From New Gods to Community Building

When woke-culture gets co-opted by the mainstream, brands turn to community-building to evoke meaning.

Key Takeaways

  1. Whenever there is a shift in culture and politics, new gods/influencers emerge to lead the way.
  2. Today’s consumers look for purpose behind their chosen brands, but when wokeness becomes co-opted by the mainstream, meaning becomes a tool for manipulation.
  3. Instead of virtue-signalling, today’s most innovative designers focus on community building as a form of influence, facilitating cultural exchange instead of traditional sales tactics.

Widespread inequality worsened by bloated bureaucracies, globalization, and climate change has caused us to question our governments, our institutions, and the experts who run them. It's part of the reason why Trump was elected, and why populism has become mainstream. We want to imagine that if we simply shift the forces in power, things will change. But time and time again we see this is not the case. 

“We as a society look to people for inspiration, guidance, how to do many things in life, we respect our teachers or our Gods – we need this symbol.” Georgina Harding, Trend Forecaster, Consultant And Co-founder Of Semaine told Dazed of the ever-shifting influencer landscape. “This Olympic torch is just being passed to someone else.” 

Today’s influencers are all mighty gods, or at the very least, shapeshifters who are capable of bringing their followings with them, no matter the size. Rihanna, once a singer, is now the new Victoria Secret (Savage X Fenty), an inclusive beauty company (Fenty Beauty), and a high fashion designer with her own luxury house under LVMH (FENTY). Kanye West has chart-topping albums, his own church (Sunday Service), a presidential campaign, and a budding fashion empire (Yeezy X Adidas, Yeezy x The Gap, and YEEZY). Even tattoo artists with micro-influencer status have their own clothing lines and collaborations with brands large and small. Thanks to social media, the definition of celebrity is constantly expanding, and artists are no longer required to stay in their lane, as long as they have something to say.

This process is particularly explicit in the fashion industry, where the rise and fall of taste-makers both reflects and shifts the political mood of the times. In the 1990s, athletes like Michael Jordan sold the image of upward mobility to low-income consumers via Nike-designed shoes (dream it, do it) — putting ever more wealth in the hands of corporations while pedaling the promise of the American dream. Today, corporations like H&M similarly offer a better future, responding to the climate crisis with “sustainable” rebrands backed by eco-chic pop stars like Billie Elish while pumping out disposable clothes. Beauty companies like Glossier pledge to democratize the makeup industry while resale sites preach the power of recycling. There are accessible celebrities-cum-corporations like Kim Kardashian and Cardi B, who straddle the line between luxury and fast-fashion to make it feel like rich and poor are running the same scene. All of these tricks are used by brands high and low to make it seem like they’re working against environmental collapse, oppression, and inequality, but with growing awareness of the impact that the fashion industry has on our people, and our planet — the facade is beginning to crumble.

Calling out what’s wrong in the industry isn’t the same as taking steps to make it better, but that hasn’t stopped brands and ad agencies from appealing to consumer’s discontent. For marketers, meaning has become a tool of manipulation: it might be identity-driven (“I feel PROUD in my Calvins.”), political (tokenizing models of color), or environmental (greenwashing). Even publications have jumped on the bandwagon, using buzzwords like “hope” and “solidarity” to sell more ads — as if promoting luxury labels could help bring about economic and social equality. And it’s not only greenwashing and pseudo-inclusivity we have to be worried about. As our access to consumer goods and the online images that promote them expands, our ability to distinguish between cultural trends, luxury, and mass consumerism, decreases — enabling corporations to sell the promise of accessibility, without making any changes at all. Today, both high and low brands tend to evoke the same look, blurring the lines between tribal ties and old-fashioned consumerism. It’s Travis Scott posing in front of a Ferrari to promote a collaboration with Mcdonalds and Cardi B modelling for Balenciaga in an outfit that looks like fast fashion. Clothing enables us to engage in live-action roleplay, whether that’s maxing out your credit cards to look richer, or rocking streetwear to seem like you’re part of the underground. This pseudo-populism feels a lot like the current political landscape, where a promise to level the playing field simply reinforces the status quo. It’s Trump stuffing his pockets while promising to drain the swamp and Balenciaga appealing to the “working man” with a $780 football jersey. Selling the promise of equality and liberation is not the same as achieving it, in the same way that buying $1200 sneakers doesn’t make you rich — but that hasn’t stopped brands from playing make-believe. 

