On a recent afternoon during New York Fashion Week, between shows and presentations, models, photographers, designers, and stylists took a break to to come together at Chelsea's Milk Studios. The reason was simple. At the urging of W magazine, they had all gathered to make a united and defiant statement on video, and one by one they faced the camera and said: “I am an immigrant.”
In the aftermath of President Donald J. Trump’s now legally-challenged refugee ban, there’s been an outrage from all corners of the world towards the White House’s apparent anti-immigration policies. Fashion people aren’t as insulated as they might seem; they’ve been equally appalled by the rhetoric stemming from Washington, perhaps because so many members of this colorful community are immigrants themselves, certainly friends, partners, collaborators, admirers of immigrant artists and designers.
In a corner of the studio, W’s creative and fashion director, Edward Enninful, who was born in Ghana and raised in the United Kingdom, held court as designer Joseph Altuzarra, a native Frenchman, arrived on set with a three-month-old puppy for moral support. Diane von Furstenberg, the Belgian-American designer who was a staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign, stepped in front of the camera, ad-libbing: “I thought I’d say, ‘I am an immigrant and proud to be,’” she said. Then, she thought of a couplet: “I am an immigrant and America’s been good to me.”
So did Craig McDean, declaring himself proudly from Manchester before someone on set pointed out American audiences might confuse Manchester for Manchester by the Sea, the recently Oscar-nominated Kenneth Lonergan film. McDean laughed. “Manchester, U.K.,” he amended. Enninful pulled British stylist and editor Grace Coddington close to him. “She came here before all of us,” he said. “She’s done a lot for American fashion; a lot of us wouldn’t be here.”
Though designers like Carol Lim and Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony and Kenzo and Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss have long taken overt political stances in their work, the Fall 2017 season marks something of a watershed moment for American fashion and activism. Less than a month into his administration, Trump has attacked immigration, reproductive, and LGBTQ rights in an onslaught of executive orders. A wide swath of brands who show at New York Fashion Week addressed the current political climate, whether explicitly or more obliquely.
There were the “Feminist AF” T-shirts gifted to the front row at Jonathan Simkhai; the “Yes, We Should All Be Feminists… (Thank You, Chimamanda and Maria)” shirts that walked the runway at Prabal Gurung, where former Clinton adviser Huma Abedin sat front-row; and the “Make America New York” baseball caps, a riff on Donald Trump’s campaign merch, at Public School. Eckhaus Latta examined the impact of the political climate on the individual, and Proenza Schouler offered an ode to New York in its swan song at New York Fashion Week.
“Then you get to Raf Simons and he’s just celebrating being a foreigner in America. That was the most important show of the season, and he just celebrated America,” Enninful said of Simons’s debut at Calvin Klein. “Designers are expressing empathy, joy, everybody is treating the current political climate in their own way. There’s not one way to respond to today. There’s not one way you can celebrate or you can protest.”
Just as the United States—socially, politically, economically—would not exist without immigrants, so, too, is the backbone of the fashion industry informed by the dialogue between cultures and the tireless work of individuals migrating from other countries. “People like me thought America was the best place to be creative, to be free to create, to have the freedom to be who you are,” Enninful said. “I just thought, ‘Let’s do something that shows that we’re all from somewhere else’”—whether participants were immigrants personally, or the descendants of immigrants.
While xenophobia is certainly not a new sentiment in the United States, the specific issues surrounding immigration and the rights of immigrants reached a zenith in late January with Trump’s immigration ban restricting travel from seven, predominantly Muslim countries, including Egypt. It was a proclamation that particularly stunned model Imaan Hammam, the Dutch daughter of an Egyptian father and a Moroccan mother, who was among the first arrivals on set.
Among those who drifted in between shows (both Proenza Schouler and Monse and Oscar de la Renta’s joint shows attracted fashion’s working press that day) were models like Cindy Bruna, Winnie Harlow, Maria Borges, Caroline de Maigret, and Aymeline Valade. There were also photographers, including McDean, Mario Sorrenti, Emma Summerton, and Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. And a cadre of those who bridge the realms of fashion and activism, like Torraine Futurum, Bethann Hardison, Anja Rubik, and Jaharrah Ali, who was born in Brooklyn to Pakistani and Trinidadian parents. She splits her time between modeling with the agency Underwraps, which represents predominantly Muslim models, and working with developmentally disabled children.
“Being a Muslim model, you know how xenophobic people can be,” Ali said. “By me saying, ‘My name is Jaharrah Ali, and I am an immigrant,’ I’m saying that everything in my life, everything I’ve done in the last 28 years has been important."
Also stopping by were designers like Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler, who is of Cuban descent; Prabal Gurung (Nepal); Thakoon Panichgul (Thailand); and Lim, who is of Korean descent, with her Opening Ceremony and Kenzo design partner Leon, who is of Chinese and Peruvian heritage. Both regularly celebrate their history in their collections, most recently last month with a protest-themed ballet at Lincoln Center.
“We never used to have to talk about this. We’re proud immigrants, but I think there was a government that was excited for us to be here and accepting—and when I say us, I mean every immigrant from every country,” Leon said after he stepped off set. He and Lim both are the children of first-generation immigrants; their families’ Ellis Island portraits inspired their Fall II 2016 show. “It’s not the same anymore,” he added. “More than ever, we have to fight for our rights of being Americans.”
Even members of the fashion community who weren’t themselves immigrants recognized they were descended from immigrants, like Cuba Tornado Scott, the daughter of an Englishman (and granddaughter of the director Ridley Scott) and a French-Tunisian mother, and Maxwell Osborne of Public School, the son of a Jamaican immigrant. Osborne arrived with design partner Dao-Yi Chow, still wearing his “Make America New York” hat from the previous day’s show.
“New Yorkers consider themselves New Yorkers before they do Americans, and it’s because of the diversity; it’s because of the inclusion,” Chow said. “If you work in fashion—if you’re a person—you have a responsibility for communicating that.”
Model Rubik, who has worked in the United States for more than a decade, drew a parallel with her native Poland. She’s become increasingly politically active back home — both in protests on the ground and on social media—as the government encroaches on reproductive rights and anti-immigration sentiment simmers.
“I think fashion is actually not doing enough and not making enough statements,” she added.
Fashion, like social media, is an intimate form of expression; it enters into an individual’s daily life and it gives each of its users a voice. It democratizes who gets a platform, and who sees it. “Fashion has the power to actually create trends—not just trends like, ‘What’s in: blue or red?’ but social statements and social trends. So the fashion world should be even more engaged.”
Let's be clear: This is just the start.
Watch the video in full below: