No Holds Barred: The Merchandising of Outrage

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“The Abbie Hoffman of Fashion” in her office, 1970 (From the New York Times article)

In 1968 I was a hippie anti-fashion columnist at The Village Voice (my column was called “Outside Fashion”). Angela Davis was a rising civil rights activist (Black Panthers) in California.  We both had afros and were considered controversial.

A Vogue editor wanted to photograph us for their “Fascist Fashion” message in their “People are Talking About” page. Me in suede fringe — Davis in a black turtleneck. Davis declined and so did I.

The real deal, Angela Davis (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution), and me, photographed by Baron Wolman.

I followed her lead because what did I know about “making statements” in those days?  Back then there was no 24/7 news or Instagram accounts to make people overnight “street stars.” There were only 50 or so newspaper and weekly magazine photographers who caught the protest demonstrations.  They were not global. Most of the protests were in California or NYC and were called “love-ins” or “be-ins.” The real marches up went up Fifth Avenue into Central Park. 

In my experience, the demonstrations did not last 14 days because we had jobs.  They were usually on a Saturday or a Sunday and we only heard about them from word of mouth.  No social media — no big money funding. As for celebrity “endorsements,” there was the famous Leonard Bernstein cocktail party for civil rights which Tom Wolfe made famous with his New York Magazine piece “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.”  I wish Tom and Lenny were alive today. How would they see this world now.

We know we have a problem. Most of us understand peaceful protesting and many of us were brought up in plenty of it.  Nowadays I think it will become a daily occurrence since the Covid lockdown wiped out so many jobs, and many are exasperated at having been locked down for three months.  At least let’s bring back sports. Fast! After two weeks of protest I feel I am watching performance art and some of it has morphed into a reality show … but so has our whole world.  The media won’t stop covering it and we have run out of Netflix movies.

I can’t help but remember the old days of protest. It was a lot of love, peace, pot, rock and roll (after all, Woodstock was really a new notion with a new statement).  The headline was “let your freak flag fly.” And we did. Much of the peace movement were big social events.  Also, for the first time, there was a big shift in the young people towards interracial dating.

We had BIG personality leaders like Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger — the whole Chicago Seven/Eight. We had great liberal lawyers like Bill Kunstler.  There was unrest and tear gas, and lots of water hosing and tons of arrests, and those guys were there in the middle of it all.

The “epitome” of 1969. Me with “Super Hippie” David Smith. Photograph by acclaimed Village Voice photographer Fred McDarrah.

For the black community of course, you had the likes of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond, John Lewis, Andrew Young, even Harry Belafonte.  Now we are left with Al Sharpton and Maybe Oprah.  Who are the heroes today?  And where are the great unifiers? And don’t mention the word “influencers,” let alone celebrities.

Today they are calling vandalism of shops “sophisticated shoplifting” or “luxe loot.” This has become a whole new issue as fashion and high-end brands come to grips with the problem of politics and black discrimination. After all, shopping is supposed to be above all that.  But many companies and stores remained out of touch and tone deaf.  Then their stores got hit (before that, some brands were being criticized for some minor racial issues and Me Too moments and of course sustainability).  Fashion and style that had been created by the black community was not attributed to them.  Minority culture was exploited and appropriated.  Face it — race has become a fashion flaw. 

Last week Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Prada and all the luxe labels came out with their Black Lives Matter virtual signaling statements.  And they posted the online black square on Black Tuesday.  And now what?

For many it rang hollow.  Too little too late?  The bare minimum response?  A form of saving face?  Ericka Claudio, a social impact strategist who works with media brands in fashion and entertainment says, “Putting your resources behind supporting black lives and advancing black success is really what’s required to dismantle racism in the country.”  

In other words, these big houses need to put their money where their mouth is and hire blacks on design teams and promote them to creative positions and don’t just donate to the NAACP. Walk the talk.

