As Alexander Wang basks in praise, has fashion shrugged off #MeToo?

The American fashion designer Alexander Wang last week staged his first catwalk show since being accused of several sexual assaults in 2020. Big-name models appeared on the catwalk while others packed out the front row. Kim Kardashian voiced her support on Instagram, writing “congrats on the amazing show”.

The event, along with Rihanna being photographed last month wearing a bespoke black leather maternity outfit by Wang, and the actor Lucy Liu appearing in his recent resort campaign, has led industry onlookers to ask: why has fashion forgotten #MeToo?

Speaking to the Observer about the show, one of Wang’s accusers, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “Some people don’t really care about what doesn’t affect them personally.”

Such collective amnesia is not isolated. When the French fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier (who was accused of sexual misconduct by seven unnamed women in 2018) died last month, eulogies poured in from the likes of Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Christy Turlington, suggesting all had been forgotten – despite most fashion magazines and brands cutting ties with him when the allegations emerged. (Demarchelier always maintained his innocence and was never prosecuted.)

In 2018, the New York Times accused the fashion photographers Mario Testino and Bruce Weber of repeated sexual exploitation, which they denied. Both have since staged a quiet return. Testino took Kardashian and her daughter’s portrait in 2019, and in 2020 hosted an exhibition in London attended by, among others, Kate Moss. Weber is inching back in too, with a coffee table book and a cover shoot for the current Icon magazine.

Alexander Wang
Fashion designer Alexander Wang. Some commentators have complained of a culture of impunity in the fashion industry. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Wang was accused by 11 people (all male or transgender) of variously groping them, drugging them and pulling their underwear down in public – allegations which the 38-year-old initially denied, calling them “baseless and grotesquely false”. After the accusers hired renowned lawyer Lisa Bloom (who represented Jeffrey Epstein’s victims), Wang met them and issued a public apology on Instagram, promising to “set a better example”.

“Fashion never had its big #MeToo reckoning, and it still fails to support its victims of sexual abuse,” said fashion and culture writer Daniel W Rodgers. “There’s a culture within fashion of hero-worshipping its creators – so their poisonous behaviour is frequently excused as if they were misunderstood artists.”

Commentator Caryn Franklin said: “They’re seen to be untouchable because beauty springs from their fingertips. Studies have shown we’re seduced by beauty. [Fashion] people agree to prioritise the optics over and above the context and subtext.”

This means, added Rodgers, that “fashion’s hierarchy has gone unquestioned, with sexual exploitation being par for the course for a lot of young people. It’s still the same small cabal presiding over the industry. Those who would like to blacklist Wang, Weber and Testino simply don’t have the power to do so.”

Franklin felt that experience first-hand, having first raised concerns about the fashion photographer Terry Richardson’s predatory behaviour in 2013 (it wasn’t until 2017 that magazine publisher Condé Nast terminated his contract). “I was on TV talking about it, I wrote about it in the national news, but I couldn’t seem to get anywhere for a while.

“The fashion industry loves saying, ‘We’re edgy, we’re out there,’” she adds. “And if you bring your so-called ‘pedestrian’ values or ethics, then you’re discounted as someone who just doesn’t get it.”

Money talks, too. “While fashion wants to tout its moral virtues, those quickly go out the window when cash comes into the equation,” said Mahoro Seward, fashion features editor at i-D.

“There is so much wrapped up in the glamour and the freebies,” adds Rodgers. “It’s hard to say no, especially when the pay is so minimal for many in fashion.”