This article is inspired by Sascha Camilli’s talk “Fashion as Activism: How to Inspire Change with Your Wardrobe”, at Vegfest Brighton 2018
Very recently, myself and my horrible hair were invited to speak at the Brighton instalment of VegFest, the largest vegan festival in the UK (lesson learned: you can change the world while having crap hair. Although I personally wouldn’t recommend it). I was asked to speak about my favourite form of activism, so I decided to talk about something that I am deeply immersed in and that changes our lives on a daily basis: fashion. More specifically, how can we as vegans and animal rights activists influence people to stop wearing animals?
You might not realise it or give it much thought, but every time you get dressed, you proclaim who you are and why you are that person. As we have to get dressed every day, fashion concerns all of us – including those who claim that they “don’t care” about it. My mind often goes back to Meryl Streep’s splendid speech in The Devil Wears Prada (I was totally on her side, btw, and couldn’t stand Anne H’s whiny character), detailing how even those who deem themselves above the glitzy world of fashion runways and magazines, in reality choose their clothing based on careful calculation from the fashion industry. But that industry only exists because of consumer demand, and that is what fashion activism boils down to. We all wish looks didn’t matter, but the truth is that in our society, for a myriad of reasons, they do. And as vegans and animal rights activists, we can choose to harness that power into something positive.
There is a distinct reason why you should use your own wardrobe as a complement to traditional activism. You could ask me why anyone cares about what you wear. Why you can’t just petition companies, write letters and hold protests outside of shops. And you can, and should, do all those things! But ask yourself this: where does change start? Does it really start with brands, or do consumers drive change? Fashion brands are not going to implement positive changes unless there is consumer demand for it, making it a good business decision. So before we influence the brands, we need to influence the consumers, meaning the people around us.
How do we do that?
One of the key ways to convince more people to stop wearing animals is to change the perception of what a vegan is and how a vegan looks. People still largely believe that vegans look and act a certain way: earthy, serious, and not too into life’s more superficial aspects – the ones that are often also considered the most joyful, such as tasty food and nice clothes. Tireless tastemakers have worked on tweaking that perception through the creation and promotion of delicious vegan food, and fashion influencers such as Marta Canga and Joan La are working to do the same for ethical and vegan fashion. A special mention should go to Joshua Katcher, founder of Brave GentleMan and The Discerning Brute, and adjunct professor of fashion at the Parsons New School. When I was at fashion school, a professor who was vegan was completely unheard of. The head of my department bragged about once telling a student that if he didn’t want to wear reptile skins then maybe he was “in the wrong profession”. If we had just one professor like Joshua, maybe I wouldn’t have been the only person in my year who didn’t wear animals.
Dress to Protest. This year, we celebrate 100 years since women won the right to vote. The Suffragettes, who fought for this right, often dressed in their finest clothing to protest. This was an astute and aware campaign move: by looking like the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the men whom they were trying to influence, the Suffragettes’ words carried more of a punch. Memberships were also affected, as it became fashionable to be part of the movement.
More recently, I spoke to entrepreneur Amy Rebecca Wilde, founder of Los Angeles vegan boutique Vegan Scene. Before launching her shop and fashion lines, she ran Los Angeles protest group Fur Free LA, whose goal was to get boutiques in the area to stop selling fur. Amy told me that she always asked the activists joining her to dress well for the protests, to send the message that unless they stopped selling fur, the shop would lose actual customers. This is such a powerful campaign tool – if we show up to a protest targeting a fashion brand and look like we would never shop there, we are literally giving them no reason to listen to us. But if we look like we might be customers but aren’t because of cruelty to animals, they might just reconsider their practices.
Challenge stereotypes around vegan and non-vegan materials. Next time a sales assistant proudly proclaims that something is “genuine leather!”, politely explain that this isn’t a value to you, that real leather is cruel and environmentally harmful, and that you won’t be buying the item precisely because it’s real leather.
Applaud the positive. Have you noticed what happens when a high-street restaurant chain launches a vegan menu and people start raving online about it? All of a sudden, another restaurant chain launches vegan options. We need to do this with clothes, too! Just consider the knock-on effect of Gucci banning fur. Michael Kors, Jimmy Choo, and Versace quickly followed suit. We need to stand up and applaud brands who do this! And speaking of that…
Don’t dwell on the negative. After Versace’s decision to ban fur, Donatella Versace did a post on her Instagram account talking about all the positive reactions she had received. And this is truly what we want – we need these brands to feel like they made the right decision. Comments like “but they still sell leather” are unhelpful and counterproductive at a time when a company takes a step like banning fur. Is leather as bad as fur? Of course. Should we keep talking about leather? Yes. Is this the right moment to have that conversation? No. Let’s celebrate positive progress wherever we can – it will pave the way for more progress.
Bonus tip! Make your clothes last. Now, those who wear leather jackets might be able to just throw them around – we, on the other hand, have to make a bit more of an effort. It’s simply no use raving about all the amazing vegan options out there if they will wear out and break after one season. Treat your faux leather well to make it last longer – put some Vaseline or similar product on it to keep it from cracking. Wash your faux wools in delicate cycles, without overly hot water. Re-heel your vegan shoes often. Make sure your clothes look like they are top quality, because we are leading by example with every outfit we wear.
The way I see it, you have to get dressed every morning – so you might as well take the opportunity to inspire change with your fashion choices.
This month I am listening to…Audioslave – easily one of my top five all-time favourite bands
This month I am watching…food documentary series Rotten on Netflix – so eye-opening
This month I am reading…Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang, a feminist read on misogyny in the tech industry
This month I am planning...to head to Milan for some much-needed food, wine and sunshine (the weather here in the UK makes me cry)
All photos by David Camilli