Not done with Christian Fashion Week

christian fashion week 2014
Photo of CFW runway by Edward Linsmier, via BuzzFeed
Some of you may remember the ongoing dialogue about Christian Fashion Week that I was having with one of CFW’s founders, Jose Gomez, last spring. In the hectic buzz around finals, shooting some friends’ weddings, and moving to NYC, I have to admit that we never came to any real closure despite the fact that Jose wrote a very thoughtful response to my last post.
As a believer in follow-through even if it’s (very, very) belated, I wanted to respond to Jose one more time.

Policing Modesty

Jose: I disagree that our claim to present modest fashion presents a de facto definition of modesty. I think if people only look at the surface one-liners, one could come to that conclusion. But, the wonderful thing about Christian Fashion Week is that we do much more than provide one-line comments. We engage in the dialogue. So, people come expecting that range and understand their role in defining modesty for themselves. At least, this is the feedback we have received. I think we do a good job in getting in the middle of the debates and asking a lot of questions of our followers.

Whitney: I wish that the dialogue you say is being facilitated at CFW shone through on the internet as well as the sometimes oversimplified one-liners tend to, but I understand that the mediation of technology can distort reality. While this may be something to work on in the future, I’ll give CFW the benefit of the doubt and applaud you for the dialogue that’s apparently happening on the ground.

Reducing the Christian Perspective on Fashion to Modesty

Jose: Sure, I agree with you there. The poor, the broken, the downtroddenthey are the stars of the New Testament. So, as believers, that is the deeper calling. This year, partially as a result of bloggers like you, we have realized a broader platform for 2015. We call it C.A.R.E.

– Contextual modesty
– Affordable clothing
– Responsible use of natural resources
– Ethical hiring, labor, and casting practices

If we look at several definitions of fashion, we see that it must always be about the “new.” It’s about the evolution of personal presentation, and where that is heading at any given time. This can definitely lead people down the road to materialism. So I, too, am interested in ways to combat that inclination and to keep us grounded and focused on the more important things in our walk with Christ.

Whitney: It would be hard to overstate my excitement about your “C.A.R.E” initiative. Putting a greater emphasis on ethical labor, casting and resourcing practices seems like a huge step in the right direction to me. I am excited to see how these values will manifest themselves in your presentations and events in 2015.

Creating an Insulated Subculture

Jose: Names are always about marketing. If it weren’t for the need to polarize an audience into identifying with something, people would just say, “Hey, come to my fashion thingy.” The reason why the New York Fashion Week brand is so powerful is because—well—it’s NEW YORK! Same with Paris, Milan, etc. These epicenters for fashion represent opportunity and innovation. So, the name is important to make people excited. It also polarizes them based on their preference for regional styles. Christian Fashion Week is no different. But, instead of using geography and regional style to create interest, we approach the market based on our values, which are Judeo-Christian values. So, the name is entirely appropriate.

I think the general impression or vibe you are feeling from us—as if we are saying that other fashion shows do not provide a forum for Christian values to be presented—represents a “one or the other” type of mindset. We are definitely not saying that other fashion shows don’t give them the opportunity to feature. But, we ARE saying that our show EMBRACES it. Even the treatment of models, and the lengths we go to separate the backstage to allow for a greater sense of privacy for males and females… it’s just nonexistent at other fashion weeks. They just don’t care about that like we do. And that is speaking from what has been personally said to us. “They’re models. Getting naked in front of others is what they do.” We disagree.

In terms of elite fashion or high art, I think it’s really up to the consumer. We are HUGE fans of art and culture, so we are wowed when we see it expressed through fashion. For some, like me personally, high art feels as natural as breathing. But, for others, it’s unapproachable, intimidating, and sometimes even sinful. So, we want to present a large spectrum of thought and expression so that the audience can determine for themselves what is the most comfortable, most approachable, more beautiful, and most THEM.

Christian Fashion Week does pride itself in being more friendly and approachable than many other shows. With our 2015 focus on affordable fashion, we add the challenge of making the price points accessible for those other than the members of high society.

Whitney: I appreciate what you’re saying about a “one or the other” mindset—that CFW doesn’t function as a full-fledged alternative to other fashion weeks, but as a supplement that tries to more fully embrace values that are still present to some degree in other fashion shows. This framing makes more sense to me than what I was previously perceiving to be your stance.

I have very mixed feelings about the high/low art discussion. On the one hand, I think it’s problematic to try and link Christianity with the the low, because art or fashion “for the people” is often linked with lower quality, less creative work and often excessively feel-good products (I’m thinking throwaway Forever21 t-shirts and vacuous rom-coms here). On the other hand, issues of accessibility, both conceptually and financially, make it just as problematic to link Christianity with high art.

