As one of the largest industries in the world today, fashion influences everything from societal norms to political views and conversations surrounding environmental issues. And with more and more industry leaders lending their voices to champion social and environmental causes, the fashion ecosystem is changing for the better.
Here, we’ve rounded up our top 10 fashion heroes making a splash in the industry for shining a spotlight on causes ranging from labour conditions to intersexuality and sustainability forward. Read on to find out the motivations behind their activism.
Adwoa Aboah may be one of fashion most striking faces, but she’s also a fierce activist. The British model, who’ve starred in global campaigns and graced the covers of magazines, has also been incredibly open about her battles with addiction and depression on The Gurls Talk—a Podcast she founded with the aim of raising awareness for women’s rights. Her efforts at championing equality hasn’t gone unnoticed. Just this year, Aboah gained recognition when she became part of the Barbie’s 60th Anniversary “Shero” collection, which celebrates inspiring women breaking boundaries.
Supermodel Ashley Graham played a pivotal role in mainstreaming plus-sized models with her outspoken personality and activism. She was the first size-16 model to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit issue in the history of the publication. She’s also been on the cover of various other fashion magazines such as Harper’s BAZAAR, and in fashion campaigns. Having garnered a huge following on social media, Graham uses her platform to advocate for body positivity—she even gave a TED talk on the subject in 2016, where she opened up about her relationship with her body and encouraged women to love their bodies. She spoke on topics ranging from cellulite to lower belly fat and using words of affirmation to develop a positive connection with one’s body.
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The British actress best known for breathing life into J.K Rowling’s Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series has since gone on to become a high-profile advocate for ethical and sustainable initiatives in the fashion industry by promoting designers and brands adhering to ethical and eco-conscious standards. Emma Watson is is also part of the Green Carpet Challenge, and is committed to having every item of clothing she wears on the red carpet be sustainable. For instance, the Calvin Klein gown she wore to the 2016 MET Gala was made out of recycled plastic bottles. She even set up a separate Instagram account, The Press Tour, where she documents in detail every outfit she wears, proving you too can dress stylishly while being an eco-conscious consumer.
Hanne Gaby Odiele
Veteran Belgian model Hanne Gaby Odiele came out as intersex in 2017 in a magazine article, bringing the conversation of intersexuality into mainstream culture. It’s the least popular letter in the queer acronym LGBTQIA, so Hanne Gaby uses her model status as a platform raise awareness about intersex human rights. “There’s nothing wrong with being a little bit different…I just don’t understand why we need to fix something that’s not broken,” she said in an interview. Hanne Gaby has since partnered with InterACT, a non profit organisation that advocates for the legal and human rights of children with intersex traits to put a stop to unnecessary surgeries.
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British designer and United Nations (UN) sustainability ambassador Stella McCartney is a pioneer in introducing ethical and eco-conscious practices to luxury fashion. Each collection from her namesake brand is completely vegan, and McCartney is unrelenting in her pursuit of newer, more sustainable methods to incorporate in her label. As one of the industry’s leading female designers, McCartney is also one of the most vocal champions of environmental issues, with sustainability shaping her company’s policies, business model, and brand message. Her eponymous label has numerous collaborations with organisations such as Parley for The Oceans and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC).
Sinéad Burke is on the fight to make fashion more diverse. The Irish writer, academic and activist rose to fame in 2017 when she gave a TED talk on “why design should include everyone,” explaining why inclusivity is good for everyone, and that people from diverse backgrounds need to be present at every stage. Burke, who was born with dwarfism, has appeared on the cover of The Business of Fashion in 2018 alongside Kim Kardashian West, and was the person with dwarfism to attend the MET Gala this year. Such visibility gives her a greater platform to tilt the lens of fashion towards inclusivity. She actively campaigns for inclusive design and also co-founded the Inclusive Fashion and Design Collective (IFDC) to challenge designers to work with people with disabilities.
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Former Bangladeshi child worker Kalpona Akter witnessed the abuse of employees by the hands of their employers firsthand at the tender age of 12. The experience has spurred her to become a garment worker activist, a cause which she’s even spent stints in prison for. Akter also founded the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) in 2000, which campaigns for worker safety, fair wages and the right to labour unions. She’s also instrumental in getting Westerns unions’ signatures on the Fire and Building Safety Accord—an independent five-year legally binding document between international brands, retailers and trade unions to ensure safe and healthy working conditions in the Bangladeshi ready-made garment industry, following the gravely unfortunate Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. Her United States Congress testimony played a huge role in helping develop the legislation against slave-labour conditions for clothing.
Yael Aflalo, founder and CEO of Reformation, is paving the way to making sustainable fast fashion mainstream. While on a business trip to China in 2010, Aflalo witnessed firsthand the wastefulness and pollution caused by manufacturing within the fashion industry. When she returned to Los Angeles, she was on a mission to create stylish, sustainable clothing. Now a highly successful label, Reformation consists of effortlessly feminine pieces adored by celebrities and fashion influencers alike, and is serious about sustainability from the sourcing of materials to ethical business practises. Today, her label is quickly catering to a new generation of customers with a desire for mindful fashion pieces.
Actress, model, and social activist, 19 year old Yara Shahidi has become a necessary political voice for her generation. She uses her high profile platform to raise awareness for feminism and encourages her peers to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). For her 18th birthday, Shahidi launched Eighteen x 18, a national initiative that encourages civic engagement and voting from young people. Having graced the covers of glossy magazines such as Harper’s BAZAAR Arabia and becoming a United States of America ambassador for Chanel, Yara explained that fashion can fuel politics, “Fashion is associated with an ideology. You could wear a beret, but when you tilt it to the side, you go from Parisian to Black Panther.”
Hailed by some as the Steve Jobs of the sustainable commerce sphere, climber and activist Yvon Chouinard is the founder of American outdoor apparel brand Patagonia. Since its inception in 1973, Chouinard has committed the company to making the world a better place via revolutionising working conditions and his dedication to environmental activism. Today, Patagonia has recently been awarded the United Nations (UN) Champions of the Earth award, the UN’s highest environmental honour. Representatives of the company have also been incredibly vocal when it comes to calling out political injustices. Patagonia has donated more than $89m euros to organisations that support the environment, and recently donated $10m tax cuts to groups working to protect the environment and solve the climate crisis.