The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After the Women’s March, designers try to bring their new woke energy to the runway

Statements on the New York Fashion Week runways. Left, the Prabal Gurung show; at right, Public School (Marcelo Soubhia and Raymond Chan/MCV Photo for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — T-shirts, buttons and baseball caps symbolize fashion’s political awakening. So does velvet, billowing satin and bedazzled bodices.

Fashion’s message of power unfolds as poetry. Pure outrage has given way to resistance.

The designer Mara Hoffman was one of dozens of fashion industry folks at the Women’s March in Washington and she helped raise funds for the rally. She was hardly a newbie protester, but she returned to Seventh Avenue inspired and energized.

“The turnout was unbelievable to me. There was this kind of ‘holy cow’ moment; these women just pulled off something I’ve never seen before,” Hoffman said in an interview before her Monday afternoon show. “In response to seeing that incredible thing happening, how do you continue that?”

Specifically, how does a fashion designer add to the momentum? Can fashion even do such a thing and not have it be awkward, ponderous or silly?

Beginning with the menswear shows earlier this month, the runways here have been filled with examples of designers expressing their political point-of-view, their outrage at the Trump administration, their melancholy over the direction of the country, their fears.

Politics wove its way into many collections at New York Fashion Week this year as designers take a stand on immigration, women's rights and other issues. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin, Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

But after catharsis, what comes next? “We all got so revved up, but what do we do when we go home?” she said.

Hoffman decided to invite Bob Bland, Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez and Tamika Mallory — the women who took the lead in organizing the march in Washington — to participate in her runway show. Hoffman wanted them there to speak, to underscore their leadership and highlight their strength — as well as celebrate their beauty.

“This is what I’m doing with my spotlight,” Hoffman said. “This is what I’m doing when people are paying attention to me.”

What are other designer doing when the cameras are pointed at their runway and everyone is leaning in to hear what they have to say?

Designer Tracy Reese took the lead in an initiative sponsored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America to highlight the role Planned Parenthood plays in providing medical services in various communities. At a host of shows, designers are handing out bright pink buttons that read, “Fashion stands with Planned Parenthood.” But for the presentation of her fall 2017 collection, which was set in a cozy townhouse in the West Village, she did more. She invited four female poets — Dorothea Lasky, Aja Monet, Leslie Reese and Jenny Zhang — to read personal works of inspiration and determination as her models posed in a salon-like setting.

It was a beautiful, lustrous and joyful collection. And the poetry and sense of dignified resistance was at one with the clothes.

For a designer like Prabal Gurung, who regularly dedicates his work to the strength and grace of women, an even more overt examination of female power was at the core of his finale.

He followed a collection of thick, ivory knits, colorful fur coats, sleek printed dresses and ribbed knit dresses — shown on sample size models as well as plus-size ones — with  a finale in which all the models wore t-shirts bearing declarations of defiance, personal identity and resistance. The future is female. Stay woke. Love is love. I am a Gloria. I am a Malala. You can’t stop me.

A long parade of models walked slowly. John Lennon’s “Imagine” played over the sound system. Each footfall audible.  It was a powerful moment but one that was separate and distinct from the fall collection that had preceded it. This wasn’t political fashion but a designer recognizing the volume of his microphone and the irresistible allure of fashion.

Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, the designer behind Public School, also used their runway show to communicate their politics. In keeping with the urban, somewhat gritty, edge to their work, their gestures felt more confrontational, angrier — blunt but not particularly eloquent.

Mixed in with the parkas and oversized plaid shirts and deconstructed sweat shirts were pullovers printed on the back with “We need leaders” and on the front, a picture of Michael Jordan — an athlete who was famous for much of his career for refusing to take a political stance.

Models also wore red baseball caps that read “Make America New York.” Cheekiness aside, is that really the goal? Plenty of folks had issues with this city long before the recent election and would just as soon infuse America with more Midwestern hospitality or California ease.

Sometimes fashion — like average individuals — gets in the way of its own point.

But fashion is unique and peculiar. People look to it as a form of escapism, but they also expect it to be responsible and responsive to its customers. Fashion reflects contemporary life. But it can do so in a way that is uplifting and joyful, Hoffman notes.

That’s what the best of these collections did. They captivated the eye, touched the heart and reasoned with the intellect. They didn’t shout or mock. But they made their position plain.


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