Agenda Setting

In such critical times, independent brands must use their voice to speak up.

Key Takeaways

  1. Use your platform to address complex issues. Don’t be afraid to make statements: your brand is inherently political.
  2. Give back to the community you design for. Expand your reach beyond the product, and educate yourself to educate your audience.
  3. Don’t act too strategic. Fake activism is deplorable and highly counterproductive. Be ready for a new wave of ethical spenders.

In such critical times, independent brands must use their voice to speak up. How do you represent the community you design for? How do you address complex issues? “How-to” not virtue signal, while defining your brand’s conceptual and ethical stance.

Since George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, protestors have taken to the streets to fight racism in America, and beyond. “I Can’t Breathe,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Defund the Police” are just a few of the slogans that have generated a constantly referenced language, through which activists have been advocating justice for the victims of racism-induced police brutality worldwide. 

While protests in major American and European cities continue to happen in the streets, despite the imposed curfews across the US, a new wave of digital activism supported the cause “from-home.” Although not all the output of the Instagram-based political action was virtuous—the #blackouttuesday squares have been rightly criticized by many, as a plethora of celebrities, corporations and more began to go dark on social media—remote participation has succeeded in amplifying the collective voice.

No surprise, the fashion establishment has rapidly co-opted this wave with dubious results. Many weird things happened on the corporate side of fashion: Adidas reposted Nike’s black square, Virgil Abloh embarked on an ultra-apologetic monologue, Celine’s Instagram account complied to the black square etiquette despite the brand’s lack of diversity when it comes to casting for runway shows and campaigns. High-fashion activism was clearly proved delusional.

In such critical times, the only hope resides in small-scale, independent brands that are not scared to use their platform to speak up. If you’re a community-rooted (meaning here, any community) creative enterprise which happens to design clothes and eventually sell them, you must be asking yourself how to represent the community you design for; how to address complex issues; how to define your brand’s conceptual and ethical stance.

Independent fashion brands are inherently political: the vision sustaining their operations is not mediated by endless procedures and bureaucracy as it happens to be for their holdings-owned big brothers. You must make use of your unfiltered voice to take a position and declare yourself (and your brand) part of the conversation. If you engage with politics, your agenda must be set straight: you don’t want to just virtue-signal, but to act. Silence is not an option.

This May, prior to the protests, author and critic Natasha Stagg tweeted: “Making a t-shirt is not the answer,” a statement that went instantly viral among the global art-posse. In the past few days, other things went viral: a Brain Dead t-shirt designed in collaboration with musician Dev Hynes raised nearly $500.000 for charity, Los Angeles-based brand Total Luxury Spa reached 100k of donations through their online store, bailout funds were established and promoted by independent brands worldwide: we’re looking at streetwear as a tool for direct political action.

For a newly-established, low-liquidity independent brand, speaking up can be seen as a threat, where polarizing opinions could intimidate potential retailers, buyers, press officers. If you think your brand is not “there yet,” meaning you think your voice is not worthy of listeners: you’re wrong. And your customers will remind you so.

Among the many useful resource lists, spreadsheets, and links circulated digitally as a compendium to the IRL protests, a digital extension for Google Chrome named Progressive Shopper has surfaced as the definitive “E-commerce helper that makes ethical spending a no-brainer.” The app sends browser notifications anytime you are on a page where data about their political contributions is available. The notifications are color-coded: blue for companies that give primarily to Democrats; purple for companies that give equally to Democrats and Republicans; red for the ones that give primarily to Republicans. Progressive Shopper shows how your customer base responds to ethics when it comes to allocating budget—even more so if yours is a Millennials- and Gen-Z targeted brand. Today, you most definitely don’t want to be New Balance.

If you are struggling to find your way into branded tone of voice and public statements, just read. Educating yourself and your brand is the key to be able to educate others. It’s as simple as that: read 3K+-word interviews with creative directors or designers you feel an affiliation with, question their stances: “Could I be doing more?” “Would I approach this differently?” Form your consciousness through critical theory and long-form writing, and frame it through the language you develop in the process. Don’t ever think a political agenda is an excess—again, your brand is already inherently political, because it’s independent. Most importantly: give back to the community you design for.

Appropriation is an accepted paradigm when designing clothes. If done well, referencing tropes of specific subcultures, urban tribes, creative enclaves is probably what makes a brand successful today, design-wise. People would wear your clothes as they speak to them, they have integrity. But in order to do so, your community-slash-muse must possess the budget to afford it—that’s a paradox in luxury we’ll take for granted here. 

Now is the time to give back to the people you think about when you conceive or design your brand. It’s fine to sell a $300 raw-cotton painter trousers with embroidered fake-tempera stains, but don’t expect fine-art graduates or practicing artists to engage with your product if you don’t provide the opportunity to do so when the time is right. You have to go beyond your price tag, engage with your references beyond the product. Now is the time to speak up.

As we hopefully approach a new dimension of ethical spending, brand activism must not be handled as an easy marketing opportunity. That’s deplorable, other than highly counterproductive—customers will increasingly seek for information on brands’ ethics. Customers will want to know where their money goes before buying double-digits plain t-shirts. And you’d want to be ready.