The final Bush years. The economic crisis. War, as always. The year was 2008, and, knowing fashion's capacity for social commentary and identity politics, mega-influential photographer and SHOWstudio director Nick Knight decided to curate Political Fashion, a film and essay series that captures, among other things, the connection between fashion, society, and politics. The commissioned films approach politics in subtle and direct ways; contributors included Steven Klein, Matthew Stone, Bernhard Willhelm, Greg Kadel, Gareth Pugh, Stephen Jones, Camille Vivier, Walter van Beirendonck, Vivienne Westwood, and Viktor & Rolf.
Recently, Political Fashion returned to SHOWstudio, so Creators decided to talk to Knight about its revival.
"The industry has been going through the self-realization that fashion is one of the most accessible art forms and forms of expression," Knight tells Creators. "How we dress says a lot about who we are, who we want to be, and what we stand for." One particular standout film for Knight is The Red Shoes, which tells the true story of one Liberian girl's desire for a fashion item that was so strong she joined a militant rebel group in the hopes of attaining it.
"We talk about fashion being on the periphery, but you see it's something that every society engages with. This girl would put herself through unspeakable things to be able to buy a pair of red shoes. For her it felt like she was becoming something else. Her reality had very little to do with her dream."
Dreams, Knight insists, must persist. "Fantasy is the first thing a dictator will take away from a society. People are waking up to things that are happening, but I wouldn't wish for a fantasy-less society or for dreaming to stop. That's how society evolves. You have to want a better world."
Waves of change in the world have enabled people to challenge dogma and dominant discourses, but they've also seemingly provoked an identity crisis which has been answered with nationalistic overzealousness.
"The vote for Britain to leave Europe has been a validation for people with xenophobic and racist views," Knight tells us "Many of the older generation have never particularly felt at ease with Europe, and unfortunately that's a lot of the people that voted. The youth are really the ones who will suffer from this. We're inflicting a whole set of values on a society which won't be wanting them."
Another point of discussion: the resurgence of East Bloc aesthetics, heralded by tastemakers Demna Gvasalia, Gosha Rubchinskiy, and Lotta Volkova. Proponents of the Post-Soviet vibe seem to be mining "the ruins of a collapsed system hoping to get some useful lessons for the future," as culture writer and curator Anastasiia Fedorova writes.
"They are outside of the existing fashion structure, which is how fashion has been articulated for the last 100 years. Those people have found a voice, and found that they can get through to people without going through those old channels. Gosha and Demna are part of a generation seeing opportunities for a new system, and they are building it around themselves."
The SHOWstudio platform itself has been a big part of that industry revolution. "Fashion previously was almost kept secret, shown to a few people and then drip-fed to the public through magazines. But that control has slipped from their hands," says Knight. New artist–audience relationships are inherently political. The internet has opened up channels of self-expression and made fashion more accessible, but issues of choice and power are more critical than ever in consumerism as in politics.
"I went to Parliament to talk to the Brexit committee," Knight tells us, "and it feels like we're being allowed to say something—but it makes not the slightest difference. Prior to my first engagement with Parliament, the fashion industry had no voice within Brexit negotiations at all. I can't see how the industry, which was built on cooperation within Europe, is going to survive." Without trade deals and freedom of movement secured, production is impacted, the talent pool shrinks, and international enrollment plummets at design colleges like Central Saint Martins.
"We're interviewing Wolfgang Tillmans on SHOWstudio and holding a discussion panel on Brexit," reveals Knight when prompted about future political projects. "But yes, the politicization of fashion should and will go further. I think you'll see that coming through naturally in the ways that young designers speak."
Knight references the late Future Shock author Alvin Toffler: "He predicted huge cultural shifts—that society will move on to a better place, but that in so doing there will be a lot of reactionary, retrogressive politics. Politics of fear—fear of the future. But if we are going through these difficulties now, it must be in proportion to the better society we're heading towards."
Revisit Political Fashion here.