Writer and Editor Leah Cowan gives us a lesson in mindful fashion

Gal-dem's former Politics Editor discusses the importance of looking beyond fashion trends.

Leah Cowan is unrelenting in her mission for equality.

The Writer and Editor, whose book Border Nation: A Story of Migration will be released in March 2021, has worked tirelessly to support marginalised communities in her career, whether through her work for destitute migrant families at the advice centre where she currently works, the incredibly eloquent and informative articles she’s written for titles such as VICE, Refinery29 and The Guardian, her previous role as Politics Editor at gal-dem or her TEDx talk on emotional labour and structural inequality that can be seen here.

Leah’s insight into the fashion industry is illuminating to say the least, as while it’s easy for many of us to ignore the inequalities involved in the creation of our clothes, deep down we too are aware that underpaying garment workers for their labour and controlling marginalised people through their clothing is unacceptable.

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Writer and Editor Leah Cowan
Credit: Leah Cowan

We, the consumers, must demand change, and Leah provides a fantastic example of how to shop mindfully: sustainably where possible and aware of a garments origin, but also on a budget.

Here, we talk to Leah about her personal relationship with fashion.

How would you describe your style?

Getting dressed is a strange thing; it’s the most normal and daily act, but also can be a great vehicle for self-expression and liberation of sorts.

Throughout history, marginalised people have been told what to wear, or what not to wear and this is always a form of oppression and control. From state-legislated islamophobia which prevents muslim women from wearing the hijab, to black children being told their hairstyles violate school uniform policies, the policing of how we choose to dress and present ourselves is about who gets to set the ‘style’ rules and who is expected to adhere to them. This is linked to long histories of colonialism and inequality.

So for me, style is simply about wearing what I want, when I want to, while maintaining an awareness that many people are unable to make these choices as freely and safely, and so there is lots of work to do. Because, to paraphrase Audre Lorde: I am unfree until everyone is free. 

All that is necessary context for my actual answer: I like wearing bright, warm fire colours, and fabrics that feel nice against my skin.

I firmly believe there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes; I always want to feel comfortable, and in the UK this often means making sure I’m warm!

I tend to wear block colours as it’s easy to mix-and-match items and create more outfits from a small selection of items. I’m trying to have fewer, better quality clothes (a slow transition if you aren’t a millionaire).

Author and Writer Leah Cowan
Credit: Leah Cowan
What does fashion mean to you?

For me, fashion means first and foremost having an understanding of who is making the clothes and the fabrics, and in what conditions. I’m not really interested in fashion which tries to circumnavigate these questions.

For many centuries, ‘fashion’ has in reality meant the exploitation of garment workers to produce a high volume of clothes, in a very wasteful manner, for people in the global north.

Because of this, I think of fashion in the strict sense as something interesting that I observe from the outside; it’s a curious social barometer, just like other art forms such as film or music.

I don’t personally have enough money to actually ‘keep up’ with fashion, and I don’t like that the fashion industry makes us feel like we’re not beautiful but can buy our way to happiness, and that we need to keep buying lots of clothes, whether it’s ‘fast fashion’ or high end expensive goods. This has a terrible impact on humans and the environment.

I do enjoy looking back at fashion in a historical sense, which is part of why I like seeing the costumes in period shows like Shonda Rhimes’ Bridgerton, the Marvellous Mrs Maisel, and Call the Midwife.

It’s an obvious point, but fashion tells stories about socioeconomics and politics. Fashion reflects back something about society. Like, maybe this is tenuous, but when the 2008 financial crash hit, I (and everyone around me) was obsessed with wearing those three quarter length black leggings under everything. Not only were they cheap, but I feel like they expressed a real need to be comfortable and almost in constant lounge wear while staring down the barrel of an imploding job market. That’s what I find interesting about fashion.

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Writer and Editor Leah Cowan
Credit: Leah Cowan
Who are your fashion icons?

My grandma, she wore great jumpers. I also really love the fashion and style of people like Janelle Monae, Patricia Allison, Zorawar Waraich, Jari Jones and Travis Alabanza, who use colour, shape and fabrics in ways that are exciting and inspiring, and always look devastatingly stunning.

Where are your favourite places to shop? 

I love shopping in charity shops, but you need to have the time to rummage through and find good stuff.

I really like Traid in Dalston and Ayoka in Bethnal Green, and my favourite vintage shop in London is called Pelicans & Parrots.

LF Markey Chore Coat on top of the Nicholas Shirt on top of the Joshua Polo
Credit: Instagram/LF Markey

I like browsing the sale at LF Markey who prioritise fair working conditions, living wages and sustainable fashion, although I can’t afford their full-price stuff. I buy the odd item from fast fashion shops (which I won’t namecheck) because I don’t have the funds to buy as sustainably as I’d like all the time.

Dr Martens is great for shoes and sandals as they last forever, but again they aren’t cheap (although you don’t have to replace them as often). 

