Designers get political in New York Fashion Week shows

Annapolis native Christian Siriano and other designers used fashion week shows as a political platform.

Of all the liquid metallic gowns and clay-colored separates included in the 52 looks that Christian Siriano sent down the runway Saturday during New York Fashion Week, it was arguably his weakest look — a model wearing a pink satin skirt with a high slit and a simple black T-shirt — that made the biggest impression on his audience of celebrities and fashion industry insiders.

"People are People" was printed across the chest of the svelte gazelle of a woman. And the crowd immediately picked up on the message of inclusion. A burst of cheers and claps broke the dramatic runway music that filled the opulent ballroom of the Plaza Hotel near tony Fifth Avenue.

It was an unexpected reaction from the typically reserved New York City set who, minutes earlier, were hopping out of their chauffeured cars bundled up from the cold, later shedding their outerwear to reveal an array of designer duds — including pieces from Siriano's collections.

The Annapolis-born designer said he couldn't remain silent in the current political climate.

"It's affecting everything. We have to come together," said Siriano, who ended his show with the song "People are People" by Depeche Mode.

Siriano was among several designers who used their fashion shows as platforms to make political statements this season. Feminist T-shirt slogans, representations of immigration and nods to presidential campaigns peppered the runways during one of the most politically charged fashion weeks in recent memory.

President Donald Trump's daughter, Tiffany, and her mother, Marla Maples, sat front row at the Taoray Wang show, but visible support for the White House was otherwise absent. Other shows' sentiments were overwhelmingly left-leaning.

Public School designers Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chowcreated a hat that read "Make America New York," imitating Trump's "Make America Great Again" hats.

Bella Hadid wore a white T-shirt with black lettering that read "The Future Is Female" at Prabal Gurung's show. The Singapore-native designer created a number of feminist, pro-Hillary Clinton and equality-themed T-shirts. He even wore one that read: "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like."

Opening Ceremony created sweatshirts that read: "Protest," "Defy" and "Fight." Planned Parenthood passed out support pins to attendees throughout the city. Gypsy Sport lined the runway with tents to represent refugee displacement.

And Anniesa Hasibuan, an Indonesian fashion designer, sent all her models down the runway wearing hijabs. Hasibuan held a casting call seeking models who are immigrants or were first- or second-generation Americans in protest of the Trump administration's immigration stance, according to a news release.

Fashion week is the latest major event to get the political treatment.

Earlier this week, the Grammys exploded with social commentary when A Tribe Called Quest delivered a politically charged performance that featured a parade of immigrants and rapper Busta Rhymes chanting the lyrics "President Agent Orange." Last month's Golden Globes attracted the attention of Trump and his supporters when Meryl Streep delivered a speech critical of him. And Lady Gaga's Super Bowl performance became a partisan debate as conservatives and liberals argued over its message.

"The fashion industry is at a crossroads right now because as an industry we are known for being left-leaning and very progressive," said Zoey Washington, a Baltimore-based senior style editor at Brit + Co, a women's lifestyle company. "Obviously a lot of fashion personalities were involved with Hillary and her campaign."

In New York, Washington singled out the Calvin Klein collection as an example of subtle political messaging. The show's runway music featured David Bowie's "This Is Not America."

"That was very much a political collection," she said. Raf Simons, chief creative officer at Calvin Klein, wove together pro-immigration sentiments with iconic American symbols like the flag. "That was a reflection of how all those people made up one identity. It was important because it was one of the most influential American houses making a statement."

But those statements might not sit well with consumers, according to Sally Di Marco, associate professor and fashion design program coordinator at Stevenson University School of Design. Though she applauds the designers' advocacy, she said it may ultimately backfire.

"I think the public is so saturated with political issues right now, I think the companies are doing a disservice to themselves," she said. "People are worn out. I think messages of hope might be more appropriate."

Since the election in November, the fashion community has been relatively quiet in voicing political opinions. Washington thinks that was by design.

"Fashion Week was an opportunity for a lot of brands to put their stamp and say how they feel on a global stage," she said. "That's why there was that disconnect. A lot of designers were waiting for fashion week to be on a global stage."

Siriano, who for most of his career has been showcasing his collections at the funkier Eyebeam Studio during New York Fashion Week, chose the storied opulence of The Plaza to unveil his offerings, which were inspired by the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

"I really wanted to have a show that was like the place I went," he said. "It was dream-like. I was in a different world. I wanted my guests to take 20 minutes to step away from the current world."

Siriano became more direct when asked to expound on what he meant by "the current world."

Without hesitation he said: "We have to celebrate diversity."

He also said that he couldn't see himself dressing first lady Melania Trump even though he dressed Michelle Obama on several occasions.

"I don't think I could support anything associated with the White House and its policies," he said.

Siriano has emerged as a leading voice for diversity in the fashion industry.

Whether it was helping out actress Leslie Jones with a last-minute dress for the premiere of "Ghostbusters" because she couldn't find a designer to dress her curvy figure, designing capsule collections for Lane Bryant or featuring an array of sizes and skin tones in his runway shows, Siriano has demonstrated an inclusive attitude.

After his show, celebs Juliette Lewis and Alicia Silverstone gushed over Siriano backstage.

