Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Fashionable Donations: A Trend towards Giving

John Locke once proclaimed, “Fashion for the most part is nothing but the ostentation of riches”. While many fashionistas today would argue with this proclamation, declaring that fashion is also about beauty and creativity, the general population would most likely agree: especially when they are staring at a $4,000 Gucci handbag sitting in a window display. For the average consumer, most elements of high fashion are regarded as superfluous and unnecessary. On the other hand, these same consumers would most likely agree with Sir Francis Bacon, who once declared: “In charity, there is no excess”. Everyone likes to believe that they are doing something to benefit the world, and donating to charities is one of the easiest ways for people to gain a sense of philanthropic satisfaction. So what happens when a world of extravagance and excess collides with one of humanitarian cause and relentless giving? Recently, the answer seems to be a line of new and trendy merchandise sold at diverse prices, which also fulfill a person’s desire to give back to the world. By combining the influence of fashion and the goodwill of donations, designers have made “giving back” a trendy movement; one which is benefiting both fashion houses and world charities alike.
The most notable combination of fashion and charity today is of course (PRODUCT)RED, a project started by Bono and Bobby Shriver, to raise awareness and money for The Global Fund. Companies like Gap, Emporio Armani, and Converse have branded some of their merchandise with (RED) labels, and they all donate a percentage of the revenue created by selling these products in their stores. The money is then used to purchase anti-retroviral medication and distribute it to impoverished countries in Africa. Giorgio Armani, one of the world’s leading fashion designers, signed on with Bono’s RED campaign in September 2006, when he created a new line for men and women to be sold in all of his 124 Emporio Armani stores across the globe. Armani is contributing an average of 40% of its gross profit margin from its (RED) merchandise directly to the Global Fund. To date, (RED) has contributed 49.8 million dollars to the Global Fund and has provided 1.1 million people with treatment for HIV/AIDS, 2.8 million with treatment for tuberculosis and 23 million with treatment for malaria.
Not only have (RED) products clearly helped people in the world, but it has also done something for fashion. (PRODUCT)RED has created a whole new collection of looks, most notably for Armani’s new designs. In developing his collection, Giorgio Armani teamed up with Ghanaian contemporary artist Owusu-Ankomah, whose art is featured on the clothing, accessories and packaging. The shining red African pictograms give the line something new and different, and they are meant to represent positive, hopeful symbols for the future of Africa; however they simultaneously work as a fashionable status symbol for consumers, as a simple cotton crewneck retails for $85 and a men’s calfskin messenger bag for $395. Armani also collaborated with Julia Roberts to create a bracelet for men ($195) and women ($175) that appears in the line as well. Giorgio Armani says that, “Julia has helped create a beautiful accessory for both men and women, which will also be a visible reminder of the part that we can all play in fighting AIDS in Africa.” Evidently, supporting noble causes has not made designers or fashion companies any less noble in their already-innovative fashion apparel, and other superstar designers are catching on to the new trend as well.
Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren are two of America’s hottest designers and they are also devoting a portion of their profits to aid the charitable causes of their choice. In the summer of 2006, Marc Jacobs created a line of fashion tees which retail at $35 to raise awareness about skin cancer. The t-shirts feature celebrities like Victoria Beckham, Heidi Klum (which I am sporting), Naomi Campbell, Hilary Swank, and Marc Jacobs himself posing nude with witty messages like “Protect the Skin You’re In,” “Protect Your Largest Organ,” and “Save Your Ass” covering their private parts. All of the proceeds from these shirts were donated to NYU Interdisciplinary School of Medicine Melanoma Cooperative Group in memory of the late NYU physician Jessie Rubin. The 2006 line of nudie tees reportedly raised about $60,000 for the Melanoma Group, and they still remain available in all Marc by Marc Jacobs stores. Meanwhile, shoppers looking to support a different cause can shop Ralph Lauren’s Pink Pony Collection, which has raised over $300,000 for the National Breast Cancer Center. Lauren explains that, “in poor and minority communities, medically underserved populations suffer disproportionately from cancer because they lack access to basic, quality health care. The Pink Pony Campaign reaches out to these communities and strives to make a difference.” The Pink Pony Collection features apparel for both men (e.g. the $75 Classic Polo) and women (with items ranging from the $45 Tank to the $498 Hooded Cashmere Sweater), making the items a must-have for consumers of any age and any gender.
Even fashion house and mega-million dollar corporation Gucci has decided that charities are a worthy cause for their huge profits. Renewing a program that started in 2005, Gucci once again decided to hold “The Gucci Holiday Campaign to Benefit UNICEF” in 2007. From November 15th through December 31st, Gucci donated 25% of the sales from the special holiday items, personally crafted by Gucci’s Creative Director Frida Giannini, to UNICEF. In addition to the special holiday campaign, the company came out with a special “Gucci for UNICEF” Indy bag that will be sold in stores until December of this year. Just like the rest of the UNICEF items, 25 percent of the revenue generated by this bag goes directly to UNICEF.
Gucci may be the most well known luxury brand to commit themselves to charity work, however they are not alone. Cartier too partnered with eight celebrities in order to design a product in which a percentage of the proceeds will be donated to charity. Their concept is the LOVE Charity Bracelet, and each celebrity has created a different color piece, representing a different charity that will be supported . A few examples of the best-selling bracelets are Sarah Jessica Parker’s blue UNICEF bracelet, Rosario Dawson’s red Youth Aids Bracelet, Liv Tyler’s deep pink Breast Cancer Research Foundation bracelet, and Scarlett Johansson’s baby pink USA Harvest bracelet. The 18-carat white gold with cotton cord bracelet is sold at $475, $100 of which is given to the corresponding charity. Visibly, both Gucci and Cartier’s commitment towards different charities demonstrates that even on the most lavish and extravagant level, charity and fashion still fit together extremely well, and that the classification of members of the fashion world as “superficial, uncaring, label-whores” may not have to continue into the new age of fashion trends.
To end, I want to note that while integrating politics and fashion may have been something to avoid in the past, today it is nothing less than essential. We have made a movement in fashion trends where people do not just want to wear new clothes; they want their clothes to express something about their personality. Many believe that consumers are only buying these “charitable” items so they can participate in guilt-free shopping, and others believe that fashion houses are actually profiting more by donating a small portion of their profits than they would if they did not have these campaigns at all. However, I believe the old proverb to be true: “Charity looks at the need and not at the cause.” Does it really matter if fashion houses profit and consumers have a false sense of philanthropy by purchasing these items, as long as people are getting the help they deserve? True, one could just go donate 2,000 dollars directly to UNICEF instead of purchasing the Gucci handbag, but would UNICEF get all of those donations if it were not for Gucci’s campaign? Probably not. So while this trend for charitable giving might come and go as fast as neon pleather or shoulder pads, I think we should embrace this one while it lasts, because finally the fashion industry may have gotten something right.

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