How the Fashion World Remakes Itself in Defiance of Terrorism

"The show must go on!" is a lot more than a kitsch pop battle cry. In light of recent tragedies that aim to redefine cultural front-lines, it is a strong expression of commitment to freedom.
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"The show must go on!" is a lot more than a kitsch pop battle cry. In light of recent tragedies that aim to redefine cultural front-lines, it is a strong expression of commitment to freedom. Many in the fashion world have voiced solidarity with the "Je Suis Charlie" campaign, including the likes of Jean-Paul Gaultier and Elle magazine. Paris Fashion Week is attempting a pirouette of careful balance between grieving for victims of the savage attacks and the need to capitalize on the hoopla surrounding the industry's largest -- and most prestigious -- biannual event. The fact that it was neither cancelled nor postponed speaks to the resilience of the creative community and hopefully it may contribute to the process of helping France (and with it, the world) heal.

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Fashion and terrorism have a dialectical bond forged in tragedy. The September 11, 2001 attacks happened on the fourth day of New York Fashion Week canceling some 73 remaining fashion shows and completely evacuating the tents. Shows during the years that followed have vacillated between a subdued atmosphere, when they fall on the actual anniversary and festive energy that completely ignores the legacy of the attacks in favor of business. After all, fashion is business. Sadly, so is terrorism, with large implications for arms trade, security contracts and other defense procurements worldwide.

Hundreds of armed police have been protecting Paris fashion show guests this week; while all of France and much of Europe remain on high alert. Meantime, the ever-growing militarism across our societies is keenly reflected on the Fall/Winter 2015 runways, especially in menswear. From Juun J. military parade of khaki colors and Dries van Noten first-respondent fireman's coat inspired looks to paratrooper invasion of Moncler Gamme Bleu by Thom Browne. Earlier in London, a city that has suffered its share of terror threats and attacks, the intense guts-and-glory paradigm of service in the name of any authorities was on display in Alexander McQueen collection with coats made to look like honor-ribbons.


For provocative Belgian designer Walter van Beirendonck terrorist attacks in Paris proved to be a certain turning point. "Initially, I didn't want to make a statement, but when you see what is happening in the world, you must react," he shared with French newspaper Le Point. So he opened his show with a model wearing a PVC shirt with the words "Stop Terrorising Our World." The collection was accessorized with oversize bright colored pins of eagles carrying replicas of Paul McCarthy's controversial Christmas Tree/Butt Plug sculptures, which were vandalized and ultimately taken down in Paris last year. Van Beirendonck reminds us that freedom of expression can be compromised in many ways and must be defended not just against brutal physical attacks.

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Yet on the other hand, when certain clothing choices might still fuel suspicion, scholars, activists and designers must continue to fight the dress code stigmas driven by the mass media proliferation of potential terrorist targets and suspects. Terrere means "to make tremble" in Latin. Fashion has never been a domain of the weak. The right-to-fashion discourse and positioning of mass market as a civil liberty reasserts a future of social mobility and individualism. In his fall 2015 menswear collection in Paris, Rick Owens best captured these complex sentiments. His models wore upside-down tunics with peek-a-boo genital openings. Fashion has raised its middle finger (even if too-literally for some tastes) to all forms of censorship and terrorism in the outlandish memorable way only fashion can.

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That may be the best response. After the New York attacks, the popular wisdom was that "9/11" changed everything.

Well, yes and no. There certainly have been tyrants and madmen before - it wasn't so very long ago that Hitler systematized killing in a fashion that makes today's self-styled religious zealots seem like amateurs, playing games inspired by YouTube videos and gaming consoles, however tragic the consequences.

Count on the French to keep the hysteria in perspective. The show must go on.