I also like swapping clothes with friends and my sisters. We did a swap shop/clothes exchange at my old office which was great, I really recommend it.

I also think we just need to normalise borrowing clothes from each other. I was on a panel at the Labour Party conference a few years ago and my friend kindly let me borrow a suit jacket of hers so I didn’t have to shell out for something I couldn’t afford, and wouldn’t get much wear out of.

How can we enjoy fashion while also being mindful of structural inequalities? Is it possible to balance the two? 

I think it comes back to thinking about worker’s rights: who is making the clothes, are they being paid fairly, do they have basic protections like sick pay, holiday pay and pensions? Are they making the clothes under duress, for example in contexts of modern slavery, or in a prison? Are children involved in making the clothes, and what are the long-term health impacts of working in those industries?

The other piece of the puzzle is thinking about what the fashion industry is telling us about who is deemed ‘fashionable’. If brands are employing trans, black and disabled models for example, are they actually committed to meaningful structural change and justice for these communities, or are they using our images tokenistically to sell more clothes back to us?

As frustrating as it may feel, I don’t think the average individual consumer has the power to shift the needle on this. I think it’s about building campaigns and movements to challenge the exploitative and discriminatory practices of big companies that set the agenda of the fashion industry. 

Fashion and style isn’t inherently evil – based on zero concrete knowledge, I’d guess that as humans we are naturally curious and expressive.

Since the dawn of time, we have made choices about what we wear based on what materials are available to us, and what other people around us are also wearing. We might wear clothes in order to blend in with a group, or to stand out from it. Where this has gone awry is the capitalistic urge to build an industry around fashion which has inequality baked into it.

We can enjoy self-expression through clothes while also challenging an industry that exploits workers, while telling consumers to buy more clothes than they actually need. 

Leah Cowan's TEDx Talk
Credit: Leah Cowan
After the death of George Floyd, many brands posted black squares on Instagram to show their support for Black lives. Of course, this optical allyship is not enough. What would you like to see brands do to tackle racial inequality? 

Brands are very keen to ‘collaborate’ with black models, creatives, activists, and organisers in this present moment.

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, I was invited by a brand to sit on a panel to talk about this very topic. I asked them three questions (and ended up not doing the panel): 

  1. Transparency
    What funds will be made from this collaboration and are any/all profits or fees going towards black people and communities?
  2. Safety
    What steps are you taking to ensure the safety of black people that you are working with/collaborating with? Do you have support in place for black people who will receive increased levels of harassment and violence online and offline if this collaboration increases their visibility?
  3. Legacy
    Is this collaboration a stand-alone piece, or can you demonstrate ways in which the time and expertise being shared by black models/organisers/thinkers/commentators/creators is feeding into an ongoing commitment to racial justice in your organisation/brand, and will have a meaningful legacy beyond this single collaboration?

Brands need to realise that black people are not an accessory they can utilise to make more money, while actually further entrenching the inequality their work (often) perpetuates.

A commitment to justice is more than just lip service. It means stepping aside, and giving up money and power, and if you’re in the business of making money off other people’s labour you’re probably not particularly committed to doing that. 

Writer and Editor Leah Cowan
Credit: Leah Cowan
Are there any brands that are notable in their approach to this that you can recommend? 

Supporting small makers and creators who are transparent about where they source their materials, and who is making the garments is a good approach, albeit again an expensive one.

Jami is a discount card you can get for shopping at a curated range of black-owned businesses, which I think is a great idea.

Sustainability is a bit of a wishy-washy term (I know I’ve used it in this interview!), and sometimes I wonder whether the brands claiming to be sustainable would actually stand up to proper scrutiny.

If a brand’s clothing is sustainable, but then is hugely expensive or not accessible to disabled people, for example, then sustainability becomes a consumer choice and lifestyle signifier that is limited to a small group of privileged people. 

There are brands that are putting out very nice-looking marketing campaigns with ‘diverse’ models, and I do think this is significant.

I think it’s important for marginalised groups to see ourselves reflected back in media, otherwise we experience symbolic annihilation, or underrepresentation, which works to maintain inequality. But this alone isn’t enough – as I said in my answer to your previous question, brands need to put their money where their mouth is. I’d imagine there are very few actually willing to do that. 

I’m aware that’s not a very motivational note to end on! But I can share what inspires me: campaigners like Oh So Ethical who are raising awareness about inequality in the garment industry. Garment workers are continuing to organise and unionise across the world to reshape an industry that has for so long wielded a lot of power over the people who are actually making the clothes we wear, and this gives me a lot of hope. 

Leah is a writer on race, gender, migration and state violence, and the former Politics editor of gal-dem. Her forthcoming book Border Nation: A Story of Migration will be published by Pluto Press in March 2021. She currently works at an advice centre which supports destitute migrant families with No Recourse to Public Funds.

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