Fashion and Refugees in Symbiosis

Image from Norbert Baska’s Der Migrant photoshoot  (BASKANORBERT/FACEBOOK)

Image from Norbert Baska’s Der Migrant photoshoot (BASKANORBERT/FACEBOOK)

Back in November, I critiqued a fashion shoot done by Norbert Baksa where he dressed his models posing as refugees in brand-name clothing. This photo-shoot, according to Baksa, was meant to attract the public’s attention to the refugee crisis, but after much contemplation, I concluded that he did so in an offensive manner.

But there is a way—and it has been done—to tackle the task and responsibility of addressing the refugee crisis through fashion that is acceptable, appropriate, and effective.

The first example of a successful shoot was Kanye West’s refugee-camp fashion show. The models or “fashion refugees,” who were predominantly people of color, were displayed on high platforms symbolizing a refugee camp in the context of Rwandan refugees. The models were instructed to move as little as possible as they were sweating and glaring with stoic, sad, and tired faces. In today’s discussion of Syrian refugees, this image of blurred individuals from a distance epitomized the diction of the crisis—a dehumanized problem. 

Designers have even taken it a step further and have used their talents not only to raise awareness, but to integrate refugees into the fashion realm. Take for example the Pitti Uomo exhibition.

Men aged 19-27, originally from Mali and Gambia, were hand chosen from the reception centers by the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative to model and take part in the Pitti Uomo exhibition. The Ethical Fashion Initiative aims to connect the fashion industry with artisans in Africa and Haiti, so refugees who have a talent for designing are supported by this initiative.

This UN initiative has changed the way international fashion operates, and by integrating these refugees into the fashion show, Italy was able to see the positive impact that these refugees can have on their country. The rhetoric today is that of fear that refugees will bring trouble and chaos to a country with detrimental consequences, but that is not how refugees were seen earlier in history. 

This UN initiative has changed the way international fashion operates, and by integrating these refugees into the fashion show, Italy was able to see the positive impact that these refugees can have on their country. The rhetoric today is that of fear that refugees will bring trouble and chaos to a country with detrimental consequences, but that is not how refugees were seen earlier in history.

Nineteenth-century refugees, predominantly from Europe, were not initially seen as a threat but rather as an asset to a community because they brought new and different talents and ideas. What differentiates 19th from 20th century refugees is the sheer size of refugees and today’s established nation-states and sense of nationality. But the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative head and founder Simone Cipriani wanted to bring back the stigma of the 19th century as he says, “As we are in Italy and have a huge refugee crisis we also want to show that migrants are a resource.”

People have politicized the crisis, but this designer has put the human aspect back into the dialogue. "If I take an asylum seeker and put them in a suit, people perceive them in a certain way, which hopefully allows them to think of them as an equal human being, not as someone less than them.” The Nigerian-American designer Wale Oyejide could not have said it any better.

So we can conclude that the argument that the “decisions regarding refugees are held in the hands of our nations” is no longer a valid one. The influence the fashion world can have on the refugee crisis is unprecedented yet real.

Fashion can play the role art has had for centuries but at a larger, public scale. If designers so desire, they can design their pieces with a story and aesthetic appeal that will start a conversation like Vanessa Beecroft’s refugee camp. They can open and create new positions and roles for refugees like the Pitti Uomo exhitibtion. They can even create pieces that refugees themselves will actually benefit from like the “wearable shelter” that students from London’s Royal College of Art have designed. 

The “wearable shelter” is a three-in-one garment that serves as a jacket, sleeping bag, and tent. The origami style of the parka creates a tent for one adult and two children, and the Tyvek material used is breathable, difficult to tear, waterproof, and can hold all of one’s belongings such as passports and other important documents without fear of damage. This practical and creative design will hopefully be shipped within the coming months to refugees as they wait in that three-week period from the time of their arrival in Europe to the processing center. 

Three-in-one-Wearable-Shelter-1.jpg

While we must applaud the efforts mentioned above, especially these students in the UK who have put their talents to practical applications, those who have abused and exploited refugees must also be condemned.  

Both H&M and Next, two of Britain’s fashion giants, have been found using Syrian refugee children as workers in their clothing factories in Turkey. And as the country with the world’s largest host of Syrian refugees, there is a valid fear that child labor is used in more than just the two industries that have admitted to their wrongdoings.

You may have never believed there to be a connection between fashion and refugees, but it exists. It exists for the simple reason that the refugee crisis is a global issue. It is a global issue that requires a global solution, and fashion can play a huge role because of its equally global platform. 

fashionSerene AkkawiComment