Photograph by Holly Falconer

Do fashion show protests change anything?

Fashion show protests have a long and messy history, with Molly-Mae's Pretty Little Thing show the latest to hit the headlines. But as the line between designers and activists blurs, what role do protests play today?

Like outlandish street style and influencers on the front row, protests have become a fashion week inevitability. For decades now, catwalk crashers have grabbed headlines, attracting a mixture of laughter and ire from guests as they’re swiftly and dramatically dragged off the runway. It makes sense: the fashion industry is often the target of the wrath of activists and fashion week is the perfect stage for them to express it.

Last week, Pretty Little Thing hosted their first fashion show in London in collaboration with creative director Molly-Mae Hague, who recently came under fire for comments that many considered insensitive on the subject of wealth inequality. Activists grasped the opportunity to take a stand against the ethical ramifications of fast fashion, pointing out the unfair pay for garment workers by PLT parent company, Boohoo. Organised by fair fashion campaigner Venetia La Manna and Oh So Ethical, protesters stood outside the show as influencers piled in, holding signs that read: Pretty little thieves,” There’s nothing pretty about wage theft” and Gorgeous gorgeous girls hate sweatshops.” Others featured statistics, highlighting a 2020 review which revealed Boohoo workers were being paid just £3.50 an hour during the pandemic, while Boohoo’s CEO Umar Kamani’s net worth is an estimated £1.42 billion.

Show workers and attendees giggled at the protesters as they stood in the queue. But the demonstration seems to have succeeded in raising awareness about fast fashion working conditions. Pretty Little Thing have since turned off all their Instagram comments, after they were flooded with hundreds of #payyourworkers comments on every post.

One unexpected headline from the event was the fact that Molly-Mae’s fellow former-Love Island contestant, Brett Staniland, was among the protesters.

I’m getting a lot of backlash online about me being a man trying to pull down a woman and singling out just Molly-Mae,” says Brett, who has been a sustainable fashion activist since before his time on Love Island last year. It’s not just about Molly-Mae. It’s about the parent company, the Kamani family and all the other fast fashion giants. We wanted to shed light on issues like exploitation in their supply chains and their tokenism and greenwashing.”

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When protesters target a big show or event, there’s always a risk that it will be framed as an attack against one individual or brand rather than the current fashion system as a whole. But today, many designers are also activists and many activists work in the fashion industry. It’s not as simple as fashion equals bad and activism equals good. The fight to create a more ethical and sustainable fashion industry has to be a collaborative effort.

Artist and designer Matthew Needham believes that protest should come from a place of education and communicating solutions.

A more positive alternative should always be presented,” he says. You’re saying that this is possible rather than just shutting it down. You can’t just say there’s a problem without a solution. I’m a strong believer in activism, protest and fighting for what’s right, but sometimes fashion show protests can come across as quite aggressive. Shock factor works in some instances, but it’s also important to communicate and explain what you believe to be right and explain an alternative to the people in power.”

To reach those in power, fashion week protests have traditionally targeted on-schedule luxury brands. And for a long time, this was seen by many as an annoying disruption to the regular program. Members of the fashion industry turned their noses up at protesters daring to interrupt their glossy fashion shows. Now, however, fashion week protests are expected, if not always accepted. When Extinction Rebellion gatecrashed Dior’s SS21 show, Antoine Arnault, head of communications and image at LVMH, shrugged it off, telling WWD: I think it was part of the show – it’s hard to tell these days” (he later went back on his comment, calling it kind of a non-event”).

This exchange exemplifies how the marketisation of protest has diluted its meaning. Maria Grazia Chiuri often turns the runway into a site of protest, for instance. Just one season before the Extinction Rebellion protest, her Dior show featured blinking neon signs with slogans like: CONSENT”, Patriarchy = CO2”, Patriarchy = Climate Emergency” and We Are All Clitoridian Women”. When brands themselves approach protest in this way, it’s no wonder there’s confusion over whether a protest is part of the show or not.

It’s become a blurry territory as far as I can see,” says co-founder and global creative director of activist platform Fashion Revolution, Orsola de Castro. I think today, fashion show protests don’t necessarily create change. They have to be looked at for what they are, and that’s a spontaneous moment of engagement to say something and not a strategic plan.”

There has always been a performative aspect to runway crashing. But ultimately, fashion week protests are symbolic. They offer an opportunity for activists to raise awareness on a global stage. It grabs headlines even when the gatecrasher isn’t fighting for a specific cause. Chanel’s SS20 show was crashed by comedian Marie Benoliel, while Sacha Baron Cohen was arrested for crashing Ágatha Ruiz de la Prada’s SS09 show in Milan as his character Bruno. Why? For a laugh, basically.

MATTHEW NEEDHAM

Before Extinction Rebellion started regularly calling out the fashion industry for dragging their feet over the climate crisis, animal rights organisation PETA were the organisation most likely to make a runway appearance, often using controversial tactics. In 2002, protesters stormed the Victoria’s Secret show following the news that supermodel Gisele Bundchen had recently signed a campaign deal with American fur brand, Blackglama. While Gisele seemed unphased at the time, she later said the event led her to stop doing fur campaigns. Similarly, at Dior’s Fall 2003 show, another PETA protester crashed the catwalk holding a sign that read FUR SHAME” as a model walked the runway in a lilac fur coat.

Many major fashion brands have stopped using real fur since these early 00s protests, but PETA continues to protest against the use of other materials derived from animals for the sake of fashion. Last week, during London Fashion Week, protesters took to the Millennium Bridge dressed as birds with red paint dripping down their chests to urge designers to stop using real feathers.

PETA protests grab the public’s attention,” says PETA director Elisa Allen. They often encourage discussion, debate and change. After campaigns from PETA, London Fashion Week has shown fur-free catwalks year after year. This fashion week, we’re calling on designers and fashion lovers to steer clear of feathers and choose vegan materials instead.”

The attention-grabbing protests are what steal headlines, but Allen adds that PETA also engages with the fashion industry behind the scenes.

We show them the investigations into the exotic skins trade, for example,” she says. If that doesn’t get their attention, we may use loud and colourful protests which they can’t help but notice.”

PETA protests often symbolically call on the fashion industry as a whole, but they also acknowledge that some designers have shared their anti-fur views even before it was fashionable to do so, citing Stella McCartney, Katharine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood. A new generation of contemporary designers are shaking up the industry, too. Designers such as Bethany Williams, Priya Ahluwalia and Phoebe English are known for their activism, whether that involves working directly with charity organisations, amplifying the voices of marginalised communities or exchanging sustainability information.

I think working in collaboration with activists, charities and organisations who have the data, the research and people supporting them is really, really important,” Matthew Needham says. There have been shows in the past that have taken protest as an aesthetic or a marketing tool to show that they are at one with the activists, but it has to be more than an aesthetic point. Work with organisations and integrate the theme into the messaging and purpose of the garments.”

As with all activism, it’s as much about what goes on behind-the-scenes as it is who shouts the loudest. Pitting individuals against each other might make a tantalising tabloid headline. But in reality, it’s going to take activists and designers working together to create a better fashion future.

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