Luxury Fashion’s Relationship With LGBTQ+ Culture

Luxury Fashion’s Relationship With LGBTQ+ Culture

By Amelia Curwen

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2019 is a commemorative year for the queer community. In New York, 1969, police behaviour persistently agitated the LGBTQ+ community and on 28th June that year, attempted to raid the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. That night, however, routine police brutality was met with unexpected, fierce retaliation. The swelling crowds outnumbered the law enforcers and a collective belief ignited; enough was enough, they were ‘not afraid’ and this time ‘they were winning’. The events that unfolded over the next six nights came to be known as the ‘Stonewall Riots’, which acted as a catalyst for the Gay Liberation Movement and subsequently led to the first march for the right to be queer and proud. 

Fifty years on Pride has evolved from political demonstration to a global, eclectic, electric, inclusive, colourful, extravaganza of the queer community, united in style, for their right to equality.

Fashion and queer culture go hand in hand, we assume. The industry operates under the guise that it is a champion of LGBTQ+ people, a haven for the queer community and when put to 100 people given 30 seconds: ‘Name a luxury fashion designer past or present?’ a high percentage of the top answers would likely be gay men. Fashion celebrates and is drawn to uniqueness, and if fashion could talk the theme of this year’s Met Gala, ‘Camp’, would be its way of saying: “I’m here and I’m queer.” Yet in spite of this progressive reputation, how much of the nuance of LGBTQ+ subcultural identity has been accurately captured in luxury fashion? And how much have the profits generated from the borrowing of cultures and, been fairly distributed?

Pride on the Marketing Calendar

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Pride’s golden jubilee has not gone unnoticed by marketeers, according to a study by the digital lifestyle magazine INTO fifty-three percent of marketers are allocating between up to 4% of their campaigns on LGBTQ+ audiences. This year has seen rainbow adorned ‘merch’ readily available to purchase in a store near you from the likes of: M&S, Ralph Lauren, Boohoo, Ikea, Dr. Martens, McDonalds, Coca Cola, Brewdog, Pepsi, Primark, Adidas, the Co-op, Under Armour, Converse, Skittles, Virgin Atlantic, Reebok, Levi’s, Apple, Banana Republic, Hyundai, Milk Makeup, Abercrombie & Fitch, Starbucks, Asos and Disney to name a few. Listerine’s rainbow coloured labels came under hot scrutiny for adding words including “sunlight,” and “harmony.” without establishing correct context. Even Donald Trump has used the Pride flag for political promotion to the disgust of the LGBTQ+ community considering the regression of the rights of transgender people under his presidency.

After all, this is a lucrative business, the ‘Pink Pound’ is estimated to be worth ‘£6 billion per year in the UK’ ; INTO’s report goes on to claim that ‘35% of consumers said they are more likely to purchase from brands that include LGBTQ themes, whilst a brand's reputation for being LGBTQ-friendly or not influenced purchase decisions for 70%. Also, 47% said campaigns that are LGBTQ inclusive directly influenced a purchase that they've made, and 33% said seeing ads in LGBTQ media influenced a purchase decision.’ Taking the data into consideration it is unsurprising that brands are opting to engage with queer culture to appeal to the market of LGBTQ+ spenders, and to take advantage of Pride month to operate this tactic.

Rampant commercialisation of the Pride flag has raised conversations about what and when it is appropriate to fly the flag or when it is just plain appropriation.

Cultural appropriation when applied to luxury fashion and queer culture has more layers than a Balenciaga  AW18 coat. The lines are blurred when it comes to whether luxury fashion is ‘art’ or ‘commerce’ which affects the argument of ‘appropriation’ vs ‘appreciation’ of queer culture in the fashion industry. Queer culture has existed for so long within fashion that for contemporary designers it would be difficult to separate the origins of influence into clean-cut categories of ‘queer influence’ and ‘fashion influence’, and in many cases, it would be impossible to conclude what came first. The last decade, however, has seen more acute messaging of gender and sexual orientation politics seep onto mainstream catwalks where conclusions easier to draw.

LGBTQ+ and Pride ‘Moments’ on the Catwalk

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In 2013, Ashleigh Good and Kati Nescher walked on the Chanel Haute catwalk hand in hand to assert the luxury brand’s voice in the conversation that was surrounding equal marriage rights in France at the time. Two women on the catwalk holding hands would hardly be viewed as a controversial and political ‘statement’ in today’s social climate, which is a testament to how far the acceptance of LGBTQ+ people has come. Had this taken place in Chanel’s 2019 Haute collection, the question of ‘why are two cisgender, heterosexual, white women cast in a statement about LGBTQ+ people’s right to equality?’ may have been the bigger story.

