Essay: Pink Capitalism

by Liam Hess .

Should we settle for seeing images of our queer forebears simply plastered onto a mass-produced tee for an ignorant audience to be publicly mocked? Is it a positive thing to see our values and aesthetics absorbed into a fiercely profit-driven, FTSE 100-listed company like Burberry, regardless of the positive intentions of its maker?

For A/W 18, Christopher Bailey bowed out of his 17-year tenure at Burberry with a collection supporting LGBT charities that saw floor-length coats, puffa jackets and sweatshirts covered in rainbow colours paraded down the runway. Even the recently revived house check was given the rainbow treatment - weaving queerness, if you like, into the very DNA of a brand established in 1856, once better known for its traditional utility than its political statements.

While it may not seem radical in today’s Western political climate, where increasing support for LGBTQ+ rights has seen seismic shifts in both public opinion and legal protections, it’s worth remembering that the influence of Burberry reaches less hospitable corners of the world. In Rome earlier this year, I was pleasantly surprised to see window displays included giant tulle headpieces on all of their mannequins in rainbow colours. In the heartland of the Catholic church, whose followers have been conditioned from youth to read meaning into the smallest iconographic details, this loud, proud statement wouldn’t go unnoticed.

And while I can’t imagine the rainbow colours are plastered all over the windows of Burberry outposts in mainland China or the Middle East, with the brand’s fanatical following there, the catwalk collection would certainly have crossed the radar of many fashionistas from cultures less sympathetic to the cause. China might account for almost a quarter of Burberry’s sales, yet queer relationships are regularly censored on film and television and there are no discrimination protections in place for its LGBTQ+ population - surely this heightened visibility, only achievable by a brand on Burberry’s scale, can only be a good thing?

A month after the Burberry show, streetwear brand Supreme released a very different kind of queer homage. At this point, the label barely lifts a finger to promote its latest drop; the queues that form outside stores across the world are evidence enough of its self-perpetuating cycle of hype. But this time, something was off. As Matthew Schneier, a reporter at The New York Times noted on Twitter, it was approaching six hours post-release and all of the items in the collection were still available in all sizes on Supreme’s e-store - let alone in any of the brand’s physical locations.

A deeper dig by Diana Tourjée for Broadly into the murky underworld of hypebeasts made some headway into explaining the striking lack of interest from Supreme’s usually rabid fans. The photographs selected by Supreme to represent Goldin are searing visions of some of her most adored subjects. There are the drag queens Misty and Jimmy Paulette in the passenger seats of a taxi, staring head-on, unapologetic, into Goldin’s lens as they cruise through daytime Manhattan in 1991. From the same year an image of Kim Harlow, a trans woman who performed in Paris nightclubs and tragically died of AIDS in 1993, is superimposed onto skateboards and t-shirts.  

Their presence is cheering. Why shouldn’t these icons from underground queer history be celebrated and introduced to a new generation of streetwear enthusiasts? Unfortunately, Tourjée’s trawls through Supreme’s various fan pages on Reddit tell a rather more depressing story. “15 yr old boys gunna be wearing shirts w trannies . Lol,” said one user. Others chimed in with: “MISS ME WITH THAT GAY SHIT.” “I’ll be avoiding this like the plague.” I hope I’m not the first to break it to them that the hypebeast style heroes - Raf Simons, Demna Gvasalia, Kim Jones, Shayne Oliver - are all very happily, publicly queer.

As with any instance of appropriation in fashion, the issue is never simply the adoption of style from another gender, class, ethnicity or sexual identity - but doing so without any recognition of the history and nuance of the stories the wearer is choosing to retell. Burberry and Supreme might have immense cultural currency all across the world and with that comes an ability to shift perspectives. The exposure that they offer might eventually render queer lives acceptable to a wider audience. But should we settle for seeing images of our queer forebears simply plastered onto a mass-produced tee for an ignorant audience to be publicly mocked? Is it a positive thing to see our values and aesthetics absorbed into a fiercely profit-driven, FTSE 100-listed company like Burberry, regardless of the positive intentions of its maker?

What it exposes is the double-edged nature of pink capitalism - much like the corporatisation of pride marches around the world, increasingly sponsored by businesses with ethical codes that go directly against the origins of pride as protest, it’s an unwanted compromise, a normalising or diluting of the queer message to make it palatable for the mainstream. Even in Burberry’s case, it would be lovely to think that this was a choice encouraged by its board and celebrated by its shareholders. But at the end of the day fashion is a business too - and it seems more likely that, as Bailey’s final collection, it was something of a parting shot. Next season, business as usual.

Perhaps the real question is whether authenticity or visibility are more important when thinking about queer representation in fashion? There are a raft of smaller-scale brands we can look to for fashion in the playful, disruptive tradition of queer creativity: Charles Jeffrey LOVERBOY and ART SCHOOL in London, Ludovic de Saint Sernin, GmBH and Palomo Spain on the continent, and in New York, designers such as Telfar, Vaquera and Women’s History Museum, to name just a few.

But the reality is that while some pioneers - the drag queens and transgender women of colour of 1960s downtown Manhattan, for example - bravely walked the streets in garments that transgressed gender norms, for most queer people, fashion has until recently operated around more covert markers of difference. There’s the coloured handkerchiefs and keys hanging from belts that signified sexual preference, memorably codified by Hal Fischer in his 1977 photo book Gay Semiotics, or even further back to the la garçonne style of the 1920s, a masculinised vision of women’s clothing that blossomed in Weimar Berlin and was popularised by Marlene Dietrich. It speaks of a need for coded communication, the ability to subtly transmit your sexual preference to your tribe.

But for those of us lucky enough to live in a corner of the world where we can dress according to our sexual and gender identity, it’s also our responsibility to keep pushing that boat out too as much as we can. When I stop to think about my own style, it’s fairly conservative - more in keeping with the low-key signifiers of generations past than the outward pride of queer trailblazers.

Living in London, I can go out wearing something flamboyant and have little fear of being harassed, so why am I not doing that? Rather than buying a Supreme t-shirt, I could save up for a garment from a young, emerging queer designer and contribute in some small way to the furthering of their label - and if it’s challenging or disruptive, that’s what queer style has always been about. We should all be doing our bit in pushing back against the social and political stigma that forced us for centuries to wear only the subtlest of markers that identify us as queer, and putting our money towards labels that are moving that conversation forward.

So even if I’m happy they exist, Burberry and Supreme can keep their expensive clothes with their tacit, tasteful nods to queer culture for now. While visibility is nice, it’s a reminder that true queer style comes from the unruly, the uncompromising, a willingness to disrupt the status quo. Witnessing this interest in queer culture by larger corporate brands is a clarion call to queer people - even those of us who tend to dress more moderately - that we should be unafraid to reconcile these two threads of our aesthetic history, and be braver in what we choose to wear. In 2018, it’s possible for us to be both visible and authentic. Get you an outfit that does both.