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Submitted by Cameron Russell on October 3, 2014 @ 4:40 pm

In late August the Interrupt team was planning an interrupt-fashion-week campaign and one of the slogans we brainstormed was, “Feminism Is The New Chanel.” Debate raged in-house on whether the slogan was a great super-viral idea, or a reductive, problematic, and potentially anti-feminist comparison. And in a way, even though we ended up ditching the slogan, everybody was proved right because Chanel’s runway show last week was in fact a mock feminist protest. Back when we were brainstorming slogans we reached out to our feminist fairy godmothers, Jamia Wilson and Jennifer L. Pozner, for advice. Our prophetic email exchange is below!

Hannah Assebe

Email Exchange August 29, 2014

CAMERON RUSSELL:  We're doing an Interrupt Fashion week campaign and we are coming up with easy, obvious slogans people can connect with. This one is creating a bit of debate in-house and I wanted to get your feminist-Yoda reactions to it:

Feminism is the new Chanel. #InterruptNYFW

JAMIA WILSON:  I can see that this slogan could be contentious and provocative. I think it will get lots of attention no matter what — positive and negative. Some will claim it commodifies feminism and likens it to a fad that will evaporate. Or it may be seen as ignorance — or worse, erasure — that feminism is a “new” thing now that Beyoncé has made it popular. Or some may view it as saying feminism is only accessible to people who can afford to purchase Chanel. I’m more likely to align with these views, but I can see both sides.

Coco Chanel is often credited with the creation of the pant suit, a less restrictive dress style for women post-WW1. Read more about her rise from poverty, friendship with Winston Churchill, and her relationship with the Nazi party here

Because on the other hand, Coco Chanel liberated women's fashion by going against the corset/restrictive style of the post-WWI era and moving toward a brand and look that remains iconic for celebrating the casual-yet-graceful, modern, ambitious, and entrepreneurial woman. Since the target audience is fashionistas, I can imagine that using a brand that is known, timeless, and respected by all could be a great gateway to a larger conversation and engagement.

Jenn, I'm curious about your take.

Looking at your overall goals in relationship to this slogan is important. Who are your target audiences and how will it impact your credibility with each of them, and then measure it that way.

I'm wondering if there is a way to liken feminism to the iconic timelessness of Chanel without saying it is new? In the context of fashion, this comparison could spark interesting conversation. Of course, we can’t disregard that Chanel is not accessible to most people, and sexualization, fat-shaming, and racial discrimination in fashion are real. But in the context of Fashion Week, it could inspire discourse. Not this, but perhaps something like this that sounds pithy: Feminism is more revolutionary than Chanel.

Finally, Karl Lagerfeld has pissed off feminists in the past (myself included), especially fashion-savvy feminists of color, with his comments during this interview with Noemie Lenoir and his fat-shaming discrimination against “bigger” models. I'd make sure to point to the pre-Lagerfeldian-era Chanel in whichever way you use the term. I may be digging too deep, but I want to be thorough.

JENNIFER L. POZNER: Nearly 2:30 a.m. and of course this #insomniactivist is still awake.

I have a negative visceral reaction to the phrase, for some of the very reasons Jamia articulated so well. I think it is very classed; for wealthy women who are invested deeply in the fashion world, it may not have negative connotations, but for me — and my guess is for others who have corporate critiques — I think it would feel tone deaf. Like when Mitt Romney said ... meh, let's not even finish that sentence because everything he said was tone deaf. You know what I mean, though.

There's also the sense that a phrase like this is trivializing. Feminism is at its core a gender justice movement, not just a mindset or, worse, an accessory. To say it's "the new Chanel" or even to liken it to any fashion brand takes the meat out of the movement. The moment — “Ooh, Taylor Swift is finally saying feminism possibly maybe isn’t just for man-haters and hippie grandmas, so, like, feminism is awesome now, right?” — can only to be replaced with whatever new ideology comes into fashion tomorrow, and then who cares about women’s rights again. As if we can/should wear feminism like the latest runway designs and then discard it when it's no longer trendy. Not that Chanel is trendy, I know Chanel is supposed to be timeless, but it's still fashion, and we want people to believe feminism is a core value, not a trend.

But I also take Jamia's point, too: It depends on your audience. If your audience is specifically wealthy people inside the fashion world, maybe it would really resonate positively and powerfully. Who can say?

I really don't want this to sound harsh. I'm sorry if it does. I'm so overtired and stressed that my "how do I say this in a really gentle way" gene isn't activating, although I tried.

CAMERON: Thank you guys, these are all such thoughtful good points. I felt my partners were on to something when they argued interrupting Fashion Week calls for a bit of an ad-man perspective, so I wanted to give it a chance! Thank you for the above-and-beyond feedback.

We cut the slogan, and here's what I think we're going to go with:

JENN: Thanks for not thinking I was being harsh!

JAMIA: Totally agree with both of your instincts. Maybe there is a way to compromise with your partners on this by using font and branding that evokes Chanel in gifs advertising the event, without naming the brand or equating it directly with feminism. Could be cool.

I.e. The Numinous creates content and fashion that markets to "material girls in a spiritual world."

Of course this is not 100 percent in alignment, or the same thing, but their tag line makes me wonder: What would it mean to evangelize feminism to "material girls in a feminist world" during Fashion Week?

How could the introduction of a conversation about feminism to this audience inspire people to look deeper and see themselves within it — and potentially even transform the way they think about feminism — without being reductive or appropriative?

