Politics Is Back in Fashion

Around this time four years ago, the American fashion industry did something it had never done before: It pledged its troth, publicly, and practically unanimously, to a political candidate.

Designers like Joseph Altuzarra, Marc Jacobs, Prabal Gurung and Tory Burch created products to support Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, and Diane von Furstenberg, then chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, held fund-raisers for Mrs. Clinton. Vogue endorsed her — the first time in its history that the magazine had supported a presidential candidate. So did Cindi Leive, then the editor of Glamour.

Though fashion had traditionally stayed away from politics, fearful that demonstrating any leaning, conservative or liberal, would alienate swathes of potential customers, the promise of a female president was too great for the female-centric industry to resist. Besides, fashion was coming off eight years of the Obama administration, in which Michelle Obama had used her position to raise the profile of American designers, both by wearing a wide variety of brands and by hosting a fashion education workshop at the White House. The expectation was that a special relationship had formed and would continue.

The expectation was wrong.

Shellshocked after the 2016 election, some designers doubled down by announcing they would not dress the new first lady, Melania Trump (who did not, in any case, need their permission to decide what to wear). Since the inauguration, for which Mrs. Trump made an effort to wear American designers, she has largely eschewed local brands for European names. Ever since President Trump took office, the industry has been largely in exile from Washington, biting its tongue and biding its time.

Not any longer. Politics is back in fashion again. But this time around it’s not exactly like the last time around. This time, it’s not so much about accessorizing a specific candidate as democracy itself.

As the events of the summer — from the pandemic, which shuttered stores, put shows on hold, bankrupted brands and disrupted supply chains, to the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent global protests — have caused fashion to re-examine its systems, the question of its responsibility has come to the forefront. The result is a critical mass of initiatives from designers and retailers, all geared toward harnessing the power of social media, where fashion is a foundational force, to drive civic involvement.

This week, Fashion Our Future 2020, a new initiative focused on encouraging voter registration, goes live. Founded by Abrima Erwiah, the co-creator of Studio 189, a sustainable fashion brand based in Ghana, and Rosario Dawson, the actress, activist and Studio 189 co-founder, it involves a proprietary website full of voting information — and a panoply of related products that will debut during New York Fashion Week.

Virgil Abloh, of Off-White and Louis Vuitton men’s wear, is the creative director, and a virtual roll call of New York fashion names have contributed. Those include Brandon Maxwell, Proenza Schouler, Rachel Comey, Lemlem and Good American, all of whom will sell their products not only under the FOF umbrella, but also via their own platforms, which will include an Action Button to facilitate voter registration. Together, they have a combined Instagram reach of many millions.

Next week, a project under the umbrella of the When We All Vote organization, co-chaired by Michelle Obama and created in 2018, during the midterm elections, will follow, headed by Mrs. Obama’s longtime stylist Meredith Koop (the woman responsible for the V-O-T-E necklace the former first lady wore for her speech at the Democratic National Convention). Also involved is a creative community making everything from beauty products, like a Liquid Matte from the Lip Bar, to candles to bike shorts. Everything will be for sale in two separate drops on Sept. 9 and Oct. 1 and will have QR codes that can be scanned to allow customers to register to vote.

In between the two drops, on September 26, there will be another initiative created by Dover Street Market, the multibrand emporium owned by Comme des Garçons, also under the WWAV umbrella and in coordination with Ms. Koop. It has enlisted some 25 of its brands and partners, including Marc Jacobs, Hood by Air, Vaquera and Selena Gomez, to make special products for the project. It is one of 19 retailers around the country that will also include QR codes on all receipts to facilitate registration.

And that doesn’t include the voter awareness projects of stores including Saks, which will devote its Fifth Avenue windows to moments in voting history and host registration booths inside, Nordstrom, Cos and H & M USA. Or the VOTE merch created by Michael Kors and Stuart Weitzman and outdoor brands like Keen, which is collaborating with the Jerry Garcia family on a #VoteLove shoe and campaign.