"The collection was amazing," Lewis said amid the choas of models returning clothes to assistants and media jockeying for an interview with Siriano. "The clothes. The music. The message. Everything."

Writer and transgender activist Janet Mock, a regular front-row guest of Siriano's, marveled at the designer's willingness to speak up.

"It's one of the greatest things that artists can do is use the power of their voice," she said. "For Christian to say publicly that he does not feel comfortable dressing Melania Trump — who is an extension of her husband — is like a boycott in a sense. And it's vital. It's one of the best ways to express artistry."

Di Marco said that in order for the messaging to work, clothing has to be accessible to the masses.

"If it's affordable only for the wealthy, the middle class are never going to see it," she said.

At the show by designer Tracy Reese, attendees were given buttons in support of Planned Parenthood.

Her presentation echoed a feminist theme. Models were mixed in with spoken-word artists who read poems from a feminist perspective.

Reese, who wore a Planned Parenthood button and a T-shirt that included a quote from political activist Angela Davis, wrote in an email that her collection was inspired by women from diverse backgrounds.

She added: "More than ever, the world we inhabit demands that we, as women be all things: strong yet feminine, nurturing yet stoic, seductive yet demure. This collection is an ode to the strength and beauty of the feminine spirit."

Maria Lopez, a Baltimore-based model, attended Reese's show as a guest. The Highlandtown resident said she felt empowered after attending the presentation.

"There was a lot going on with the crowd. I stayed in one spot and listened," she said.

Lopez said she was happy to see Reese wearing the Planned Parenthood button and Angela Davis T-shirt.

"I think that was awesome," she said. "When you have that status and you don't use it, it's wasted. More people are going to listen to that voice."

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Top trends

Political statements weren’t the only things trending on the runways of New York.

Skipping New York altogether

A number of designers either showed elsewhere or simply chose to skip this season of fashion week.

Rachel Zoe, Rebecca Minkoff and Tommy Hilfiger all showed their collections in Los Angeles. Rodarte and Hood By Air opted for Paris. And DKNY skipped showing a collection altogether.

Don’t worry. Fashion week hasn’t lost its luster. Designer Raf Simons coming to Calvin Klein from Dior gave the big apple an added boost of star power. And with all the buzz generated by designers taking a political stand, the void was hardly noticed.


Whether it was in the form of liquid metal, sequins or appliques, metallics were in abundance.

Christian Siriano sent out models wearing gowns that shimmered and cocktail dresses and jackets with varying sparkly appliques. My favorite was a black cocktail dress adorned by gold tassels that darted back a forth with each step.

Jenny Packham also presented sparkly, metallic gowns worthy of the most sophisticated of red carpets. And Nicholas K showed a stunning leather foil coat and matching skirt during a ’90s-themed collection dedicated to hip-hop and diverse people.


From the dark, raccoon eye makeup that her models wore to the black knit caps atop their heads, Nicole Miller’s fall line was a dark, edgy, street-inspired collection featuring a number of black options that she showed in varying patterns, textures and silhouettes.

Milly showcased a simply black gown with a stunning crisscross back that was elegant and contemporary.

And Tracy Reese’s collection was filled with an array of black dresses and separates that embraced the strength of her celebration of women. The black, ostrich feather heels her models wore were also worth noting. And Stevie Boi’s edgy, fetish-inspired “Noir” collection was composed primarily of black latex.


Designers’ message-bearing T-shirts were often paired with skirts — ball gown, pencil, sexy, textured and airy.

Alice + Olivia featured artsy, painted skirts in floor-length and knee-length options. I particularly loved their cascading ostrich feather skirt in blush. Jenny Packham paired a number of ball gown skirts with jackets for an edgy evening look. And Prabal Gurung paired his message tops with skirts of varying shapes, lengths and materials.


Claudia Li featured a number of detachable fur pieces that allowed for maximum versatility for her collection. I also loved her use of varying shades of blue. Her midnight blue corduroy big lapel coat was a dream — as was her water-repellent spy trench coat in the same color.

Dennis Basso, who is known for his luxurious furs, draped his models in furs of every color and length. But his biggest impact was when he used it sparingly in unexpected places like sleeves on dresses.

Milly by Michelle Smith covered her models in slightly oversized wool coats and jackets that appeared chic and cozy.

Chi Zhang showed exciting, colorful and fashion-forward outwear in the form of a bright yellow hooded jacket and an electric blue trench coat with a cocoon silhouette.


Camo crept back into relevance this season in the form of separates and outerwear.

Alice + Olivia used it in an edgy jacket that they softened by pairing with a mini skirt and turtleneck blouse. It was also used in a pant paired with a cropped sequin top for a fun evening look. Nicole Miller paired a gray and black camo legging with a fur-trimmed black coat and blue sequin top.


My favorite red look came from Jonathan Simkhai, whose crystal-adorned garnet sweater and scarlet gypsy skirt combination wowed me.

Jenny Packham, who continues to deliver stellar collections season after season, showcased a crimson and sheer cap-sleeve dress and a matching red and sheer top and leather pants. Both looks were stunning.

Alice + Olivia showed floral patterned frocks atop deep autumnal reds. Chi Zhang also used a pop of red for the trim on a black leather jacket that was out of this world.