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The Xinjiang cotton controversy has taken to the catwalk

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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The Xinjiang cotton-gate impasse has taken another turn, this time on the catwalk, as Chinese designers are pledging its use in their collections. At the end of China Fashion Week in March, Chinese brand Sun-Bird’s creative director Zhou Li took a bow at the end of her show – demonstratively holding a bouquet of cotton plants.

Solidarity with China’s politics is a near given from of its population, as any dissidence is quickly quashed. Still, the issue of cotton originating from Xinjiang, a region where the Uighurs are suspected of gross inhumane treatment, of which the forced labour of cotton picking is but one, is yet to be corroborated by notable voice in China.

From politics to catwalk

What began as a human rights issue became political, then commercial (the likes of H&M and Nike distanced themselves from Xinjiang cotton in their supply chains) then retaliatory (Chinese celebrities echoed government sentiment and severed ties with Western brands, just as Western countries introduced sanctions). Now the issue has taken to the catwalk, with designers proudly confirming the use of local cotton.

When Zhou Li emphasises the exclusive use of Xinjiang cotton in her collections, the context adds an important additional voice in the Chinese revenge campaign against Western companies.

According to Reuters, Zhou is a “patriotic supporter of a boycott targeting several major western apparel brands in China that have expressed concern over alleged rights abuses in Xinjiang province.”

She said her garments on show last Tuesday, which featured slick minimalist designs with ruffles and ancient Chinese characters, used Xinjiang cotton exclusively. For our Chinese designs, I’m certainly right to support the Xinjiang people,” she said.

Burberry, Adidas, Nike and H&M are just some of the companies who have felt the wrath and quid pro quo of China’s political party, with the latter somewhat backtracking and offering a public apology. In its statement, H&M carefully refrained from using any names or direct references to Xinjiang, with the aim of diminishing any upset to a key market and upsetting its supply chain. For both sides of the issue, the apology fell flat.

Allegations are serious

Several countries, including the US, Canada and the Netherlands, have accused China of committing genocide, defined by international convention as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” said the BBC. In December 2020 research seen by the BBC showed up to half a million people were being forced to pick cotton. There is evidence new factories have been built within the grounds of the re-education camps.

Fashion and politics have often gone hand in hand, with fashion holding a a mirror to the zeitgeist of any one time or place. China’s reflection, however, shows a distorted view.

Zhou Li