Fashion’s new trend: social commentary

Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond used his spring collection as a platform for social justice.

Alia Jeraj

More than 100,000 people from more than 30 countries congregated in New York City last week to experience the spring collections of about 250 fashion designers at the semi-annual New York Fashion Week. Among these designers was the man responsible for Usher’s concert attire, Kerby Jean-Raymond.
 
Deviating from the fringe and crochet that were present in many other collections (spring 2016 trends — be prepared), Jean-Raymond used graffiti and video in conjunction with his clothing to make a striking political statement. 
 
Jean-Raymond called the collection “Ota, meet Saartjie,” referencing Ota Benga and Saartjie Baartman, a Congolese man and South African woman, respectively. Though the two were born nearly a century apart from each other in the early 1800s and 1900s, they share the lived experience of having their bodies exhibited throughout Europe and the United States. 
 
Basing the collection on ideas of captivity and restraint of black bodies, Jean-Raymond used his platform as a designer at NYFW to make a statement on the violence committed against African-Americans in the U.S. 
 
After 12 minutes of film, Jean-Raymond’s models appeared, exhibiting his collection of predominantly white clothing embellished with splashes of bloody red and Eric Garner’s famous last words, “I can’t breathe.”
 
Whatever one’s feelings may be toward the fashion industry, the fact remains that we all participate in fashion, willingly or not — and Jean-Raymond demonstrated in his NYFW exhibition that the clothes we wear have the potential to make extremely strong statements. 
 
I am not suggesting that everyone constantly sport thought-provoking pieces of clothing — the erratic nature of Minnesota’s weather already complicates the daily routine of choosing an outfit. However, there are many people who see a direct relationship between art and activism. 
 
Because Jean-Raymond’s works exist as “high” fashion, they are widely acknowledged as art. Thus, his use of clothing to make a political statement parallels the “artivism” of other artistic media in powerful ways. 
 
However, fashion choices for most students are made with less thought to the artistry of their outfits and more to the pragmatism and necessity of protection from the elements. Exploring clothing as an art form opens the possibilities of using outfits to make political statements. Especially because everyone partakes in fashion, using it as a platform for social commentary has the potential to be more effective than art forms with smaller participant pools. 
 
As much as we may want to, it’s unfeasible for most students to purchase Jean-Raymond’s designs — pieces from his line’s fall 2015 collection sell for hundreds of dollars.
 
However, by viewing our clothing as an art form, we can continue along the trajectory he introduced at NYFW and analyze social and political situations through the outfits we create.