The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Neo-Nazis are using fashion in an attempt to normalize. The fashion industry needs to speak up.

White nationalists on the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. (Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share/Reuters)

Fashion has been weaponized. And the fashion industry has been all but silent.

In the days since white nationalists marched in Charlottesville and President Trump asserted that some “very fine people” walked shoulder-to-shoulder with them, corporate CEOs have issued statements of protest and bolted from White House panels. Artists fled the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and three of the five Kennedy Center Honors recipients said they might skip the traditional White House pre-gala reception, prompting the president and first lady to cancel it.

Perspective: The Kennedy Center Honors: Apolitical no more

Lawmakers have contradicted the president over his remarks, late-night comedians have delivered scathing commentary, and prominent actors and athletes have expressed outrage.

White nationalists staged a torchlit march on the campus of the University of Virginia on Aug 11 ahead of a planned far-right rally. (Video: Instagram/anonymous via Storyful, Photo: Evelyn Hockstein, The Washington Post/Instagram/anonymous via Storyful)

But the fashion industry has said very little.

Seventh Avenue’s favorite soapbox, Instagram, has been dominated by advertising pitches, fall merchandise and vacation snapshots. Buried in the glorious photography of shoes and handbags, a few designers posted statements about love. Barneys New York quoted Martin Luther King Jr. Diane von Furstenberg’s statesman of choice was Nelson Mandela by way of former president Barack Obama.

But it was the rare stylist or designer, such as Jeffrey Banks and Kerby Jean-Raymond, who mentioned the president unbidden or spoke directly to the issue of white nationalism.

Notably, there was nothing formal from fashion’s lead trade organization, the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

“We never considered a statement directly  in response to Charlottesville,” wrote the CFDA’s president and chief executive, Steven Kolb, in an email. “We are continuing our commitment to civic responsibility and will be announcing news on a fashion week campaign we started planning weeks ago. . . that will touch on this.”

Not every industry needs to make a public statement with every turn of the news cycle. And few members of the public have been standing by breathlessly wondering: What does Michael Kors think of Charlottesville? What does J. Crew have to say? Still, the fashion industry is anchored by large public companies that carry just as much cultural clout as any athlete or actor. Many fashion brands have built their businesses on the mythic melting pot of the American Dream. Fashion owes an especially large debt to those communities targeted by white supremacists: Designers regularly draw artistic inspiration from communities of color. Some of fashion’s earliest and most influential merchants and editors have been Jewish. And the industry has benefited greatly from the creativity and ingenuity of those who identify as LBGT.

Why wouldn’t fashion speak up? Especially now that fashion has become a stealth weapon for white nationalists. Neo-Nazis have bought into fashion’s ability to camouflage, distract, embolden, reassure, flatter and, quite simply, lie.

In the multitude of images from Charlottesville, the race-baiting protesters are decked out in white polo shirts and khakis. Others are wearing neat jeans, button-down shirts, cargo shorts. They are wearing jeans and striped pullovers that look like they could have come from the sale rack at a local Gap.

Some of the attire is brand specific: Fred Perry golf shirts, for instance. That company, along with New Balance earlier in the year, issued a statement denouncing the white nationalists who’d declared a fondness for their products.

But the relevance of fashion in the conversation about racial hatred goes well beyond any particular brand. For an observer cognizant of the internal symbols and visual language of white nationalists, there was a lot to read: neo-Nazi, Proud Boy, skinhead, alt-right. But for the uninitiated, the style of dress was unremarkable. This wasn’t a crowd filled with white robes and hoods.

The protesters recognized the power of fashion’s visual language, and they embraced it. More than one young recruit taking his first tentative steps into white nationalism has recounted the delight — and perhaps relief — in finding that these conspirators in hate look so normal. They look like any 20-something or 30-year-old with their short-on-the-sides, long-on-the-top haircuts, their skinny suits, and hoodies and baseball caps.

Does this haircut make me look like a Nazi?

Fashion has always helped people create the public persona of their choice. That exterior may have little to do with what is in a person’s heart or mind — or what is said behind closed doors or in the shadows. It’s simply their public narrative. In the past, those stories have included women relying on the power suit to help make navigating a male-dominated business world a little bit easier.

Disadvantaged communities have used fashion to draw the media spotlight and amplify their voice. The full potential of gender-neutral fashion and the way it is shaping our understanding of sexuality is yet to be measured.

The glory of fashion is in its ability to make us feel as though we belong. And in belonging, we matter.

White nationalists are moving through communities cloaked in the most mundane, banal kind of fashion. Clothes that do not inspire a double-take. Clothes that are acceptable and appropriate. Clothes that make them look like they belong. And the fashion industry has yet to tell them that they do not.

Filmmaker Cecil Hunt recorded a man as he fled from protesters and took his shirt off in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. (Video: Cecil Hunt)