By Faith Cummings
As the fashion industry very much centers women — whether for good, bad, and all the sentiments in between — it’s no wonder that brands are using Women’s History Month as a moment to uplift both consumers and the famous faces and trendsetters that serve as the tastemakers of the fashion world. It’s an action that makes both dollars and sense; women’s clothing accounted for about half of the $1.7 trillion that consumers spent on fashion globally in 2017 according to a report from Euromonitor. And one of the most effective ways to harness the power of a group that is forecasted to spend $830 billion on clothing by 2022 is to empower them, which is why you’ve likely been seeing an unprecedented number of brands harness Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day for their own messaging.
Among those brands was Levi’s, who gathered a powerful panel of women who all use fashion for good, to play, and to agitate on March 8. The group, which included Orange Is The New Black star Danielle Brooks, fashion stylist Karla Welch, and Güerxs founder Maria Osado, talked with Elaine Welteroth about how fashion shapes their worlds and why celebrating women is important not just during March, but every single day.
During the panel, Brooks explained that her approach to almost all things is to constantly shift her focus and energy from those who seek to exclude her to those who celebrate her. To that end, she took time to shout out a few key women in her life — including fellow Juilliard alumni Teyonah Parris and Nicole Beharie, as well as OITNB creator Jenji Kohan — for not only inspiring her, but for also changing what she thought possible about a career in the arts. “I try not to focus on the people who say no to me because I just might not fit their puzzle,” she affirmed. “I can’t take it personally. If that was the case, I would just crumble and give up because there are a lot of puzzles I do not fit.”
To that end, she stressed the importance of “finding your tribe,” and the people who will celebrate your wins as their own. Brooks also underscored “finding new avenues and finding those people that are down to work with you, instead of focusing on these old heads who can’t get it together.”
Welch, who counts Tracee Ellis Ross, Sarah Paulson, and Anita Hill among her clients, agrees. “I think it’s a day to all high five each other and cheer each other on,” she told MTV News about International Women’s Day specifically. “I mean, that is every day for me but I like the idea of one worldwide female high five.” And though the stylist and Hanes collaborator works pretty much nonstop, she’s also taking this moment in her life and career to listen and learn from women of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized groups.
“I know I’m a white girl, so the amount of listening and learning that I am doing…that’s kind of everything because I run my own business and I’m kind of like the captain of my own ship,” she stated on the panel. Stylists very much create a world of their own for their clients that is propelled forward by their vision and making those they cater to feel and look their best. But activism requires that Welch constantly thrust herself into reality and all the stark differences it holds when compared with the Hollywood bubble. “To belong to political advocacy groups is all about learning and hearing and compromising and collaborating because there’s common ground,” she added.
And while IWD and Women’s History month both serve as a reminder to celebrate women and their accomplishments, Güerxs founder Maria Osado wants to make sure we don’t ignore the pain and rage that can propel us to move forward and act. The 21-year-old started the Mexico City-based modeling agency in March 2016, in an effort to make media, advertisements, and the runway mirror the diversity of Mexico City in a more comprehensive way.
International Women’s Day specifically, she tells MTV News “comes from a really sad event, which is the rights of women being totally unseen. So, there’s a lot of anger, but it reminds me to be very aware of the injustice and what we have to stand for. It’s also an opportunity to just think about how many opportunities we can give each other and to protect your community.” Osado hopes the world at large uses the day as a reminder to reflect on women and the fact that they all deserve respect.
For Brooks, that pain frequently manifested in the form of erasure; she told the panel will never forget the feeling of never seeing a realistic depiction of herself in the movies, television shows, and plays she voraciously consumed when she was growing up. “I graduated Julliard and I just went through this time of being confused,” she recalled of that exciting yet terrifying time of her life pre-fame. “What I was seeing in Hollywood didn’t look like me, so I thought do I need to straighten my hair? I couldn’t go get bleached skin, so I had to stick with that. I was wondering if I should lose weight or gain weight. I was so confused.”
That’s why she has been so adamant about using the juggernaut that is fashion to celebrate not only her body, but also brands who have made inclusivity part of their business objectives. She also touched on her 67 Percent Project with Refinery29 and Getty Images as an example of how companies and publications can also do a better job of reflecting the reality of the average woman.
“67 percent of women are a plus-size — size 14 or above — and only two percent of them are represented in media when it comes to posters you see and tv commercials and magazines,” she explained of the project’s aim. “When I think of only two percent of us being seen, choose two of the women closest to you—let’s say your mama and your auntie. That means that every other woman you know can’t be seen. That’s so weird.”
But she has seen demonstrable efforts from brands like Christian Siriano, Chromat, Michael Costello, and Marc Bouwer — labels, she explains, who have dressed her and women of all ages, shapes, sizes, identities, and abilities. “I’ve got to work with companies like Universal Standard and Lane Bryant and design clothes,” she added. “Just showing people how our bodies work and what we need. We need supportive bras and fabrics that work for us. Putting into the world what you’ve wanted to see for so long and to be a part of that movement has been awesome.”
Osado is not only hoping the industry will do better, but she’s actively working with brands like Barragan to make fashion casting more inclusive. She stressed the importance of Latinx visibility in the space. “New York is a very important place for fashion, but I don’t see that representation here very much,” she explained.
For her part, Osado wants more people to feel they’re a part of fashion and that it isn’t just an exclusive platform for people with money. “It’s a way of expressing yourself every day. Just enjoy it,” she adds.
Along with the panel, Levi’s also screened short films (some produced by Girlgaze) that feature Osado and women activists all around the world making change — including Singaporean menstrual cup designer Rebecca Paranjothy; Russian lawyer and online advocacy network founder Anna Rivina; and American gun control activist Delaney Tarr, who survived the Parkland attack. The fact that the brand aimed to highlight activist movements was important to Welch, a longtime Levi’s collaborator whose 501 collection benefitted the gun-control advocacy group EveryTown.
“It’s my purpose to collaborate and work with meaningful partners” Welch says. “I love fashion, I love stuff, but I also love caring and making a difference way more.” Her mother, she adds, was a “bleeding heart activist,” so giving back to different causes has always been a formidable part of her life. She uses her Instagram account to herald moments like the passage of crucially-needed gun control bills and a record number of women being elected to the United States Congress. She hopes that more brands follow the lead of Levi’s — especially those who have trepidation in incorporating activism into their business.
“People would still work with you,” she stresses. “You can put your beliefs out there, you can help, and you can really make a difference. That’s what it’s there for.”