Fashion and clothing has always been a medium of protest. For decades, both designers and consumers have used their dress sense to determine what message they want to portray to the outside world. This has also rang true on the runway, where brands have leveraged the global platform to make political or societal statements on a current issue in the hope of both spreading their message and appealing to consumers that share such a value.
Now, however, it appears that criticism is beginning to fall inwards, as fashion month increasingly becomes a stage for organisations that actively disapprove of the industry’s current operations. From New York to Paris, some of the most acclaimed runways of the SS24 season were the unsuspecting hosts of protesters looking to spotlight their own campaigns.
Stage intruders and unplanned demonstrations are nothing new. For SS20, Gucci was subject to a subtle protest from model Ayesha Tan Jones, who held up the palms of her hands on which the words “mental health is not fashion” were scrawled – a critique on the outfit she sported that resembled a straitjacket. Earlier, during the SS14 season, two topless women from the Ukrainian feminist group ‘Femen’ stormed the stage at Nina Ricci with “models don’t go to brothels” painted across their bodies.
While many of these previous protests have revolved around societal issues, this season, and a number of seasons prior, more attention has been put on the climate crisis, which has become a focal point for fashion critics as the industry’s turbulent relationship with the environment plunges deeper into the limelight. In fact, those that were centred around society – such as Tommy Cash’s appearance at Diesel’s SS24 Milan Fashion Week show as a “homeless” person, which he claimed was a critique of the “widespread cynicism surrounding trends like poverty chic” – have often fallen flat, or even become the centre of judgement themselves due to their sometimes tone deaf approach. It was instead the environmentalists that had reverted to the shock factor to get their point across, garnering the attention they much needed.
An opportunity for fashion weeks to differentiate themselves
British advertisement agency Gumtree, for example, staged a naked protest ahead of London Fashion Week SS24, with protesters donning placards denouncing the overconsumption of clothes – one stating: “I’d rather be naked than buy new”. In a release, the company’s CEO, Hugh Hurley, said: “We’re calling on Britain’s top fashion houses to recognise their impact and influence on our consumption habits. The UK fashion industry has the power to change our toxic relationship with textile waste – and now is the time to act.”
Nudity seemed to be a running theme, too. Unclothed individuals also caused a stir at The Blonds’ New York Fashion Week show, on this occasion representing the infamous environmentalist group Extinction Rebellion, who have already been known for making raucous fashion week statements in the past. While their previous protest at London Fashion Week involved pouring fake oil on the streets outside The Strand in a call for the event to cut ties with “top plastic polluter” Coca Cola, the latest theatrics targeted fashion as a whole, aligning with one of the group’s motos ‘No Fashion on a Dead Planet’.
Protesters were draped in banners reading “tell the naked truth about the climate crisis”, in what was an attempt to “highlight human vulnerability in the face of climate collapse”, further demanding an end to the use of fossil fuels. In the eyes of those linked to the movement, such protests actually provide a potential opportunity for the fashion week. In a statement, activist Laura Cole said: “NYFW has long grappled with matching the prominence of its European counterparts, falling short each year. Why not pivot to spotlighting the intersection of climate and fashion? By doing so, it could rise as the most forward-thinking event globally. It’s high time designers and executives reflect deeply on their roles within the environmental and human supply chain, striving to minimise harm.”
The sense of civil disobedience didn’t stop here, however. As always, PETA – or the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – made itself known, persisting in its notoriously disruptive status at every major fashion city this season, and reiterating its mission of convincing designers to cut animal products from their supply chains. Protesters descended onto the runways of Michael Kors, Coach, Burberry, Hermès and even Sabato De Sarno’s Gucci debut, among others, proving that not even the most prestigious of brands can bypass such public disparagement. The animal rights organisation’s typically shocking, yet distinctive approach could also be seen outside of the British Fashion Council’s NewGen Show Space, where supporters reenacted the alleged torture of goats used for cashmere production.
Labour and animal rights are trending topics
When asked by FashionUnited why fashion weeks were increasingly becoming a platform to stage such outrage, vice president of corporate projects, Yvonne Taylor, said: “PETA’s campaigns challenge people to question the acceptability of using any living, feeling being’s skin or hair for fashion. Fashion shows are where designers and other influential people from the industry gather, so they’re the perfect place to stage eye-catching actions which inform people of the cruelty inherent in the production of animal-derived fabrics. We stage our actions with the aim of educating designers and consumers, and empowering them to make kinder, more informed decisions.”
While PETA’s past statements have often been met with success, seeing a slew of notable brands and fashion houses turn away from animal-based materials towards alternatives, it is yet to be seen if their most recent acts will convince those targeted to do the same. Taylor, who noted that events were selected based on the quantity of eyes that could potentially view the action, was optimistic about this season’s efforts, adding: “Awareness sparks dialogue, which in turn is the catalyst for change. Designers are taking note, as many more are working with vegan materials than ever before, and we predict further progress will take place over upcoming seasons.”
Despite being less common for SS24, the industry was also facing criticism from its own kind too, aligning with ongoing global conversations surrounding workers rights. In New York, the Model Alliance used the city’s fashion week as an opportunity to speak on the lack of labour protections within the modelling industry, relating to the recently concluded SAG-AFTRA strike. The organisation noted that, akin to actors and Hollywood writers, models were struggling to secure workplace protection, with participants of a press conference calling on the state’s lawmakers to enact the Fashion Workers Act in order to regulate “predatory management companies” in this field.
Speaking on the demands and highlighting the need for the bill to be put into place, New York senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal said in a statement: “This fashion week, labour rights are trending. Actors and models share the unfortunate experience of exploitation by big production studios and model management companies. But loopholes in our state law leave models vulnerable to exploitation and abuse while agencies profit off their image. Fashion workers deserve the same protections as anyone else, especially in an industry worth 2.5 trillion dollars globally.”
The impact of such movements during the very public fashion weeks is typically never immediately known, as are the responses from designers or related organisations. For each of those carrying out the statements, work will be ongoing until demands are met. PETA, for example, often takes matters into the boardrooms of targeted brands, while Extinction Rebellion’s reputation for over-the-top demonstrations ensures that its policies remain front of mind for those they come into contact with. Either way, it is clear that climate-centric organisations have no intention of backing down from their mission, especially when fashion is demanding for such judgement.