Love you ladies xx

CAMERON: Ohh! This great creative thinking! We had to go to print already, but if it's successful this could provoke round two. Here’s a picture of the posters. We passed a bunch out and people we don’t know are Instagraming them! Thank you for the inspirational advice. Please come visit soon, I miss you.

Email Exchange Sept 30, 2014

CAMERON: Remember our Chanel convo? Do you mind if I post some quotes on the Interrupt? Yesterday's Chanel show was feminist-themed!

Laura Brown, Instagram

JAMIA: Absolutely, love.

It’s important to contextualize how this was executed by Lagerfeld, who is known for offensive comments about models of color and non-skinny women. It’s important to examine how this is also reflected in his imagery and framing of who the movement is composed of. He’s been criticized for the lack of diversity in fashion and his shows, and this faux-protest is just as homogenous.

It is really interesting that he is now appropriating feminism after Emma Watson and Taylor Swift have endorsed it and think-pieces are being written about it. As long as feminism is not co-opted, or framed as a fad that goes in and out, I'm all about spreading messages of equality. At the same time, it is also important for us to have a keen eye towards sexualization, movement commodification and appropriation in our analysis.

JENN: I trust you, Cameron, to use our e-mail conversation in a productive way.

That said, I am *deeply* uncomfortable about this Lagerfeld runway lunacy. Feminist political protest is about affecting substantive change (for example: working to combat the culture of violence against women, or pushing back against legislative attempts to outlaw birth control and a range of reproductive-justice concerns, or fighting the overcriminalization and poverty  of women of color, or any number of other issues that affect women across race, class, age, sexual orientation, and other identity points). What feminist political protest is not is a commercialized farce aimed at getting women to buy overpriced clothes and shoes. Overpriced clothes and shoes that may well be made by fourteen-year-old girls in overseas sweatshops for pennies an hour, mind you.

Beyoncé put "FEMINIST" behind her at the VMAs (MTV Video Music Awards), and Emma Watson spoke at United Nations, so okay, now Lagerfeld is making a runway into a “feminist” protest? Except what is Lagerfeld going to DO to improve conditions for women who work for him, or policy change in the industry, or ... ?

The reason I am uncomfortable is that this is a major way advertisers co-opt and dilute the power of protest movements, to the point where in the pop sphere the messages and language of the movement get watered down until they are just one more selling tool, devoid of any actual power (and perhaps worse, the power that used to be represented by justice-focused language and causes gets erased and commercialization takes its place).

I'm on the West Coast right now so it's really early in the morning and I'm not being super articulate right now. But, Cameron, I think you should buy Anne Elizabeth Moore's book "UNMARKETABLE: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion Of Integrity" online today, and read it — devour it — as soon as possible. She details in great depth the ways that social movements have been co-opted by advertisers in all sorts of insidious ways, and I think it will help you make heads/tails of this sort of thing.

CAMERON: Jenn I FEEL you here! (And am getting that book right now!)

My idea was to just preface our exchange (edited a bit) and put it on Interrupt. You guys had really thoughtful reactions and it was so prophetic!

I hear not reacting too, because always reacting is time-consuming and limits the feminist conversation. But in this case it does seem like the right moment to start a conversation because I am one of a few vocal feminist models and Interrupt is about fashion, albeit broadly understood. And we have this piece ready-made since we had such a wonderful conversation about this exact topic a month ago.

Most importantly, while I am trying to be a conscious voice in fashion, I am also limited in my knowledge of feminism and my experience in the movement. I continue to work within the industry, which makes me an equally culpable player but also gives me perspective (and limits my critique) because the people I work with in fashion are friends, and oftentimes inspirations. So I think all of us in conversation is a richer way to publicly react.

Also, you might be interested in this essay from Angela Davis on fashion, historical memory, and the protest aesthetic titled "Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia."

She writes, "It is both humiliating and humbling to discover that a single generation after the events that constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo. It is humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion; it is humbling because such encounters with the younger generation demonstrate the fragility and mutability of historical images, particularly those associated with African American history."

Interestingly she seems to have updated/amended this viewpoint in recent years, making the following comment in 2010 at the New York Public Library. In response to a question from Irin Carmon about people wearing t-shirts with her face on them Davis said,  “It did begin to bother me…[but then] I asked a young woman who was a high school student, who had one of these t-shirts: 'What's the whole point? Why are you wearing that?' In the Seventies, there was a reason. The reason was to help to free me!...But this is the twenty-first century.' And she [the highschool student] says, 'Well, I wear this t-shirt because it makes me feel powerful. It makes me feel like I can do anything I want to do.' And I don't know what she knew — whether she knew anything about me. But that made me recognize that people bring their own interpretations to it. And that image is an image not so much of me as an individual as it is an image of an era during which millions of people came together, all over the world, and demanded my freedom. I can't stop it. So, why not see what might be a possible productive and positive interpretation?

What do you think?

Shall we post this thread and ask people what they think?

Thank you guys so much for sharing, listening, and being thoughtful. I don't think I am alone in wanting to learn and share ideas about how fashion can be a site for critical debate. There are a good number of examples where fashion has aided in the feminist movement, especially when it comes to pushing boundaries around gender and sexuality, and I'm curious to see where this renewed interest will take us. 

JAMIA: Love it, let’s publish!

JENN: Agreed!

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