On February 24th, we all woke up to the news of the war in Ukraine. At the same time, fashion month was in full swing at Fashion Week in Milan. Over the past years, fashion brands have made an effort to appear socially and politically aware – mostly due to increasing pressure not only from customers but also regulators. So-called “E P&Ls” (Environmental Profit and Loss Statements) and beautifully designed sustainability websites should make consumers feel better about parting with thousands of Euros for luxury goods. When analysing the websites of many brands, I realized that most of it was polished – yet often ambiguous – data about their efforts. Last week marked a point where the fashion and luxury goods industries could have proven these efforts and that they are more than just consumption-driven brands by showing some compassion. But have they? And should the industry even be allowed to host fashion shows while a war has just started less than three flight hours away?
Milan Fashion Week was mostly tone deaf, reflecting on the industry as a whole. Giorgio Armani was one of the few who acknowledged the situation and carried out his show without music. Outside of some of the shows, pro-Ukrainian protesters tried to draw attention to the war. But the world of glitz and glamour seemed very far away from the battle fields. Vena Brykalin, fashion editor of Vogue Ukraine, said in an interview at Milan Fashion Week that he did not expect the world to stop turning and that designers should have the chance to show their work. However, at the same time, he was saddened that there was a lack of compassion and that some brands denied him and his Ukrainian team access to shows. Brykalin attributes this to the importance of Russian shoppers for the luxury market. Brands may be lazy or insensitive at best, but probably they do not want to alienate Russian customers, he assumed.
After the start of the attack, luxury stocks tumbled. According to data by BNP Paribas cited in Vogue Business, Russia makes up only 5% of the revenue of many European luxury brands. While this sounds little, it has to be mentioned that this number probably refers to the revenue made by the brands in Russia itself. According to a study by McKinsey and Condé Nast Russia in 2018, almost 50% of Russian luxury shoppers said they shop abroad. Consequently, the share of Russians purchasing luxury goods in Europe, the US or elsewhere is not to be neglected. (Unfortunately, due to the consolidated nature of reporting of the listed luxury brands, I was not able to narrow down the exact percentage of Russian customers.) Is this share something luxury brands could live without?
Obviously not, judging from the past week. Italy lobbied fiercely for excluding luxury products from the EU sanctions against Russia. Until the day of publishing this Postcard, no sanctions in the luxury goods sector had been implemented. Even though the SWIFT and banking sanctions may have an effect on these goods as well, it shows what the industry really thinks. Compassion is obviously not part of their brand DNA.
On February 26th, a picture went viral on Twitter illustrating another dimension of fashion’s attitude towards conflict and humanity. Ramazan Kadyrov, the Head of the Chechen Republic, who is said to be a supporter of President Putin, was photographed in Prada combat boots. “If Mr Kadyrov decides to buy Prada shoes, we cannot stop him,” would most likely be the answer of Prada to this picture. My point here is not whether Prada should sell to certain people or not. As the name implies, “combat boots” are made for combat. Yet, they have been a huge part of fashion collections over the past years. (Side Note: I tried to find nice winter boots this year and have been unsuccessful – if you refuse to wear combat boots, the selection is extremely limited.) What does it say about an industry and its views on war, if items like combat boots (and, similarly, camouflage patterns) form an integral part of the collections? Not only does the fashion industry take uniforms out of context and kind of “dilute” their meaning, but also does it trivialises the meaning of war.
It is difficult to judge other brands from afar. I do agree with Vena Brykalin that cancelling events such as the Fashion Weeks is maybe not necessary, but there should be some degree of compassion and humanity. Last week showed us how quickly situations can change. We all may feel safe one day and the next day we wake up and everything is different. What I do expect from the fashion and luxury industry is to take a strong stance.
Firstly, I would like to see references (or sometimes even glorifications) of war gone from the runways. Secondly, brands should be held liable to a certain degree to whom they sell. At least they should be required to check for the sources of money if large amounts are spent in their stores. And thirdly, Brands need to stop pretending that they care about social, environmental and political issues and really prove that spending money with them is not only worth it but also comes up to our own values. I would not want to buy products from brands which are more worried about losing clients than caring about humanity. And even from a pure capitalist perspective (for those who do not care about humanity but only their numbers): hypocrisy will just damage a brand in the long-run. I do not think that Armani’s gesture at Milan Fashion Week will really cost him much in terms of upset Russian customers. (Let’s not forget that many Russians themselves do not want this war.) Armani is even more likely to have gained more credibility by showing compassion.
While the fashion world kept turning, Kateryna Zub, a 21-year-old Ukrainian fashion model, cancelled castings during Milan Fashion Week after hearing the devastating news from her home. She cried and was shocked how little the fashion crowd cared about the topic and instead kept discussing the shows as if it was a normal fashion week. She felt unheard. Together with a friend, she decided to stand outside of the Dolce & Gabbana holding the Ukrainian flag to make people listen. Visitors started hugging her and voicing their support for Ukraine – Zub managed to give a seemingly distant war a face.
No matter how far world events may be from our homes, every crisis has faces. Please do not forget them after the current movement on social media dies down in a few weeks. Despite these upsetting events, I wish you all a good week ahead.