Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began last week, several people in the fashion industry have asked how fashion should respond. It may seem flippant to wonder what the makers of clothing are thinking during a war, but when there are dozens of staged shows happening around Europe while this is all going down, it’s a fair question to ask. For the most part, the response has been a whisper at best. A small number of shows in Milan and Paris acknowledged what was happening while others ignored it during events and posted support for Ukraine on their social media pages after. Vogue Ukraine Fashion Director Vena Brykalin told the Evening Standard, “I don’t expect models walking out wearing Ukrainian national flags or burning a portrait of Vladimir Putin on the runway,” adding that making a gesture was the very least they could do.
Expecting fashion to use this moment — when they have a huge platform — makes sense. Right now, vocal support of Ukraine’s sovereignty seems to be one of the things those of us outside of the conflict can do. The thing is, it has gone much further than that for fashion brands. As of Sunday, several luxury brands have “temporarily” ceased retail sales in Russia, including Hermes, Chanel, Zara, Mango, and H&M. Others, like Uniqlo, however, have taken a different stance. “Clothing is a necessity of life. The people of Russia have the same right to live as we do,” Uniqlo CEO Tadashi Yanai said in an email to Nikkei. He explained that the company will continue to operate all stores in Russia, even as more and more sanctions are put into place. The brand took a similar stance with sourcing cotton from China’s Uyghur region, refusing to comment after a ship was blocked in the U.S. over forced labor concerns. His argument? Fashion brands shouldn’t be made to comment on politics.
The fascinating piece of Yanai’s argument is that deciding whether or not to sell clothing in Russia or source cotton from Xinjiang demonstrates a very clear understanding from the brands that their product and presence are inherently political. Fashion has international implications from the second a piece of clothing is conceived. It’s way beyond putting a country’s flag on a runway or having a moment of silence during a fashion show. These brands have a real, tangible impact on people’s lives, and they should be responding before there are any calls to do so. Stopping retail in Russia is complicated when you consider the workers at these shops, but the brands need to make the tough choices and continue to pay the people who are impacted by no fault of their own. It should be noted that Inditex, which owns Zara, is making a plan for the 9,000 workers that are impacted, according to Reuters.
Workers in Myanmar needed this same respect when they asked brands to support them in ceasing production. While some brands initially did, within a few months, production resumed. “After the coup, the workers’ situation deteriorated,” Ko Aung, a factory employee, told Frontier Myanmar in January. “Employers took advantage of the political situation to severely oppress the workers.” According to the story, many workers say that the lack of support from the brands made returning to work the only choice in a dangerous situation. For them, the political stance would have been the same as it is in other parts around the globe: protecting and supporting workers who are fighting for their right to sovereignty.
That’s why initial stances are good, but following through and supporting even when there is an inevitable hit to the brand’s bottom line is even more imperative. If a brand is making money off the consumers and the labor of the people of a certain country, they should take action in whatever way is necessary. And they have a similar obligation to support the workers when they do.