What Does It Take to Be a Truly Feminist Fashion Brand? – M & S
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What Does It Take to Be a Truly Feminist Fashion Brand?

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Today is International Women’s Day. But what does that mean? In short, it’s a worldwide celebration of all women and their achievements, and also a time to shed light on how far we all still can grow to create equity in our society. As a fashion editor, though, I can also tell you that it often equates to a slew of pitches in our inboxes from brands sharing news of initiatives, pledges, and products that all seemingly benefit (often through proceeds of its sales) women everywhere.

So in 2018, when the word feminist—literally spelled out on T-shirts, handbags, etc.—is as ubiquitous as any other major trend sparked from a fashion week runway, can you blame us for being a little skeptical of what it really means to be a feminist fashion brand?

This question sparked a bit of investigation and inspired us to look closer at those brands that have often been associated with supporting women’s rights, championing inclusion, and using feminist phrases or symbols in their designs. However, instead of speaking to the women who founded these brands and whose recognized names appear on the labels, we sought out those who are behind the scenes.

Coming with expertise in design, marketing, customer service, and leadership, the nine women we spoke to are integral members of the teams operating, producing, and doing business that’s not only lucrative but also esteemed within the industry itself. The below are their perspectives on what it means to work for a feminist fashion company—and, for the rest of us, what it ultimately means to support one today and beyond.

As the chief design officer at Tamara Mellon, Tania Spinelli oversees the design and production of the brand’s shoes. She’s been with the company for two and a half years, during which Tamara Mellon has been actively supporting women via creating custom T-shirts for the Women’s March and hosting sales in honor of Equal Pay Day.

What does feminism mean in 2018?

Tania Spinelli: Feminism today is about owning your voice, taking responsibility for the life you want to live, and empowering the women around you. Feminism is about equality, but I see it more as what you enable yourself to do, rather than a conversation purely about gender.

What are some non-negotiable traits of a brand that calls itself feminist?

I think the same traits that strong women have apply to strong, feminist brands. Passion, rebellion, innovation are all non-negotiable. Those characteristics are what makes it possible to move past fear and create the type of world you want to live in. Generosity is super important because it means women don’t have to compete with each other to get ahead—we can be kind to each other and have the confidence that comes from knowing there is enough to go around.

What’s something that your company has done publicly that you see as an act of feminism?

We’re the only luxury shoe brand with a woman’s name on it, and I see that as a radically feminist thing. It means that Tamara fit-tests every design by living in the shoes, not just slipping them on.

As a company run by mostly women, we’re super conscious about how we present the brand. When we do photo shoots, we really think about what we’re saying with the imagery. We’re less interested in showing a glamorous woman doing glamorous things and more interested in having an element of wit and intelligence in our photography.

What has your company done internally that you believe stands behind its feminist views?

It’s interesting. I really believe feminism is a core characteristic that’s baked into our brand and culture. All the things I mentioned above … exist as much inside our office as outside. It’s a testament to how we really walk the walk.

That said, some people may not know exactly what we mean when we say we’re “for women, by women.” It means we create beautiful shoes for women, but also that a heavy majority of our company is female—20 out of 24 employees are women. Our C-level executive team is 80% women. Culturally, this means that we’re living and working in the type of environment Tamara always wanted to create: a place where everyone is listened to and their work recognized.

What’s your advice to consumers who want to support feminist fashion brands? How can we weed through those who use the term as a marketing ploy?

We talk a lot internally about what being a feminist brand means, and it’s always a really interesting conversation. We 100% believe that we’re living in a time where brands not only have an opportunity but a responsibility to uphold what they believe in. But we also know that feminism can be used as a buzzword for marketing, and that’s not what we’re about or what we support.

