Copenhagen Fashion Week (CPHFW) is known within the fashion industry as one of the most exciting fashion weeks worldwide. Over the past few years, it has gained popularity outside of Scandinavia with a global audience; a fashion week that isn’t yet overrun with huge shows and massive influencers.
As someone who attends Copenhagen Fashion Week every season, I find this generally to be true. The shows are small; the circus outside of them is also small. Many of the designers are relative unknowns outside of Denmark or Scandinavia, and their collections are artistic, beautiful, and quirky. Even for someone like myself – not in the industry but occasionally touching upon it for work – I can tell that these artists are special, and that their collections are well-worth noting both in terms of craftsmanship and their place in global trendsetting.
Within Scandinavia, CPHFW is considered the most important of region’s fashion weeks. It is the only one with two fairs (CIFF and Revolver), making it the go-to for international press and buyers alike. If you want to find out what’s going on in the Scandinavian fashion scene, you go to Copenhagen Fashion Week.
All that said, this season’s Copenhagen Fashion Week was disappointing in some major ways. I’m not talking about the clothes, which were actually pretty great. I’m talking about the tone deaf, insensitive way fashion brands approached their shows and collections.
Denmark is held up as a paragon of progressivism in the rest of the world: socialized health care, substantial parental leave, a leader in the field of environmental sustainability. Those things are all great, and all true. Denmark’s strength is that it takes the holistic life experience of its citizens very seriously (whether that’s out of altruism or simply a way of creating a productive workforce is a discussion for another day).
Where Denmark fails is that it does not truly accept that it is now, and has been for quite some time, a multicultural country. It prefers to see immigrants as an addendum to the population and not a thread within the tapestry. That has lead to an othering of anyone who is non-white and a startling lack of diversity across all industries, including fashion.
Brands that held racially diverse runway shows this season included: Søren Le Schmidt, J. Lindeberg, STAND, and Holzweiler. Others shows had one or two non-white models, but that’s not the same thing as being diverse, and I don’t think it should necessarily be rewarded. I did not see one “plus-size” model this fashion week, nor did I see disabled models.
Significantly, the number of non-white designers was nearly zero. Representation in terms of models is, of course, important. Runway representation, however stems from a diversity of perspectives included in the brand itself – from the CEO to the design team and so on – which is where an inclusive corporate structure is essential. This is clearly not yet a priority for Danish brands.
As Denmark’s demographics shift towards a less homogenous culture, it is vital that people are able to see themselves not only in the models wearing the clothes, but also in who is able to be part of the world of Danish fashion.
So how do we improve from where we are now? My sense is that as CPHFW gets more coverage from outside the region, there will be continued pushback on the homogeneity of models, in terms of both race and body size. Fashion inclusiveness does not yet seem to have taken up the cause of ability-inclusivity in a mainstream way, although advocates like Irish writer and academic Sinead Burke are working to change this. But the change needs to come internally for it to be penetrative and lasting, and that means that the brands need to take it upon themselves to hire people with a range of backgrounds and abilities.
Ganni is the most talked-about example of how this lack of perspective can manifest. A backdrop of images of young women from developing countries (as well as other images), taken by National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale, played as a line of thin, mostly white models in expensive clothes walked the runway. Press immediately called the show out, calling it “tone deaf,” “insensitive,” and accusing the brand of using the women as props.
The criticisms were just, and the brand’s response was swift but lacklustre, saying: “At Ganni it is always our mission to celebrate women around the world. For the Ganni FW19 show, we drew inspiration from the beauty of life on earth and wanted to portray the diversity and connectivity we share on this planet. To illustrate this, we collaborated with photographer Ami Vitale on our set design. Ami has dedicated her life to documenting and amplifying stories of all forms of life. While well intentioned, we now understand the sensitivities we’ve broached by showing our collection within the context of these images.”
I don’t doubt that Ganni feels bad about the reception of the show, particularly because the intention of the show was so grand (it was called “Life on Earth”), so they were clearly trying to communicate something they felt was profound.
That intention is what makes it so troubling, because it reveals something very dark and deep about Danish fashion culture: Ganni saw these images as essentially aesthetic. People, however, are not an aesthetic.
It’s an issue of othering that is fairly mainstream within Denmark. A great example is the logo of Cirkel Kaffe, Denmark’s oldest coffee brand, which is the profile of a stylized “African” woman. To this day, people use posters, postcards, and other paraphernalia of this logo as graphic art in their homes.
The show felt especially egregious coming from Ganni because it is the first Danish brand in years to break through on the international stage. Whether ready for it or not, Ganni is representative of Danish fashion to the rest of the world. This kind of carelessness confirms people’s worst fears about Denmark and Scandinavia more generally – that it’s culturally isolated and therefore irrelevant on a larger scale.
In addition, Ganni has marketed itself as a “sustainable” fashion brand, sharing information about CO2 emissions and other environmental concerns. That’s important work to be sure, but this dichotomy is a microcosm of the larger Danish problem, which is that they like to promote themselves as leaders in the field of sustainability and other progressive causes, but have a blind spot when it comes to human issues of cultural and social inclusivity.
Designers, brands, and the institution of Copenhagen Fashion Week, we encourage you to:
Make sure at least half of the models coming down the runway are not white, are a range of ages and body sizes, and abilities.
Have a diverse team! That means everyone from management to interns. Make inclusion part of the way your brand operates.
Run things by multiple people before moving ahead with a project, especially if you think it’s “bold” or “profound.” This one only works if you have the above-mentioned diverse team.
To CPHFW specifically: incentivize more inclusion across brands! Offer external consultation for brands regarding inclusion, diversity, and a global perspective.
Consider sustainability more holistically. It is not just about organic cotton; it’s about human lives and how we are all connected by the industries in which we partake.
It’s time for Danish fashion brands and Copenhagen Fashion Week to wake up. If they don’t, they’ll soon be abandoned by the global audience with whom they’re currently trying to garner favor. Being cool isn’t enough anymore; Danish fashion needs to live up to the country’s progressive reputation.
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