand did not stop selling in Russia. It doesn’t invalidate the support given, but shows the other side of the coin – as does the power of social pressure.

Press release: H&M Group

“The H&M group is deeply concerned about the tragic events in Ukraine and supports all the people affected by the aggravation of the situation. The Group has decided to temporarily suspend all sales in Russia. Stores in Ukraine have already been temporarily closed in order to ensure the safety of customers and colleagues. The situation is constantly monitored and evaluated. Representatives of the company are in dialogue with all interested parties”.

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According to the Yale School of Management, as of August 23, 2022, over 1000 companies reported the suspension of at least some of their work in Russia due to sanctions. For example, the H&M Group announced the decision to suspend the work of branded retail in the Russian market on the 2nd of March.

Many other brands also had their offices, shops, and employees in the country and made this decision as well. For instance, brands associated with the holding company Inditex, such as Zara, Oysho, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Stradivarius, and Pull&Bear, closed all of their 502 outlets across Russia.

The most powerful scale of actions came through from the Chanel brand, which in addition to the withdrawal of stores from Russia, demanded that all Russians abroad sign a paper stating that they would not wear purchased goods in their own country as reported by the BBC. The action caused an uproar among the Russian population. Some social media users even cut their luxury and high-cost bags in front of the camera.

New conditions began to operate in most European countries. The brand also donated €2 million (about $2.18 million) to two relief organisations, CARE and UNHCR-UN Refugee Agency, which was a sum “recognized for refugee support at the borders and for the specific care of families and children” as outlined in online news outlet, Israeli Diamond Institute.

I want to believe that this scale of action was not only mentioned for the purpose of PR and making an even bigger profit in the countries supporting Ukraine.

However, in my opinion, every brand needs to prove that this support won’t be a one-time demonstration for the public. Brands’ exit from Russia should be permanent as long as my country is being occupied. This help and raising the voice of the people from this industry (as well as from others) must continue because the war is not over.

As we say in Ukraine: “everything will be Ukraine!”. And if so, everything and everyone – including the fashion industry – must admit its political side. Without it everything will be lost – not only Ukraine.

Written by:

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Maria Rybak

Writer

Kyiv, Ukraine | Valencia, Spain

Born in 2004 in Kyiv, Ukraine, Maria attends Optima online school and plans to study Politics of Global Challenges at university.

In Harbingers Magazine she writes about the influence of culture on both society and global issues – particularly relating to the war in Ukraine.

war in ukraine