Thus, while I shop mostly at thrift stores for both ethical and financial reasons, I’d be hesitant to act as though the “affordable” focus of CFW 2015 is directly or obviously a “Christian” thing. Again, any issue I take with this is not about affordability itself, it merely has to do with presenting this as the best or only outflowing of Christian thought on the matter. (Could there be a Christian defense of haute couture, I wonder?)

Amateur Designers

Jose: Agreed. CFW is not New York Fashion Week. We don’t have the same budget. None of the same players. What we do have is a community of consumers and media that are waiting for the next show to spread the word through social media and other grassroots mediums. Many of our designers have gone on to large shows and retail sales. It’s exciting to see what happens when our community curates and promotes what they think is excellent.
I think your idea of us renaming ourselves “Modest Fashion Week” eliminates the acknowledgement of what motivates us towards modesty as well as other values. Being Christians influences all of our views on fashion. Sometimes, fashion challenges that worldview and creates active discussion around what is right and wrong in the eyes of God. It is about being Christians who are fashion fans as much as it is about being fashion fans who are Christians. It’s an excellent place to wrestle with many issuesfrom self-esteem to sexuality. Fashion is sometimes the solution to an issue. Sometimes, it’s the very cause. We love that and embrace that dialogue.

I think you are actually hitting the nail on the head when you say, “…from the outside it looks like it is trying to be the THE voice.” Yes, we are. But, our goal is to represent and welcome a VARIETY of thought around the issue, including yours. We want to show the world that the Body of Christ is not Pat Robertson. It’s not Jerry Falwell. It’s not Benny Hinn. It’s a COLLABORATION of voices, from over 33,000 denomonations, and coming from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds. Christiandom is SO diverse. We’re just a forum by which the collective thought of the Body of Christ can be expressed. That is “the voice” you speak of, not the voice of the four founders. We actually all have slightly different views on fashion, although we do share a taste for the artistic.

Whitney: I have to admit—I’m probably always going to struggle with the idea of CFW presenting itself as “THE voice” of Christianity’s ideas about fashion. It feels presumptuous to me in a way that I can’t really get behind.

On the other hand, though, I have to say that your continued willingness to dialogue with me lends credence to your claim that you really are trying to welcome a variety of thought on the issue from Christians, even those who may critique you. If increased efforts were made to specifically incorporate Christian voices from a variety of places (so that the cultural trappings of Western Christianity weren’t quite so central) and streams of Christian tradition (i.e. very intentionally seeking input from, say, Eastern Orthodox or Coptic or culturally Muslim Christians), I’d be even more impressed. Nonetheless, I know CFW doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that embedded as you are in the context of a specific city in a specific country, there are going to be certain biases represented in your programming and stance. Again, this seems a reason to me not to claim to be THE voice of Christian thought about fashion, but I do understand why CFW can’t represent the perfect picture of Christian diversity.

Miscellaneous

Jose: You know, the fashion world is a strange [one]. Jesus is rarely talked about. But, there are SO MANY Christians in the fashion world. Most people don’t understand that. Sure—some may not be a shining beacon of righteousness, but they are doing their best to follow their convictions and do love the Lord. In our decision-making, we take the time to think about and wrestle through some of the things that contradict our understanding of what God wants. Our faith is ever present and clearly stated in our dealings with our industry friends. The crazy thing is that our secular fashion contacts embrace what we do more than our Christian ones. It’s sad, but true.

I think the issue with Christian rap is that people were scared back then to mimic “the world” too much. I was actually involved in the early scene and can tell you that Nashville destroyed Christian rap before it began. It never had a chance. It wasn’t until the independent labels and artists started creating their own grassroots efforts that the music became competitive. But, it already had a bad rep by then. Christian Fashion Week isn’t a Nashville or Hollywood creation. It’s created by independent designers, artists, photographers, makeup artists and media.

Let’s keep the dialogue going. I’d be interested to get some perspective on what things we can do better, especially in presenting a variety of perspectives around fashion, helping us to continually define and refine who we are as believers.

Whitney: Overall, regardless of whether I think CFW is the best way to go about addressing problems in the fashion industry from a Christian perspective, I must say this: I’m glad there are other Christians thinking about the industry. And more than that, I’m glad there are other Christians being proactive about actually doing something to try and affect the industry. I’d much rather see a bunch of us trying to do something very imperfectly than none of us doing anything.

So as much as I may disagree with CFW’s stance on this or that, the important thing to me is to see Christians engaging the issues surrounding fashion as an industry, a part of visual culture, and a part of human life. I said in my first post about Christian Fashion Week that “I don’t think this is the best the Church can do. Let’s do better.” And maybe, if we’re willing to stay humble, fail boldly, and keep dialoguing with one another as we try to move forward—maybe we will.

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