During the penultimate day of the Paris ready-to-wear collections, just before the Alexander McQueen show, was an event that, given the circumstances, might strike many as odd.
The Showcase of Ukraine Fashion Talent featured the work of six young designers. This was the same day that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, said Russia reserved the right to use all means at its disposal to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine, and John Kerry, US secretary of state, was in Kiev condemning the Russian actions. And there we were, in the city of light, milling around, drinking champagne and kvelling over Julie Paskal’s airy spring frocks and Anna October’s intricately seamed dresses.
Bad taste? An example of fashion’s self-absorption and lack of sensitivity when it comes to the thorny issues of the world? Ridiculous frivolity in the face of serious social unrest?
No. The point of the event, orchestrated by US Vogue’s Sarah Mower and Daria Shapovalova, who is behind Mercedes-Benz Kiev Fashion Days, was to show support for Ukrainian nationals and to promote their businesses as viable in the face of what was happening at home. (I recommend a terrific editorial that Mower wrote for Vogue.com entitled “Behind the news: the real life of two emerging Ukrainian fashion designers”.)
In some ways, it was an act of defiance. Julie Gilhart, a consultant, tweeted after the event: “Missing the girls from the #Ukraine! I feel sure their #strengthinbeauty has more power than politics!” Add in the fact that Ukrainian fashion week is happening this weekend and it confirms my belief: no matter where you go, and no matter how counter-intuitive it seems, when things get thorny, you often find fashion.
Afghanistan? Home to an industry that translates traditional designs and tribal silks into international styles. Tajikistan? Two designers were flown to Paris for a fashion show at the Louvre by the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organisation and the UN. Colombia? Marketing its textile industry as an alternative narrative to crime.
It would be easy to roll one’s eyes. Don’t they have more serious issues to worry about than clothes … such as survival? The truth is that clothes are not only about status or achievement. They are also about possibility.
Consider the words of Zolaykha Sherzad, an Afghan designer who set up her label Zarif in 2005: “The show is a way to share something positive and beautiful with the public. What people know of Afghanistan is quite dark. [But] despite this reality, the people have kept their hope and have struggled and survived.”
Fashion is, of course, an ideal vehicle for this message, because it is both relatively accessible and visible. As an industry, it requires significantly less initial investment or preparation than most. With a needle, thread and some material, you can start a business.
Tajikistan is a case in point. According to Mukarama Kayumova, a Tajik designer, traditional embroidery skills are still practised in most homes. “Tajkistan has a bank of national talent that is second to none,” she said.
This is one of the reasons, when the ITC was looking for a way to promote local business in under-developed countries, they created the Ethical Fashion Initiative under the auspices of the Poor Communities and Trade Programme. The idea was to link local artisans to European fashion houses to supply the latter with handwork and skills for accessories, an arrangement that could then be parlayed into sustainable microbusinesses.
Paul Van Zyl launched Maiyet, a luxury fashion brand which, like the ITC initiative, marries the work of marginalised communities with high fashion in an effort to empower those communities after he worked on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
He notes that uniqueness and handwork have become hallmarks of luxury – even more than price or materials. And uniqueness and handwork are part of the product that comes out of challenged, non-mechanised regions.
Dressing up is a basic human instinct. And when things are bad, we exercise this instinct as much, if not more, as when things are good. Creating beauty from pain or disaster, under the exigencies of practicality, is a characteristic of making clothes. Fashion can demonstrate self-respect, a refusal to be beaten down, and telegraph that intention to the wearer and to the observer.
In the brand-obsessed west, garments often symbolise social aspirations. But that is a limited, frankly impoverished, view. Fashion can also be a weapon of hope. This season, in Paris, the Ukrainian designers proved it.
More columns at ft.com/friedman