Photographer Jeff Ridel recently shot an editorial story, “The Return of the Power Suit (How a Top Dog Suits Up)” for Men’s Journal’s Expert Advice column. The opening line is “If you want to make a killing, it helps if you dress the part”, and the photographs depict the suited-man as a wolf who is doing just that. The fable of the big, bad wolf and the analogy of the carnivorous predator as the ruthless bottom-liner are both on heavy-rotation in fashion culture. It is necessary, especially in menswear, for clothing to symbolize elite power and an aesthetic (and therefore value-based) alliance with those in power. One of the most shocking depictions of the Business Predator who identifies with predatory non-human animals is from The Psychopath Test, featured on the popular radio show This American Life. It’s a must-listen for anyone who wonders why corporations can be so ruthless, morally bankrupt and still enthusiastically celebrated.
Lanvin’s Fall/Winter 2013 ad campaign featuring the ginger-mustached model Francois Verkerk, plays with the same predator power dynamic as he holds a rabbit – both a pray animal and an animal frequently used for fur and angora. This ad, spotted as I was browsing Fantastic Man magazine is followed by an ad from Woolrich, only a few pages later with the same it-guy model, this time demonstrating a self-portrait for a photo-contest while wearing the increasingly popular arctic-parka with fur-lined collar. Brands like Canada Goose, who claim on their website that they are “deeply committed to the preservation of our global environment and the humane treatment of animals” and Moncler, whose Fall-Winter 2013 runway show had models in piles of fur while walking huskies and people in polar-bear costumes hugging attendees, have also made the fur-trimmed parka enormously popular among young urbanites seeking a symbolic connection with nature and adventure.
In fashion advertising and editorial, the ubiquitous practice of eradicating the fashion-production process (living individuals being farmed or trapped and then being killed and skinned) of things like leather, fur and wool results in a mythos that these processes either do not take place, or that they do not matter. The same can be said for factory and field workers who are often exploited for fast-fashion and later erased from the story of the clothing. And those who want to highlight this very disconnect become enemies of both fashion and profits.
The use of animals as symbols in fashion often parallels the use of animals as symbols in art. Animals typically appear in art as empty vessels without their own perspectives – to be filled with anthropocentric meaning, very two-dimensional caricatures that represent one unwavering characteristic. I have difficulty with artists and designers that use animals without acknowledging the scientific reality that these animals have their own complex inner lives that have nothing to do with the meaning assigned to them, the meaning we are all asked to accept as self-evident. “Wolves represent ruthless power,” nothing more. This is a form of our power, perhaps, but also a source of our dysfunctional relationship with nature and animals, and ultimately a sign of our unwillingness to validate the non-human world or to venture out of our own heads.