Fashion flirts with political messages

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While many fashion marketers this fall are using ads, promotions and tiny T-shirts to drive today's youth to make a statement by casting their vote, most are steering clear of making any real political statements of their own.

French Connection T-shirts offering "FCUK You, I'm Voting" and public-service print ads from DKNY Jeans featuring celeb-imparted messages such as "You have the power" (both linked with the young voters mobilization effort Rock the Vote) are among the sea of politicized yet non-partisan messages from mainstream apparel makers. Even typically vocal hip-hop brand founders Sean Combs and Russell Simmons have been merely plugging participation in the electoral process with the creation of nonprofit groups (Citizen Change and Hip-Hop Summit Action Network respectively.)

fine line

The non-partisan pushes make sense because "Ultimately, voting is a means of self-expression in the same way that fashion and clothing are," said Michael Wolfe, associate publisher of Conde Nast Publications' GQ, which itself staged an event at the recent Democratic convention in Boston.

Mr. Wolfe pointed to the "vibrant brand personality" created by designer Kenneth Cole as a result of his longtime efforts to express clearly overt political convictions in ad campaigns-the latest of which rails on censorship and the deficit among other issues and entreats, "Are you putting us on?" He said there is still wariness on the part of others to develop aggressive efforts for fear of alienating consumers. "It's a fine line: They need to show a lifestyle, but they also need to sell goods," he said.

Fashion marketers' push to the polls may be part of their recognition of a trend toward what Jane Buckingham, president of Youth Intelligence, calls "activism light." Ms. Buckingham said young consumers recognize that fashion companies will "do the Breast Cancer thing, the AIDS thing and now they're doing the voting thing, and such efforts don't have much backlash."

Tom Jarrold, VP-marketing, Armani Exchange, said the company's recent tie-in with Hearst Magazines' Marie Claire to promote its T-shirts offering, "Do you think fashion makes a statement? Try Voting," the proceeds of which benefit Step Up Women's Network, is important because "it helps broaden [consumer's] relationship with us." But, he said, linking up with politics "can easily get partisan and then it's not appropriate."

While Rocawear CEO Damon Dash recently held a private screening of Michael Moore's documentary "Fahrenheit 911" for employees, the urban brand's new cap, proceeds of which benefit Rock the Vote and Hip-Hip Summit Action Network, proclaims only "Roc The Vote '04."

considerable buzz

Being P.C. has netted A/X, Rocawear and others a slew of mentions everywhere from NBC's "The Today Show" to write-ups in USA Today, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Candies hopes to get similar pick-up for its new spokesmodel, 19-year-old pop star Ashlee Simpson, who dons a barely-visible "Chicks Rock, Chicks Vote" T-shirt in a new ad.

According to Lisa Arbetter, executive editor of Conde Nast's Cargo, which will feature designer Isaac Mizrahi's "Declare Yourself" T-shirt in its October/November issue, "there really is a coolness attached to this kind of activism, albeit a minor form of activism. Amidst heightened political polarization due to the war and other contentious issues, it creates buzz," she said.

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