 “For once, Don’t Do It” — urging consumers not to turn their back on racism. Naively, I thought the new slogan meant “Don’t loot.” And by the way, the NFL has backtracked on their position, so we should soon see star spokesman Colin Kaepernick (the originator of “taking a knee”) on the march and media circuit.

At this point, Gucci still stands with their Dapper Dan (Harlem couturier) “initiative.” But what exactly is that? Dollars to focus on black youth and communities. We haven’t heard about that since 2019. This felt more like a required apology than any sort of true social concern anyway.

You have to hand it to Tommy Hilfiger for being the biggest fashion ally to African Americans for many years.  He is a popular brand for the black community, and he helped mentor Russell Simmons and Sean Combs in starting their own fashion companies.  Hilfiger’s star attraction, Lewis Hamilton, came out early in support of BLM which was at the very least, ahead of the curve. It seems that Hilfiger and, in some ways, Ralph Lauren, were the two big labels the black community connected with.

Last week the luxe brands voiced their BLM solidarity in spite of their trashed stores, and they could since LVMH and Kering have deep pockets and tons of insurance. Actually since no one is really shopping luxe at this time — they could have opened all their doors for the giant marauder clear-out since they are drowning in inventory.  What a lot of them could and should have done was contributed to the wiped-out neighborhoods near them and all the small “mom and pop” shops whose livelihoods were threatened, if not destroyed, as many would not have the financial strength and insurance backing necessary to rebuild.

Me and editor Mary Peacock at Rags (anti-fashion) magazine office, 1970 (Picture credit: Ken Regan)

That direct hit of our small business owners is about people, not fashion. And since there is a call for a new order in the retail business — a “reach-out” to their own communities, as well as to BLM, would help.

I wish the whole retail industry good luck in dismantling and rebuilding a system that has already tumbled and closed with Covid-19. It is about patience and will take a whole lot more than marching and posting Instagram pictures of people straddling their loot and holding fists in the air. And let’s get past all the postings of CEOs and celebrities taking knees unless you can get up off your knee and actually DO SOMETHING. A visual message is now meaningless. We have seen enough. Now is the time to do!

But back to the issue of the looters. Those who really looted (for the most part) were well dressed, white, with gym fit bodies (like “influencer” Jake Paul who was arrested here in Scottsdale at Fashion Square Mall for looting). Remember you have to be in shape to throw bricks and jump out of broken window storefronts with boxes of Adidas and Apple desktop computers. They definitely replaced “aerobic shopping” with “luxe looting.” This is not about Walmart door busting with 59-inch TV screens. As one vandalized shop owner sees it, “We’ve indoctrinated young people to think that the only thing of value is associated with particular brands.  We’ve convinced them that they need things they don’t really need. And now we’re shocked that they would take it as if it were free.”

And as Fox commentator Greg Gutfeld said, “The new PPP program (paycheck protection program) has become Prada, Puma and Panasonic.”

Ah yes, the merchandising of outrage!!

Aside from the t-shirts of “I can’t breathe,” the far-right extremist group looters “Boogaloo Bois” are apparently clad in costly sneakers and Hawaiian shirts (goodbye Tommy Bahama) and shorts accessorized with assault style weapons.  Now beach garb is the new terrorist look.  Though the real vandals still don all black hoodies, sneakers, jeans, and oh yes … the mask … now a must for bandits who support safe social distancing!

As for shopping, some women I know are buying guns.  Personally, I can’t pack any heat.  I would end up acting like Lucille Ball and accidentally shoot myself.  But guns are THE accessory.

Interestingly, the news that the civil right reverberations have now reached Russia?  There are now a few demonstrations of “Russia Lives Matter” messages to Putin. Now I wonder if they too will wear “The Joker” attire or “Clockwork Orange” top hats?  Russia is a tough market.

In 1970 most of fashion co-opted the hippie look and revolution.  It became a style.  Magazines and stores were full of tie-dye, bell bottoms, headbands and gauzy Indian tops. Oh, and necklaces of peace symbols. Now it is called Boho chic.  

What style will come out of this era? Let’s hope survival!

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