The Untouchables: How designers and fashion brands evade accountability

Words by Dominic Bramley-Carr

In 2021, the global revenue of the fashion industry was valued at $1.55 trillion. Fashion is inescapable, dominating our society both economically and socially and forming the basis of everyone’s outward presentations to the world. The big names in fashion have more control, influence and power than many will ever realise. However separate you may consider yourself from the fashion industry, any article of clothing that you put on is directed and influenced by a chain of people, as Miranda Priestly once explained in The Devil Wears Prada. This chain, however, is one littered with controversy and an abundance of brands and designers who have floated through it apparently and unjustifiably unscathed. The industry is wrought with discrimination, environmental damage and bad labour practices, to name but a few issues, yet it is also one which somehow seems to evade serious criticism and accountability. All too often, accusations and issues are ignored or brought to light only to be swept out of the common consciousness by any number of other scandalous stories. Brands and designers persevere, seemingly regardless of nearly anything.

A topical example of this is the designer, Alexander Wang. Inundated with allegations of sexual assault a little over a year ago, the designer initially denied them and later released a statement on Instagram, promising to ‘do better’. Whilst Wang appeared to have been lying low following the outing of his actions, he recently styled Rihanna, Julia Fox and held a successful fashion show celebrating Asian-American culture in Los Angeles in mid-April. Business of Fashion recently reported on his ‘comeback’, citing some significant growth statistics. It would seem that in every way that counts, the fashion community have moved on from this scandal. Thriving and popular once again, has Alexander Wang been held accountable for his actions at all? I’m sure there are those who would argue for allowing people’s growth and separating art from the artist, a concept which has merit in some instances, but allowing people like Wang to maintain a platform of power and prevalence puts out a serious message of indifference to a significant issue.

Perhaps this has something to do with it being defined as a scandal rather than serious crimes committed by one of fashion’s favourites. This culture, a culture centred around brief moments of sinful gossip later glossed over with a fashionable film, could be what leads to the lack of accountability in the fashion industry. Often these moments conceal atrocities. Wang may even be a good example for the fashion industry, one where someone owned up to their actions and their career took a hit, however brief. In the majority of situations, brands and designers need not pay attention because controversy never manages to make a dent in their impenetrable influence. The entire fast fashion business model is permeated by environmentally unsustainable practices and maltreatment of workers, evidenced especially in brands such as Shein. High fashion has consistently been party to discrimination, with brands like Dolce and Gabbana based on a history rife with racism and homophobia. Nevertheless, no change is undertaken, and no problematic people are shunted from power. The one industry cancel culture doesn’t seem to have affected to any meaningful extent is fashion. Why?

Fundamentally, I might argue that the superficial nature of fashion is what allows people to turn an eye blinded by beautiful clothes very easily. Major change is difficult to enact and of course, the onus can’t be solely on individual consumers affected by issues of cost, culture and necessity. It, therefore, seems simpler to brush things aside, especially when it comes to an industry that is historically bad at setting aside nepotistic tendencies to hold people accountable. However, this hard-to-shake attitude is dangerous and perpetuates hierarchies that dictate society in many ways unseen. Whilst easy to underestimate the influence of fashion, the extent to which it shapes society is overwhelming. Without a serious shift in the ways that we engage with and understand accountability in the fashion industry, the brands and designers who benefit from the lack of it will continue to remain in exceptional power, with nothing in their way. 

Words by Megan Huws

Whilst many of us are aware of the many controversies surrounding our favourite brands, whether that be in the past or the present, the companies make it incredibly easy to ignore these issues. There is a clear toxic culture of evasion, with companies working hard to create the illusion that they are perfect and have moved on from their controversial past, encouraging the consumer to purchase their items without guilt.

 Many companies have managed to reinvent themselves to hide their controversial pasts, such as Hugo Boss. Hugo Boss had strong links to the Nazi Party, with its founder being a member of the Nazi Party two years before the party came into power. They made uniforms for the Nazi party, even employing forced labourers and French prisoners of war to help make these uniforms. The undeniable involvement in the Nazi Party allowed them to grow in a time when many companies were struggling, giving them a step up which is likely to have helped them get to where they are today. Immediately after the war, in the process of denazification, which was the removal of Nazi influence upon people and companies, Hugo Boss released a lot of information and studies regarding the treatment of the forced labourers, claiming that they were treated well. The company was fined for their involvement with the Nazi party, mostly due to the founder’s involvement in the Nazi Party, yet this was limited as they claimed they were just followers. Hugo Boss quickly justified their involvement in the Nazi Party, pushing the narrative that they tried to do the right this despite having little choice in the situation. As well as justifying their past, they have continued to attempt to suppress the criticism towards their past, which can be seen through Russel Brand being banned from the celebration after the 2013 GC Awards, after openly criticising Hugo Boss, who sponsored the event. There is significant and unavoidable controversy surrounding the past of Hugo Boss, yet they have managed to evade accountability by disguising the extent of their involvement as unavoidable. 

Whilst some companies have managed to avoid their controversial pasts, convincing their customers that they have changed, some companies continue to be unsustainable and unethical, whilst convincing their customers that they are changing for the better. A key example of this is H&M. They have repeatedly been criticised for their use of free labour and the effect of their fast fashion business model upon the environment. As a result of this, they seem to have changed their ways and started a huge focus on their actions and their effects. This is incredibly evident on their website, with a whole page dedicated to how they are trying to improve their company and change the world. This site, whilst being filled with well written, motivational messages about how together the company and the consumer can change the world, focus on the change that they plan on doing, rather than the positive changes that have already occurred. There is little evidence of their actual progress, with much of their supply chain not being certified by labour standards and even many reports from the Global Labour Justice highlighting the gender-based violence that exists in their factories. H&M manages to hide their mistreatment of workers and their impact on the environment through the promotion of its goals and pledges for the future. Without research, the average consumer would see the promotion of H&M’s pledges as a positive change, persuading them to shop guilt-free. H&M carefully claims accountability for their actions, through promoting their goals for improvements in the future, yet does little to fulfil these goals. 

Links from research