Why Aren’t Fashion Brands Keeping Pace With Social Change?

| Consumers are fast-changing and adapting to society, as generations grow and die so do social norms and what is and isn’t acceptable.

Since that Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, you’d think that controversial corporate campaigns couldn’t get much worse, but never fear, fashion and beauty are always here to dig the hole a little deeper! In a society more passionate and aware (I refuse to say w_ke) than ever, especially amongst the ‘twitchfork’ (think twitter mob that can destroy someone’s reputation in 3 seconds) generation of citizen journalists, why is it that big brands are too often ignoring pertinent sociopolitical issues like diversity, equality and social justice when planning marketing with such a global reach?

H&M website 2018

First off, how can we not mention H&M in this hitlist of, at best, naivety and at worst, knowledgeable ignorance and self-righteousness? Their latest scandal, a jumper emblazoned with the words ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’ modelled on a black child, had some seriously horrific fallout, including a South African protest group destroying a flagship H&M store. Urban Outfitters received similar backlash in previous years due to some seriously risky product design choices, including t-shirts glamourising eating disorders, depression, racism and even school shootings. The disturbing question is, do controversial decisions like this just create an increasing press buzz, and therefore, are these ‘mistakes’ actually intentional for the money making marketing machine?

Dove body wash advert 2017

From somewhat covert racism- cough cough Dove cough cough- to overt racial insensitivity- ahem Ulyana Sergeenko ahem- it seems that even in 2018, we’ve still not moved on from the shocking ads of the pre-civil rights era. Lets also not forget the endless epidemic of cultural appropriation at fashion shows, we’re looking at you Marc Jacobs, and you, Victoria’s Secret, and also the misappropriation of the wares of working class subcultures seen all too often in menswear, I’m talking Balenciaga and Vetements, and others more recently as discussed in SHOWstudio’s mens fashion week panels.

Victoria’s Secret: The Perfect Body

Of course, the tale as old as time, the size zero debate is still raging strong in today’s fashion industry, with body shaming going both ways in recent campaigns. For example, Victoria Beckham came under fire recently for using a shockingly thin model for her new eyewear lookbook, and Saint Laurent’s banned Kiki Willems ad. Size representation issues gets more complex with the continued sexualisation of young teenagers, as seen throughout 2017 with cast of Stranger Things modelling for Calvin Klein and i-D. Unfortunately, the so-called plus size revolution is losing momentum fast, with models the 2017 womenswear shows reported as being disappointingly uniform in (sample) size, and criticism of the ‘body positivity’ movement rising from major media outlets like the Refinery 29, The Fashion Law and Paper Magazine.

L’Oreal Paris UK

Is diversity in leadership the answer? Perhaps, these shambles of ideas would struggle getting past the brainstorm stage if more knowledgeable and sensitive voices were a part of the discussion. Maybe if executives and board members at the top rug of the fashion ladder were more multicultural and blurred across class and gender boundaries, advertising in this industry would not only be less damaging to the brands themselves, but much more interesting in the process. H&M certainly thought so when they hired Annie Wu, a news official diversity officer in the aftermath of the monkey jumper backlash.

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Eckhaus Latta Spring 2017 campaign

To end on a more positive note, controversy doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Subversive, divisive and thought-provoking can be done right, and even in fashion can raise important issues. And no, I’m not talking United Colours of Benetton’s dodgy AIDS and domestic violence editorials. One thinks of Eckhaus Latta, whose recent campaigns show sex-positive shots of real people having actual sex, not pornographic fantasy, and Tom Ford’s perfume ads are notoriously, riotously sexy, and lets not forget the teenage dreamscapes created by American Apparel, but these don’t really offend anyone in particular, do they? Viral fashion marketing is not about censoring the potentially controversial- but it does require being sensitive to issues that are particularly pertinent at time, not jumping on them as ‘trends’ and commodifying them as frivolous afterthoughts.

Lynne McCrossan for REEK

Whats more, there are some genuinely incredibly socially switched-on designers and brands out there amongst the trash pile. Vivienne Westwood is constantly campaigning for a climate revolution, Everlane is revolutionising the fashion supply chain with full transparency, Nike’s initiatives are championing racial, religious, disability and body shape diversity, Scotland’s own REEK perfume are spearheading the age-positive and anti-retouching movements, and Illamasqua, who are driving the need for more non-binary and transgender visibility in the beauty industry.

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