I would say that if you’re a shopper who is interested in supporting feminist brands, you should look at that support as a conversation: How does a brand communicate with you? Are they saying something, or are they selling something? Does that brand show their lifestyle as respectful to your lifestyle as a customer, or are they selling you on an idealized version of something that makes you feel bad about yourself? We’re a luxury shoe brand, but Tamara always says she cares more about the women who wear her shoes than the designs themselves. We’re constantly checking what we’re doing to make sure that we’re presenting the ideals we stand for thoughtfully.

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New York brand Rachel Comey has long been recognized as one that promotes diversity and challenges the status quo of what a fashion model looks like and the concept of gender-specific shopping. Rachel Scott is the label’s ready-to-wear designer director and been on board for over three years, specifically working with fabric selection, sketching, draping, fitting, and presenting the collection in formats like New York Fashion Week or in visual assets like lookbooks.

What does feminism mean in 2018?

Rachel Scott: That is a very demanding and difficult question to answer since feminism has a rich and complex history. First-wave feminism made advances within the juridical sphere, especially in the suffrage movement, and culminated in the publication in the 1950s of Simone de Beauvoir’s classic and foundational text The Second Sex. Second-wave feminism was greatly influenced by de Beauvoir’s work insofar that the insights of psychoanalytical theory and material conditions threw into question our social relations and the objectifying character of the male gaze and gender norms. There are many offshoots and new considerations today, particularly in trying to expand the question to women and social groups most economically disadvantaged, and optimistically speaking, we may have an opportunity to find some sort of synthesis to confront issues that affect us all.

What are some non-negotiable traits of a brand that calls itself feminist?

Ethical practices within the company and with its partners, particularly in terms of fair treatment of its employees and of those of its partners.

What’s something that your company has done publicly that you see as an act of feminism?

RS: The power of imagery via the internet today is overt. Although there is always an underlying tension with commodification, the portrayal of archetypes of women to women has an innate political resonance, and as such, it is very important to be attuned to the ways in which beauty and power become dictated by the fashion industry. As a brand, we are always looking to put forth myriad ideas of beauty and power, always challenging the homogeneous idea of beauty that the industry has historically dictated. Not only do we consider the image itself, but also the production of these images. The female gaze is incredibly important for us to try to break free from the objectification of women.

What has your company done internally that you believe stands behind its feminist views?

It is hard to pinpoint a specific example as the company ethos in general is one in which all team members are treated with great dignity and are valued for their unique skills. Rachel’s feminism speaks volumes about the diversity of the people she hires and with the respect and consideration she gives each team member. As a black woman immigrant, I feel proud to be a part of the team.

What’s your advice to consumers who want to support feminist fashion brands? How can we weed through those who use the term as a marketing ploy?

This is a tricky one, but I think consumers need to be able to read between the lines as much as possible. A political statement emblazoned across a sweatshirt should be questioned if the images don’t support that statement. We should always strive toward meaning instead of obfuscation.

Embroidered knitwear may seem sweet and demure, but Lingua Franca has been rewriting that script as the brand makes of the custom Time’s Up sweater Connie Britton wore to the Golden Globes this year, as well as a line of resistance pieces that showcase sayings like “I Miss Barack,” “Oprah for Pres,” and “The Future Is Female” whose sales benefit She Should Run. Katherine Khorassani is the brand’s embroidery coordinator who onboards all freelance embroiderers and teaches them the specific stitch and handwriting style used on the famous sweaters.

What does feminism mean in 2018?

Katherine Khorassani: Feminism in 2018 has taken on a new role as a movement against our current administration. Due to the election results, many felt that anti-feminist sentiments were vindicated, and as a result, we as a society have a responsibility to backlash and progress forward despite what may be portrayed in the White House. The current wave we are living in, along with advocating for gender equality in the media, the workplace, and society as a whole, is additionally an attempt to heal old election wounds and set a better example.

What are some non-negotiable traits of a brand that calls itself feminist?

A feminist brand is responsible for creating a work environment where everyone’s voices are heard and where there is equal opportunity to learn and grow based on qualifications and not gender bias. Feminist brands also have a responsibility to consumers to create products that actively heighten awareness, rally support, or spread information about the movement.

