A fashionable entry to policy?

Standing up to Trump with style

Sally Tyler

PHOTO: Nike

Government and governance, Trade and industry, Arts, culture & society | Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

30 March 2017

The current political stalemate in the US makes it necessary for progressive activists to think outside the box to challenge key Trump policies in indirect ways, Sally Tyler writes.

This week marks the launch of Asia Islamic Fashion Week, a first-of-its-kind trade show in Kuala Lumpur to showcase fashion featuring “cutting-edge style that is in line with Islamic values.” The women who wear such clothing have traditionally not identified it as “Islamic”, but simply as modest. The fact that the organisers of the Malaysian exposition chose to brand it as an Islamic fashion event reflects that they are aware that such clothing, and the women who wear it, have reached a new level of global visibility in non-Islamic eyes. Though the wholesale and retail buyers targeted by their trade show remain Muslim, their work, and any messages they wish to convey through it, now includes a potentially broader audience.

Asia Islamic Fashion Week comes on the heels of last month’s fashion week in New York, where Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan, who also made headlines in September by showcasing the first all-hijab collection at Fall New York Fashion Week, featured a cast of immigrant models, in response to the Trump Administration’s highly-publicised travel ban targeting nine primarily-Muslim nations.

And what could be more in-your-face than the marketing campaign for the new Nike Pro-Hijab? Images of covered women who run, fence, figure skate and skateboard flash under the caption, “What will they say about you?” The message being: the world is watching, and apparently talking.

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It seems an unfair burden to place on female, Muslim athletes — not only are they supposed to think about their technique and their split times, but apparently they should now also be conscious of how they are perceived by onlookers. The message is more fitting for fashion than athletics, but it aligns with the overall trend of high-visibility image campaigns aimed at reinforcing diverse concepts of beauty and upending stereotypical thinking.

But beyond campaigns to confront implicit bias and incorporate inclusive messaging, can prominent Trump policies actually be challenged through fashion industry engagement? Lest the sartorially-dismissive scoff, consider that fashion is a more than $1.75 trillion global industry, accounting for at least $370 billion of spending in the US. The fashion industry could potentially provide a valid test case for engagement on Trump policies because it hits on so many key issues. The complex nature of the global supply chain involved in fashion touches on trade, labour rights, gender equity and the environment, among other areas.

Last week’s healthcare win for Democrats, and the light it shone on continued divisions within the President’s own party, has set the terms for a stand-off which will not end before next year’s mid-term elections, making it virtually impossible to achieve bi-partisan participation on major issues in the near term. But it may be possible for progressive activists to remain engaged on issues of concern by backing in to policy issues tangentially attached to less controversial issues. And the fashion industry could perhaps provide such a vehicle.

An apt emissary sits just feet from the President, as First Daughter Ivanka Trump now has her own West Wing office in the White House. By many accounts, she is the President’s most trusted advisor. She recently placed her multi-million dollar fashion empire in a trust, and will no longer make day-to-day decisions about the business. But she continues to own the company and will receive pay-outs from it, so she will obviously remain concerned with issues which impact the fashion industry.

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Southeast Asian nations could be in line for broader engagement roles on fashion industry policies. The majority of clothes, shoes and accessories in the Ivanka Trump line are currently manufactured in China, contrary to her father’s “Made in America” rhetoric. Consequently, Ivanka may seek a new manufacturing base outside China, as that nation continues to attract most of her father’s trade-related verbal ire. If domestic manufacturing proves prohibitively expensive, Vietnam would be a logical fallback, as a country with a well-developed textile manufacturing industry.

Now that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is defunct, Vietnam is subject to bilateral negotiation with the US on trade. Such two-party negotiation could afford activists on both sides of the Pacific access to press for inclusion of issues such as labour rights and the environment. Further, the well-publicised boycott of Ivanka’s line (#GrabYourWallet) which has caused US stores, including Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, to drop her products, makes it more likely that she will seek expanded placement in Asian markets.

No one should expect a public rebuke of her father’s policies from this dutiful daughter, but activists may find a sympathetic ear on certain issues which could be used to subtly develop positions. As one of the reportedly few climate change believers in her father’s cabal of idealogues, Ivanka may be willing to engage in a dialogue about sustainable sourcing of the textiles used in her line.

And as a self-described proponent of working women’s issues, she might be willing to learn more about the impact of forced cotton harvesting on Uzbek women, and on the effect a code of conduct adhered to by fashion manufacturers and retailers could have on women working in sweatshops worldwide.

The current political estrangement in the US cannot be minimised. But beneath the headlines and major issues of the day, it may be possible to engage on policy in indirect ways. When one door closes, sometimes a fashionably well-appointed window opens.

This article is published in collaboration with New Mandala, the premier website for analysis on Southeast Asia’s politics and societies. 

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