For the last decade, fashion companies have begun to recognize Pride as an important event in their calendar year. Fast fashion accelerates, and mass production can be accomplished quicker and cheaper. Therefore it’s easier than ever to introduce mini Pride collections for June that speak to the social movement that began in Stonewall back in 1969.
At first, many fashion companies would only introduce a few limited edition products in their store and update their logo in June. A t-shirt with their rainbow logo or a generic Love is Love phrase would be the efforts of these companies during Pride Month. The first years these fashion brands introduced these products were very fulfilling and exciting for so many consumers. Since many fashion advertisements and campaigns tend to focus on heteronormativity, it was refreshing to see this effort toward inclusion, even if it was only during the sixth month of the year.
Around 2018 - 2019, the competition started growing because these fashion companies saw that there was a huge economic potential in embracing and accepting the LGBTQ+ customer. By these years, many customers already had their generic Pride Month t-shirts from their favorite clothing store. So there started to be a need to explore what Pride looks like outside of rainbow flags, and Love is Love.
This was also a good example of the importance of market research and understanding who is actually buying these Pride products in June. Many LGBTQ+ clients were getting tired of being associated only with the rainbow flag, especially as trans issues began to gain more relevance in a wider audience on a social and political level. Were companies assuming that all LGBTQ+ clients, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity, identify with the rainbow flag and the slogan Love is Love? Was there an opportunity to explore further where people are wearing these Pride clothes and what else could be done creatively that maybe can also help on a social and political level?
These years were pivotal because consumers started to notice how many fashion companies were using the rainbow flag as a profit strategy while their values were very opposite to what the Pride movement stands for. Because behind a rainbow logo, there are companies where employees are scared to come out, where the LGBTQ+ workforce is a very small percentage in the entry-level spectrum, and very barely existent in the senior capacity. This is one of the many reasons why Pride merch got stuck in rainbow and meaningless messages. Fashion companies were designing for a customer they didn’t know, they didn’t represent, they didn’t care about, and they wouldn’t even hire to work with them.
2020 and social movements
2020 was a pivotal year in every aspect of our lives. We experienced firsthand how our health is an essential need that changes everything else around us when it’s at risk.
But we also acknowledged the systemic racism that is part of our world and that after several decades of protests, laws, and debates, there is still a lot of work to do. The Black Lives Matter movement gained even more significant relevance after George Floyd was assassinated in May 2020.
The protests, the frustration, and the anger after this devastating happening made us acknowledge the several pillars in our society where systemic racism is rooted, and we haven’t extracted it just yet. Areas such as entertainment, where only 4 out of 100 off-screen talent (producers, writers, directors) are black.
The fashion industry received a lot of criticism as well. Since racial diversity was only visible in the visual aspects of the fashion system, such as fashion shows, magazine covers, and editorials, but when it came to hiring staff for their Financial, Operational, Administrative, or Creative team, there wasn’t a fair representation of backgrounds.
This was when the Fifteen Percent Pledge was founded, encouraging businesses to give 15% of their shelf space to black-owned businesses, as the black community represents 15% of the US population.
The acknowledgment of systemic racism led to the beginning of June with Pride Month in 2020. The conversations about LGBTQ+ people of color having drastically fewer opportunities and more likeliness of food insecurity, homelessness, suicide, and murder became very relevant. As customers were calling out businesses who were not doing enough (or anything at all) against racial inequity, it was very clear that businesses were being watched as to what they would do regarding Pride Month and if their actions were actually meaningful or they were just for optics and monetary purposes.
In the years after 2020, several fashion companies understood the assignment and did further research on what Pride Month really is. It’s not everyone’s responsibility to be entirely familiar with the LGBTQ+ movement. But it is relevant when there will be product development and social and political repercussions around the LGBTQ+ community when introducing these kinds of products.
Pride Month in 2021 and 2022 were like a bloom after the rough storm of the pandemic. With about a decade of designing Pride Merch, fashion companies began to take this assignment seriously, considering why this movement is important and how these brands can create great clothing that has a true meaning in celebrating and advocating this movement. In other words, how could fashion brands design Pride clothing that was Political Fashion?
One of the most successful Pride collections in 2022 was Adidas, which worked collaboratively with queer artist Kris Andrew Small. Small is inspired by street art and pop art. And the collection was very successful because it was about the visibility of queer talent and giving them a space to be seen and heard. The clothing didn’t have rainbow flags nor messages referencing the Pride movement. This collection was particularly well received because clients can wear these clothes all year long, and they are appealing to the LBGTQ+ consumer, allies, and the mass consumer. Pride Month is about advocating for equity and getting a seat at the table. Rainbow flags are fun, but moving a step forward in the movement, fashion brands are beginning to raise awareness of how that actually looks like. A rainbow flag t-shirt is the tip of the iceberg. A queer artist hired to design a collection for a global company is going deeper into the meaningfulness and purpose of the movement.