What’s something that your company has done publicly that you see as an act of feminism?

I feel proud to work for a company that has donated proceeds to such worthy causes. In particular, I view our partnership with Planned Parenthood as a feminist statement due to their ongoing dedication to women’s reproductive rights, education, and healthcare.

What has your company done internally that you believe stands behind its feminist views?

Lingua Franca wouldn’t be able to operate without our growing team of freelance embroiderers, all of whom are women. I have trained and worked alongside many of them in the office and am proud to see them develop a beautiful new skill and be paid fairly for that work.

What’s your advice to consumers who want to support feminist fashion brands? How can we weed through those who use the term as a marketing ploy?

If you want to be an educated consumer, look into the history of the brands you’re supporting. Feminist branding is popular these days, but to find the legitimate ones, you have to gain some knowledge of the production process. I would recommend supporting slow-fashion brands as opposed to mass-market products that can take loopholes in order to cut costs.

Cushnie et Ochs has dressed a long line of feminist women in the past, namely Michelle Obama, Ava DuVernay, and Ashley Graham. And as Madelynn Matichak, the brand’s PR manager, tells us, Cushnie is also proud to share that it collaborates with predominantly female photographers, videographers, and artists, in continued efforts to celebrate and champion the work of women everywhere.

What does feminism mean in 2018?

Madelynn Matichak: Feminism in 2018 is about intersectionality—focusing on feminism throughout all genders, sexes, races, and ethnicity. In my opinion, feminism begins with women supporting other women, which is now more important than ever.

What are some non-negotiable traits of a brand that calls itself feminist?

Feminist brands must consider inclusion in every aspect of their business, from the casting of runway shows and lookbooks/campaigns to the celebrities and brand ambassadors they work with and the factories/teams that create and produce the product they sell. I think that on the simplest level, a feminist brand continuously sets forth the intention of hiring, supporting, and fostering female talent. A brand must inherently believe in the ability, strength, and intelligence of a woman as much as it would believe in a man (or more). They place emphasis on the support of female artisans, artists, and of other female businesses and partners.

What’s something that your company has done publicly that you see as an act of feminism?

Something that I’m particularly proud of is the range of amazing women that we’ve had the opportunity to work with and dress—women who not only come from different backgrounds and are of varying race, size, and age but who also stand for the equality and empowerment of women everywhere. Being just a small part of celebrating these women and their achievements is something that we, as a brand, cherish.

What has your company done internally that you believe stands behind its feminist views?

Something that immediately drew me to Cushnie et Ochs is the fact that it’s a female-owned company—led by Carly Cushnie. It’s a brand that was founded by women, straight out of college, when they were young, inexperienced, and fearless. As they grew up through their 20s and into their early 30s, the brand grew with them. To me, a company led by a strong woman who is both business-savvy and creative is inspiring. Cushnie et Ochs prides itself on hiring and supporting women in every department, and there are many employees who have been with the brand since the beginning.

In addition to the culture the brand has created for its employees, the design process of each collection is feminist in itself. Cushnie et Ochs is founded on the concept of fit. Even with slinky, formfitting silhouettes, every detail has been thought out to support as many shapes, sizes, and skin tones as possible: Can she wear a bra with this? How will it hug her waist? How is it lined? How will this color look against her skin? The design team fits over and over until they’re confident that our woman will be happy—it’s a line designed by women, for women.

What’s your advice to consumers who want to support feminist fashion brands? How can we weed through those who use the term as a marketing ploy?

To ensure that the brands you are supporting are feminist, it’s important to have all of the facts. It’s important to know who owns/leads the company, where they produce their collections, and who they have chosen as their brand ambassadors. Look at who they cast in their runway shows or various projects—do you feel they’re supporting diversity and inclusion? You have to make the decision as to whether or not a brand checks all of your feminist boxes, but looking to brands who are female-owned and/or primarily female-dominated is usually a good start.



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