“I don’t feel comfortable defending my clothes. But if you’ve got the money to afford them, buy something from me - just don’t buy too much”
“Every form of protest was eventually short circuited: The interesting thing is that they are protesting against themselves. There’s no enemy out there. They know they are the enemy.”
J.G Ballard, Millennium People (2004)
This quote describes a failed middle-class revolution in London; one that turns in on itself due to the lure of consumerism. Neoliberal consumption works in much the same way; it makes people think they are fighting against it, by consuming in a (fallacious) attempt to absolve themselves from consumerism itself. It means that neoliberalism can rebrand anti-capitalist protest and sell it back to us - nicely packaged, of course. Allow me to present you with a disarmingly blatant example of this notion: Vivienne Westwood’s 2019 show ‘Homo Loquax’.
2019’s Autumn/Winter London Fashion Week show included Greenpeace Activists, who not only walked in anti-capitalist attire, but spoke about their plan to save the world. Vivienne Westwood herself pronounced on stage that “our enemy is free-market capitalism”, standing next to models wearing shirts stating “we have sold our souls for consumption” in addition to “all the profits belong to me so long as you keep buying crap”. Other motifs included were “I <3 CRAP”; “Save the Artic” and “What’s good for the planet is good for the economy”. This culminated in Westwood’s slogan to “buy less, buy better”. You can watch the bizarre parade in full here.
The Vivienne Westwood brand is worth £185 million, and operates over 700 points of sale across 50 countries. It engages in the process of money making in the same way as any other designer label and has a score of “not good enough” on the Good on You ecological directory of clothes manufacturers.
It felt as if the catwalk was a fantasy that forgot why it existed: capital and the selling of clothes. Are these the middle classes “protesting themselves” as in Ballard’s Millennium People? Do such displays, through empty protest, ultimately bury us deeper in the cemented ideology of neoliberalism? Or is Westwood doing her best and should we thus lend her the benefit of the doubt?
The symbolic value of the ‘Westwood’ brand operates here at the level of fantasy. It structures consumer choices to absolve capitalism whilst encouraging an engagement in the very ideology being criticised. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that “ideology works deepest when one buys into a product that counters its own essence”. In other words, what is being sold is a protest against the garment itself. If the appeal of buying, say, a Westwood t-shirt with the slogan “Buy Less, Buy Better’ is at least partly its political message, then the feel-good factor of sporting (hence supposedly championing) said message must totally overshadow the way that the garment is produced. Perhaps wearing a ‘Buy Less, Buy Better’ t-shirt is more about the warm glow that Westwood offers to consumers than advocating for real systemic change.
Ethical capitalism often incorporates charitable giving into forms of consumerism. We have seen this in the ‘(RED)’ or ‘Make poverty history’ campaigns of the early 2000s. Buying through this model becomes a form of giving to a distant ‘other’. This offers self-validation for consumers and a branding opportunity for companies. Consumers now wear their morality literally on their sleeves; they are not just buying a product, but instead gaining the psycho-symbolic properties that come with it. Things that are bought in consumer societies are not objects defined by their objective properties, rather objects defined by the fantasies that we attach to them. What they say about us as we wear them is of paramount importance - greater than what we actually do.
Looking at Westwood’s clothes, this relationship is clear. Covered in activist slogans, examples include: one £85 t-shirt with “Buy less, Choose Well” on it; a golden water bottle with a “Climate Revolution” logo that will set you back £35, and a t-shirt priced at £185 with the words ‘Growth is a Bad Joke’. The list goes on, Westwood’s clothes have been characterised by this attitude for years. Slavoj Žižek claims the “consumerist indulgence and guilt with charity are now fused into a single act of consumerism” (2012). Consumers who feel powerless about ecological disaster are able to appease these feelings of powerlessness through the act of consumption and in doing so construct their identity as ethical people, i.e. people who care fashionably. What is obscured are the antagonistic forces of capital that create the commodity in the first place. For instance, on Westwood’s website, the slogan “Farms Not Factories” appears… this is absurd considering that factories are precisely where her clothes are made.
Moreover, looking at these clothes one would assume that they are ethically produced. Research however, suggests otherwise; a 2014 article claimed that no content in Westwood’s main ranges could be classified as ethical or environmentally friendly at that time. Westwood’s brand itself has a label ‘E’ on Rankmybrand.com because “nothing concrete” has been communicated about her policies for the environment. In 2013, when asked if she planned to transition to more eco-friendly materials, Westwood claimed it was “too complicated”. The brand also uses unsustainable materials such as leather, wool and exotic animal hair. Although some improvements have been made in recent sustainability-focussed collections, as the Good On You Ecological Directory states, this is “not good enough” to suffice ethical status.