Three Steps Back in 2023
The political scenarios, the social movements, and the economic status of a country or the world as a whole have influenced fashion for centuries. In 2023, we are seeing a strong conservative movement against transgender rights, including pieces of legislation that forbid transgender women from playing sports, deny health care to trans people, and forbid LGBTQ+ education and books.
Just in 2023, there have been over 550 anti-trans bills. 80 of them have passed, and 372 of them are active. This means that at the state and federal level, there are active conversations about banning transgender rights and ongoing debates defining gender, sex, and identities.
But why are transgender issues so relevant in today’s political spectrum?
In 2022, Congress passed the Respect for Marriage Act, which gives statutory authority for same-sex marriage act. Congress introduced this legislation after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and, with it, the right to reproductive freedom. It seemed as if the Supreme Court was looking to overturn and undo the progress toward rights and freedom that, for several decades, the US Government worked to establish as laws.
As the Respect for Marriage Act passed Congress with bipartisan support, we realized that same-sex marriage was still a matter of debate, but one that in many areas of the country received significant support from its Representatives and local government.
This doesn’t mean that we’ve overcome gay discrimination, as this is still a prevalent reason for bullying, hate crimes, suicides, homelessness, unemployment, and food insecurity. There’s still a very long way to go.
However, there was missing a common mission that a segment of the conservative movement could support with a common agreement in order to launch presidential campaigns, fundraising events, merch, pieces of legislation, and social media content. This was when transgender rights became a bigger matter of discussion. Debates about trans people playing in sports, trans education, and trans health care have been a matter of debate in 2023.
A recent Pew Research Center survey states that about 1.6% of the population in the United States identifies as transgender or non-binary. Still, in 2023, over 550 anti-trans bills have been introduced. Over 80 of them have passed, and about 370 remain active.
This political context translates into the way we are living and experiencing Pride Month in 2023, particularly after Target received backlash due to the Pride collection they introduced this year.
During the last weeks of May, Target announced their Pride collection. As Adidas did in 2022, Target hired a person from the LGBTQ+ community to deliver these powerful messages of diversity and inclusion with fashion as a medium. Erik Carnell is a trans-British designer who collaborated in the creative aspect of certain products of Target’s Pride Collection 2023. Now, social media is very powerful in raising people’s voices on certain issues. However, it can also be very misleading since the number of retweets, likes, and followers don’t necessarily mean accuracy in the information these posts are delivering.
A Target consumer was offended by swimwear from Target that said “tuck-friendly,” meaning that there was a little bit of room in the genital area, which is very helpful, and a significant message of visibility and inclusion for many trans people. This swimwear was only in the adults’ section. However, the rumor that this swimwear was also available for children became widespread, and many more consumers felt offended and wanted Target to take down their Pride merchandise.
After the backlash, Target released a statement, informing they would take down certain products of the collection that were the root of confrontations that put the health of their employees at risk.
Target received bomb threats at several stores in Utah, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
The movements attacking the LGBTQ+ movement are gaining significant relevance in today’s political spectrum. As we know, history, fashion and politics are not always linear, and sometimes we take one (or several) steps back before moving forward.
This year, creating a strategy was particularly challenging for many companies. If they celebrate the LGBTQ+ movement and address trans rights as human rights, a certain demographic will be upset and react with actions of anger that can translate into a lack of sales, and losing clients. However, the same exact result can happen if they decide to take back the support to the LGBTQ+ community in this particular year when it has been attacked. When several LGBTQ+ books, authors, courses, festivals, and parties are being banned, when humans, regardless of who they are, are being denied health care, the right to play sports, the right to choose their name, and the right to walk in the streets feeling secured, it is more important than ever to see big corporations delivering messages of support.
Pride month is not a trend, a rainbow flag, or a capsule collection that consumers will buy loyally every year. It’s more important than ever that fashion companies truly address their political views and accept that Pride products can create millions of dollars of revenue but that several people will not be satisfied with these products and will raise their voices, as everyone has the right to do so.
Pride Month is particularly political in 2023. Perhaps we walked a few steps back from what we’ve accomplished in the last few years. But it’s only a matter of owning a political standpoint when it comes to politics in Pride fashion. There is no such thing as apolitical fashion. What brands do and stop making impacts how the social movement evolves. Forward or backward? Backward or forward?