If fashion once had issues with exploitation, appropriation, and environmental degradation, it now has a woke problem too. Sustainable fashion is contradictory at best, and purpose-driven influencers, no matter their intention, are more likely to alleviate PR crises than they are to instill real change. This is not to say that fashion is resigned to a future of virtue signalling, but rather that change needs to come from outside, not from within. Independent Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens has figured out how to harness the populist fervor of the times in a way that feels sincere. TELFAR’s production practices may not solve issues with overseas supply chains, worker exploitation, or environmental waste (the brand’s biggest seller, a simple plastic it-bag inspired by a Bloomingdale's tote and lovingly referred to as the “Bushwick Birkin” isn’t known for its longevity), yet each new drop sells out in a matter of minutes. Why? Like Supreme’s box logo t-shirts and Nike’s infamous swoosh adorned sneakers, Telfar’s logo-emblazoned it-bag enables its wearer to instantly identify with an in-group, only this time this bag is “not for you — it’s for everyone,” and is priced accordingly (they range from $150 - $257 USD, depending on the size). What’s more, the company doesn’t rely on collaborations with major retailers but instead utilizes the power of their network to sell merchandise (magazine-worthy tagged photos are featured on their Instagram page to promote drops, as are memes made by fans, and TELFAR Twitter is a thing). And though TELFAR may have gotten a jump start with a $400,000 reward from the CFDA and once collaborated with White Castle, the designer has proven he doesn’t need mainstream collaborations, like the one that fell through with The Gap, to make his business work. For once, the underdog is actually winning — and it’s not just some corporate facade.

Of course, simply creating something for the culture doesn’t prevent it from being co-opted and used to promote ideals of authenticity, inclusivity, and racial justice. Once an idiosyncratic force, Shayne Oliver’s Hood by Air (est. 2006) was quickly absorbed by the high fashion industry, enabling their foray into streetwear while simultaneously watering down the message, and the proceeds, of its forebears. The result is a seemingly monotonous landscape wherein the mixing of luxury and street exacerbated by social media has made it feel like today’s culture is obsolete. It’s the reason why people are still obsessed with New York in the 1980s, and why today’s designer’s continue to reference brands like Walter Van Bierendonck and Margiela. When there are so many images at our disposal, it seems impossible to come up with anything new. Yet HBA somehow manages to maintain cultural and aesthetic supremacy and cultural appeal. How? By focusing on what made us fall in love with fashion in the first place, and that’s taste, not couture. HBA feeds off of and lifts up the culture that surrounds it; creating new institutions like ANONYMOUS — an artist incubator (it’s first iteration: a secret party in New York’s Lower East Side featuring live acts, DJs, and performance art), and MUSEUM, a line of reissued apparel re-interpreted by guest collaborators. Whether that culture culminates in double-sided cowboy boots or simple, logo-adorned hoodies the message is clear: we cannot rely on corporations to deliver taste, innovation, and culture. If you really want change, you have to do it yourself. 

In the case of brands like Telfar and HBA, it isn’t a matter of achieving god-like influence, but fostering strong, lasting communities who build both aesthetic and political connections to fashion. And that’s how it should be. Culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and neither does political change. If we want to see new institutions, and even new hierarchies, we have to reimagine how power is distributed, who gets to say what’s relevant, and why. Of course, the old gods will remain. There will always be celebrity-created clothing lines and powerful, exploitative brands capitalizing off of our cultural production in order to sell us more. All we’re asking is that, at the very least, those resources are also funneled to those who can truly bring about innovation.