And then, is this activism as trend or fashion’s role in combatting Islamophobia?
Words: Mpho Sishuta | Images: Rex Features + Nike
Not only do fashion shows give us a glimpse into the trends we’ll be wearing each season, from the silhouettes right through to prints, they offer a reflection of society as well, one that mirrors our complex cultural change. There is no stronger evidence of this today than the current political stances walking our runways.
For decades, political culture has played a critical role in the fashion industry. Think Katherine Hamnett’s iconic slogan T-shirts in the 80s, Jean Paul Gaultier’s 1985 collection of male skirts entitled ‘And God Created Man’, and Walter van Beirendonck’s A/W15 anti-terrorism fashion show. Today, amid the controversy caused by US President Donald Trump as a result of his recent executive order against refugees and immigration, designers are looking to break down the boundaries of fashion and beauty even further. This season, we’ve seen models strutting down the runways donning white bandanas of solidarity and unity, Missoni’s pink knit 'pussy hats', clever casting choices, feminist tees, and Mara Hoffman’s Women’s March opener for her Fall 2017 runway show.
Perhaps the most talked-about example of runway activism comes in the form of Muslim-inspired fashion. Last year Anneisa Hasibuan made history at New York Fashion Week, becoming one of the first Muslim designers to feature an entire cast of models wearing hijabs in every piece of her collection. Since then, scores of designers and several major fashion brands have followed suit. For Yeezy Season 5, Kanye West gave Somali-American model, Halima Aden, her runway debut during NYFW. Prior to that, H&M featured a hijab-wearing model in one of their campaigns. DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger and Oscar de la Renta also created clothing targeting Muslims, while Dolce & Gabbana released a range of hijabs and abayas aimed at wealthy Muslim consumers. Most recently, Nike has announced its plans to launch a hijab line for female Muslim athletes. With the growing number of luxury designers making moves towards the Muslim market, it’s safe to say that the hijab is having a moment.
This is a bold move for the fashion industry, particularly in the face of a growing societal trend towards racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. And while the response has so far been a positive one, akin almost to a cultural breakthrough, it nevertheless raises some questions. That the fashion industry is finally adopting a more inclusive attitude to the needs of Muslim women is a significant step forward. However, with sales of luxury goods in the Muslim market reaching billions last year alone, it's difficult not to speculate that brands are being driven by money, rather than social conscience, wanting to cash in on a hugely lucrative market.
It’s also worth noting that designers are constantly in the line of fire for 'borrowing' from other cultures, and capitalising on cultural appropriation. Who can forget, for example, the lack of black representation in Valentino’s S/S16 show – a showcase of predominantly white models, decked out in cornrows and dreadlocks inspired by 'wild Africa'. With this in mind, it's difficult not to question whether designers really care about Muslim women and their 'modest' clothing, or whether the growing 'hijab trend' is simply a reaction to politics in order to garner good press. If not, should Muslim women not be featured more in high fashion, as the intended target market for this growing trend? Or is their identity only desirable or worthy of praise when it is glamorised on the runway and legitimised by popular luxury brands?
“Today's fashion industry is about consumerism and objectification – buy, buy, buy and be judged by what you wear. Muslim fashion is teetering between asserting a Muslim woman's right to be beautiful and well-turned out, buying more stuff than you need, and being judged by your clothes – both of which are the opposite of Islamic values,” says Shelina Zahra Janmohammed, author of ‘Love in a Headscarf’ to The Telegraph.
“My issue is this: why is the hijab “acceptable” only when it's appropriated and managed by major corporations – western regimes that, in other words, have the power to permit and regulate what is deemed tolerable, capitalisable and not?” she asks.
With this in mind, while it is refreshing to see global brands embrace the hijab and take an important step forward in terms of inclusivity, it would nevertheless be wise to constantly question their sincerity, and to examine whether or not their motivation stems from the desire to use activism as a catalyst for financial gain, rather than lasting change.