“We have seen a huge paradigm shift in the way people get their news and take action,” Ms. Koop said, noting that it had moved “to mediums that are hyper-visual” and where fashion, in particular, was omnipresent.

“Young people especially express themselves through clothes, whether on TikTok or Reels,” said the designer Victor Glemaud, who was an early part of Fashion Our Future 2020. Young people are a high priority for both political parties. (In 2016, around 60 percent of the eligible population voted, according to the United States Elections Project. For voters under 30, turnout was just over 40 percent.)

All of these efforts are being pitched as bipartisan — and certainly, voting is — but given the discourse at the recent Democratic National Convention about the importance of voting, and the conspiracy theories about mail-in voting from the Republicans, and the fact that Ms. Dawson’s partner is Senator Cory Booker and Mrs. Obama is involved, it’s hard not to think this will once again ally the industry to a side.

“Of course, there’s risk,” said Tanya Taylor, the designer who first connected Ms. Erwiah to the creators of the Action Button, and who has made a tote for Fashion the Future 2020. “The easy thing to do is stay as a fashion brand and think only about clothing. That’s the safe move.” But, she said, it was a move that was no longer acceptable.

Ms. Erwiah first started thinking it was time for fashion to get out from behind the parapet at the start of the pandemic. She had noticed the groups forming in the fashion world to advocate for change and felt, she said on a Zoom call from her home, “that it was all meaningless if we didn’t also participate in what is going on right now with the election and our communities.”

She joined IN THE BLK, a group started by Mr. Glemaud, posing the question of what could be done. She reached out to Ms. Dawson — they have been friends since they were teenagers — who had gotten involved with voter registration when she co-founded Voto Latino in 2004. They realized that National Voter Registration Day was Sept. 22, which happened to be in the middle of the fashion shows, and had a bingo moment.

Mr. Abloh then joined as creative director, and the idea became a reality. “I remember seeing Sean Combs’s Vote or Die campaign on MTV,” Mr. Abloh said. Now he had a chance to encode a similar visual in someone else’s head. In short order they had a logo — a needle and thread stitching out the V in “vote” — a slogan (“Model Voter,” in Mr. Abloh’s trademark quotation marks) and their roster of designers.

“It was time to attach the two: politics and fashion,” said Fe Noel, a designer who was an early part of the initiative and who has made a handkerchief/bandanna that can be worn “around your neck, face, head, whatever, when you go to vote,” she said.

This was also when Ms. Koop started talking to colleagues at When We All Vote about the way the younger generation identified with creative communities and the possibility of moving beyond simply merch to products that inspired action and ownership. Along with Sarween Salih, a friend who had owned an athleisure business, she began to reach out to a variety of partners.

“I was tired of a gray T-shirt with a logo on it,” she said. “I thought we could do something better.”

That Dover Street Market, a retail emporium owned by a Japanese company, is part of the initiative reflects both how far the idea has spread and how much, said Adrian Joffe, its president, “what is happening in America affects the whole world.”

For some designers the voter push has become the focus of their work. “I probably spend as much time on it as I do Louis Vuitton,” said Mr. Abloh, who has designed a T-shirt for the project. “More even than Off-White — and that’s my own brand.”

Ms. Taylor said she was using her slot at fashion week to create social media-based content around registration.

“We are redesigning what fashion looks like right now,” Ms. Noel said. “We’re at the beginning stage of something new, which, hopefully, involves going in a more meaningful direction.”

In all cases, the goal is to reframe voting — Election Day, and going to the polls — as the shared experience of the year, the way the Met Gala and the Oscars have been in the past. To make it about dress as celebration of democracy, taking an abstract ideal and rendering it easy to access and to put into action.

“Turn up for the turn out!” Ms. Erwiah said. “Everyone is sitting at home in sweatpants. Why not get dressed up for voting? Watch the election like we watch the Oscars. This date could be like the Grammys.”

Ms. Dawson said: “We want people to think: Oh my God, what am I going to wear to the polls?”

Ms. Erwiah added: “There’s no prom, no homecoming, but you can vote!”