Despite all of this, Westwood has been welcomed into mainstream ecological movements by the likes of Greenpeace. It certainly feels as if Westwood is selling redemption from eco-anxiety for the price of a designer t-shirt.
A Vogue article about the show defined its message as “socialist common sense” and argued that Westwood “proved this point” with models discussing how they rewear their clothes. If re-wearing designer clothing suffices as socialist common sense, then look here bears greater weight than substance. This ritual of performative consumerism is instructive that the consumer will ‘be better’ if they ‘choose better’; that there is a market for those who want to dismantle the market. Activism with Westwood reformulates itself around the ability to keep buying.
The postmodern irony of the show’s message adds another level of interest. One t-shirt reads “all the profits belong to me so long as you keep buying crap”, when the logic of this statement is an accurate depiction of how the Westwood company works (much of the clothes are obviously not ‘crap’ but her use of this motif alludes to it). Slavoj Žižek describes this type of ideology as ‘disidentification’ or “individuals who do not identify with their beliefs”. The models in the show, for instance, espouse the unfair tax system in the UK, yet Westwood herself was embroiled in a highly publicised tax scandal herself. Here, we see the fantasy in action. Westwood is calling for change, whilst simultaneously and ironically alluding to the consumption of her company.
When Westwood was questioned about the eco-friendliness of the company in 2011, she said:
“I don’t feel comfortable defending my clothes. But if you’ve got the money to afford them, buy something from me - just don’t buy too much”.
This is a stunningly self-contradictory statement, constructing opposing moral obligations for herself and her customers - personally disassociating herself from the capital she relies on. Indeed, ‘better’ here really means ‘Westwood’.
In 2019, she was even more candid: “it’s a good thing to buy less and choose well - it’s good for the environment and, to be fair, it’s also good for me because my clothes are quite expensive”. Expensive takes prominence over ecology. This cynical distance is just another way that Westwood is attempting to blind consumers to the ideological fantasy that her clothes rest on.
Protest has now been commodified for the humanising face it gives to corporations, making them able to promote themselves as sticking it to an establishment from which they claim to be separate. Look at the recent rush of companies rushing to celebrate ‘pride’ (M&S, I’m looking at your ‘LGBT’ BLT, or the infamous Pepsi-protest moment). These companies can rebrand as champions of social justice with no financial loss and plenty to gain. Just as Vogue wrote in its response to her show: “activism was on-trend”.
Image Source: An activist from ‘Intellectuals Unite’ talks at Homo Loquax on the Catwalk.
So, what is Westwood’s cause? Westwood as a ‘persona’ - ecological messiah and godmother of punk - attaches much value to her status. A 2018 documentary dubbed her a “Punk, Icon, Activist”. She has engaged in valuable acts such as donating large sums of money to the Occupy movements and Green Party, which is to be lauded and is true. But it’s the separation between public acts and statements such as a “we must get rid of advertising. Consumption is the biggest propaganda”(2014) and “stop all this consumerism . . . stop buying clothes” that make no sense when we put the Westwood brand, which she personally owns, back into the picture.
Westwood has recently started a group called ‘Intellectuals Unite’ as a means to save the world. In one meeting she stated “I have never heard anyone except me identify the problem… the rotten financial system called free-market capitalism”. Failing to recognise the existence of established anti-capitalist movements, her plan to save the world is as follows: raise £100 million for the Arctic, and start a book club. Westwood’s cause is presented as an enlightened continuation of her punk history - her punk status informs her activism to an extent that becomes unquestionable. As a self-styled celebrity philanthrocapitalist, Westwood decouples herself from the notion of capital, while continuing to reap the benefits of its accumulation. Perhaps this is why she is welcomed by the ecology movement, an example of Jameson’s infamous notion that “truly, it is easier … to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. The models in her show exemplify this relation.
The reality created by Westwood’s show Homo Loquax not dissimilar to the dystopian world that J.G Ballard articulated in Millenium People; one that leaves every protest eaten up by mechanics of neoliberalism until the middle-class consumer stands passionately on the podium shouting for ecological anti-capitalism whilst flogging a designer t-shirt. Even though Westwood discusses the end of capitalism, her engagement in capitalist ventures is what has earnt her a net worth of £50 million, while she tells others to be better.
The conclusion here is to be wary of those who are on the podium shouting with us. The solution cannot be formed in the same structure as the problem, just as Ursula Le Guin, in The Dispossessed claimed “you cannot buy the revolution…You can only be the revolution, it is in your spirit or it is nowhere” Don’t let anyone buy it.
So, Vivienne Westwood: green queen or greenwasher? Get in touch to let us know what you think: firstname.lastname@example.org or @moroccoboundreview on Instagram.
Images are all screenshots from the Vivienne Westwood website.