It’s time to talk about the politics of the fashion industry

From left Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, U.S. first lady Michelle Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama walk to a state dinner at the White House March 10, 2016 in Washington, D.C.

Think back on the year in fashion and it probably looks something like this: Beyoncé in Formation or the latex look she served at the Met Gala, everything Kim Kardashian, Rihanna in a Saint Laurent red heart-shaped fox fur coat or Demna Gvasalia’s debut as creative director of Balenciaga.

Consumers are less likely to ponder how the political and economic instability caused by events like Donald Trump’s election victory or the shocking Brexit vote impacted spending patterns, or how a bombing in the Instanbul garment district affected fashion’s supply chain.

We’re taught to think fashion and politics look like Michelle Obama and her gold Versace gown at the Obama’s final state dinner, Sophie Trudeau wearing Canadian designer Lucian Matis at the White House, Hillary Clinton in an Armani jacket reportedly worth $16,000 giving a speech on income equality or British prime minister Theresa May taking fire for wearing leather trousers worth a reported $1,650.

We giddily accept clickbait photo galleries-cum-news stories that reinforce a perception that fashion is only ornamental, when in truth it is a $2.4-trillion industry with its own world summits, coalitions, trade agreements and media outlets.

An estimated 57.8 million people are employed in the manufacture of apparel and textiles alone, to say nothing of the people working in the footwear sector or the countless millions employed in the creative, design, shipping, retail and business sectors of what is the second dirtiest industry in the world (only after oil).

The conversation around clothing has to change. We have to start looking at fashion as a powerful economic engine with a vested interest in politics and government.

And, there’s not a lot of time to waste. Because, as of right now, things aren’t going so well.

According to the first State of Fashion report, co-published by Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company, the world’s economy “has not been this volatile since the depths of the financial crisis of 2009.”

For the past decade, the industry has seen 5.5 per cent annual growth, according to the McKinsey Global Fashion Index, outpacing overall GDP expansion. But by the end of this year, growth is expected to have slowed to between two and 2.5 per cent. Sixty-seven per cent of the industry experts and executives surveyed for State of Fashion said conditions in the industry have worsened in the past year, and only 40 per cent think they’ll get better in 2017.

The top challenge? Dealing with “uncertainty and shifts in the global economy,” the report says. Purchases are emotional decisions and consumers do not spend in politically unstable times. Case in point: data from Slice Intelligence, which monitors electronic receipts of more than four million shoppers, reveals that states where Trump won the popular vote had the highest year-over-year gains in November for revenue from online apparel.

It all points to one cold hard fact: politics will play a big role in what a much-needed recovery for the fashion business looks like, when it happens and what retail looks like on other side.

The sooner we hold our political leaders accountable for how their decisions affect the sector, the better things will be for everyone who depends on it for either a living or, literally, the clothes on their backs.