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The adoption of the rainbow emblem has surged on the catwalk in the last five years; the Burberry SS18 show is a well-known example. Christopher Bailey dedicated his final collection for Burberry “to the best and brightest organizations supporting LGBTQ youth around the world,” he said in a statement on Instagram. “There has never been a more important time to say that in our diversity lies our strength, and our creativity,”. The show opened with Adwoa Aboah wearing rainbow stripes on a white silk skirt and closed with Cara Delevingne draped in a rainbow fake fur cape. Unlike Listerine’s rainbow striped ‘harmony’ bottle of mouthwash, for Bailey, it was a deeply personal plea to hold the rainbow with dignity and a call for companies and individuals to uphold an unwavering commitment to LGBTQ+ rights. Burberry’s support to LGBTQ+ will result in donations to organisations that aim to empower the LGBTQ+ communities such as the Albert Kennedy Trust and the Trevor Project and the ILGA.

Before Bailey, fashion designer Ashish Gupta featured a wealth of sequined rainbows in his autumn/winter 2017 show for the eponymous label, Ashish, alongside a number of garments printed with statements like “Love sees no colour” and “Why be blue when you can be gay!”.

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 Whilst Bailey chose to incorporate Pride symbolism in his exiting season, Virgil Abloh chose to create a similar statement for his Louis Vuitton debut in June 2018, this time it was a 650 foot plus runway, inspired by The Wizard of Oz, that was furbished with a rainbow. Abloh cast models from every continent and the show itself functioned as a metaphor for Abloh’s wishes for diversity and inclusivity, aptly named Color Theory.

Off of the catwalk, fashion collective Vetements collaborated with the renowned Comme des Garçons on a capsule collection of sweaters in tribute to LGBTQ+ pride, one style featuring the iconic rainbow, and another style with a white labrys, a double-edged battle axe, printed on a black triangle on a purple background, a symbol of lesbian independence. Further example of flag adaptation into a symbol that is more widely inclusive was the “epic moment of defiance”  when American Screenwriter, Lena Waithe took a stand with her Met Gala look when she showed up to the 2018 Catholicism-themed event in a rainbow Pride flag-inspired capedesigned by Carolina Herrera with the addition of black and brown colours.

Has luxury fashion handled its embrace of Pride with care?

Pride inspired, queer-positive messaging, delivered by designers with a genuine relationship to the LGBTQ+ community, that have been impassioned to produce art to raise awareness of the community, can offer the kind of power and visibility needed to affect global change in favour of queer equal legal rights. Where Pride symbolism has been adopted on the catwalks, for the most part, luxury brands appear to have avoided falling into the potential trap of presenting hollow sentiments. 

One danger of the luxury market absorbing and selling designs inspired by queer culture is the fashion industry’s cyclic habit for renewal and systemic disregard of past trends deemed ‘out of vogue’. Queer culture is undoubtedly having a ‘moment’, so it is vital that the cluster of designers featuring Pride inspired narratives in seasons from 2017-2019 remain cognitive of the threat of over commercialising the flag; it is essential for brands to nurture the assosication they’ve embraced with Pride and encourage LGBTQ+ inclusion. 

Inclusion Means No Exceptions

While homosexuality has been linked with the fashion industry throughout history, transgender presence has only risen to prominence on fashion catwalks in more recent years. 2015 was seen as a year the trans movement went mainstream. Events in fashion helped make way for this shift. In 2010 Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy cast Lea T, a transgender model, his muse, in his campaign to help fund her gender-affirming surgery. In 2013 T went on to appear on the cover of Love magazine kissing supermodel Kate Moss and in 2015 had a starring role in a campaign for Redken that saw her become the first transgender model to front a global beauty brand.

Fast forward to 2019, it is not uncommon to see transgender inclusion of models in shows. The story is moving onto the bigger picture there are questions raised about how inclusion of transgender men and women can be felt for more than a fleeting catwalk moment. One brand in particular that stands out for its immersion in trans culture is American luxury brand Opening Ceremony. They transformed their Spring/Summer 2019 show into a drag show in collaboration with RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Sasha Velour. Inclusion and fairness were at the core of the show; all models and performers were LGBTQ individuals and proceeds went to benefit the Transgender Law Center. 

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The emergence of television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose has exposed non-LGBTQ+ audiences to Drag culture, Ballroom Culture and illustrated how Drag can be an art form. The 1990 documentary Paris is Burning which has been made available on mainstream service Netflix, shows how the most marginalised group of queer African American and Hispanic queer people were forced to break away from the original ball scene due to racial tensions that failed to transcend the shared homophobic persecution. Waithe, in response to the Met Gala’s 2019 theme Camp, used fashion for a second year running to highlight this often overlooked inequality within the LGBTQ+ community by wearing a pinstripe double-breasted suit by menswear label Pyer Moss that had "Black drag queens invented camp." stitched on the back. Moving forward, the fashion industry needs to present a message that is unifying of all people through equal representation considering gender, sexual orientation, and race to set an example of an industry capable of complete inclusion which continues to set the bar for other industries.

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