When Fashion Shouldn’t Be Political

In Sartorial Politics by Courtenay Brown

Kenneth Cole has done it again. Infamous for his inappropriate use of 9/11 and the violent protests of Cairo as launching pads for jokes about his latest designs, Cole has once again been caught with his shoe—err, I mean foot—in his mouth as he attempted to use the atrocities in Syria to promote his newest collection. Here’s Cole’s latest gaff:

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 Of course, his sorry attempt of a joke is a reference to President Obama’s latest promise to the nation that the United States’ military intervention in Syria’s civil war would not necessarily mean soldiers entering into the country, with “boots on the ground.” As inappropriate and un-witty as thousands of tweeters found his stunt, Cole stands by his tweet with claims that it was meant to provoke “dialogue” about the Syrian dilemma.

Now, I’m a big stickler when I say fashion and politics are intertwined. But never did I ever expect designers to take the relationship so literally. So Kenneth Cole’s latest Twitter-flub really begs an interesting question: When shouldn’t fashion be political?

state-of-emergency-by-steven-meisel-600x411In 2009, controversy struck Vogue Italia when they published their “State of Emergency” photo spread, which added a sartorially-appealing effect to President George Bush’s post-9/11 national security measures: you know, the more intense background checks and those more invasive airport pat downs? I was horrified by the ways in which photographer Steven Meisel used the increased incidents of police brutality and racial profiling towards those who were perceived to be terrorists at that time as a backdrop to the trends of Milan’s fashion week. By the look of the photos, I don’t think Meisel was making a statement against America’s state of emergency, but rather endorsing it by making it look good, fashionable. At that point, I dared to a propose a question that Meryl Streep’s character in “A Devil Wears Prada” would more likely kill me for asking: When did someone’s Fall collection become more important than world-wide violence?

Some people may argue that stunts like Meisel’s or Cole’s are great strategies to kill two birds with one stone: you are advertising good fashion, while pushing political issues to the forefront. But where does the line become blurred? I find myself conflicted, especially when I think of the world of difference Jamie Foxx made by sporting a t-shirt featuring the face of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin to the BET Awards, making the public aware of Martin’s unjust death.state-of-emergency-by-steven-mei-9

Just when I find myself believing fashion CAN be used to advocate for political unrest, I remember another one of Cole’s tragic taglines, after the 9/11 attacks:

“Important moments like this are a time to reflect. To remind us, sometimes, that it’s not only important what you wear, but it’s also important to be aware.” – (Kenneth Cole in an interview with Daily News)

As I consider whether or not sensitivity is ever considered in Cole’s marketing strategies, I also think about what the fashion industry can do—if anything—to participate in political discourse without transforming the issues into objects of subordination for a designer’s latest pantsuit.

For now, my answer is nothing. Don’t let the Syrian-conflict fill the insoles of your shoes, Cole, and I think we will all be politically pleased.