Okay, what’s the deal with crisis-inspired merch?


Fashion loves a trend, but is capitalising on global crises something we should jump on board with?

In 2020 there’s no denying that modern consumers are craving brand transparency and expressing a desire to engage with companies at a more conscious level. We’re living in a hyper-political world and increasingly, there’s far less tolerance for apolitical fashion brands. 

Around the world, fashion labels are being called out for their lack of racial diversity and representation in light of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests it has set off globally. Many labels are making donations to the Black Lives Matter movement, several high profile celebrities have been seen wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe”, and the musician Andre 3000 has created a range of Black Lives Matter merchandise where 100 per cent of the proceeds will be going towards the movement. 

Making merchandise to draw attention to a social movement is nothing new, and many movements have garnered their own merch over the years. During the beginning of the #metoo movement in 2016, Dior’s infamous “We Should All Be Feminists T-shirts (the phrase was taken from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book of the same name) blew up on social media, and back in January when the bushfires were ravaging Australia, everyone from Balenciaga to Cotton On created a piece of clothing to help raise funds for those affected. 

In response to the bushfire merchandise and the rise of “socially aware” clothing, Dal Chodha, the editor-in-chief of Archivist Addendum, a non-seasonal fashion journal, stated on Twitter that moral merch is “…the biggest trend of our times”. Only a few months later, as COVID-19 tears across the globe, fashion brands have scrambled to create virus merchandise and begin selling it before we’re even on the other side of the pandemic. 

From high fashion face masks to COVID-19 themed jewellery, the impact of the current crises on the world’s psyche is obvious. But why is there a desire for these items in the midst of widespread political upheaval and a global health crisis, and what are the ethics of producing merchandise during times like these?

Constant consumerism and fast fashion 

My interest in COVID-19 merchandise was first piqued while tapping through slow fashion campaigner Venetia La Manna’s Instagram story. She tagged fast-fashion retailer Boohoo on the post asking, “Hey Boohoo, are you psychics who predicted the pandemic, lockdown and social distancing? Or did you, in fact, make your employees work in unsafe conditions for the sake of these tone-deaf slogan shirts?” 

The shirts in question are a range of slogan tees emblazoned with phrases such as “Quarantine Queen,  “Staycation 2020 and “Namastay-Inside, amongst othersVenetia makes a great point – for people to purchase these cheap t-shirts to lounge around lockdown in, someone (most likely a poor woman of colour) had to be working in a factory during a pandemic to produce it. 

This need for more, even during a health crisis, is just one example of the many issues that fast fashion is causing. The majority of people, 80 per cent of whom are women, working in these factories live in cyclical poverty with little pay and unsafe working conditions, a reality seen most tragically in the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse. 

And according to Fashion Revolution, a global organisation dedicated to valuing and protecting those working in the fashion industry and conserving the environment, it takes 2720 litres of water to make just one T-shirt. To put that in perspective, that’s how much we’d usually drink over a two and a half year period.

So while a COVID-19 slogan tee or cheap Black Lives Matter shirt purchased from Amazon might be an item you wouldn’t think twice about and may even throw out a few months later when things calm down, the cost of the $15 item is a lot higher when it comes to modern slavery, human rights, and the negative impacts on the environment.

Raising much-needed funds

During a global health crisis and amidst massive social upheaval and protests, some labels have used fashion as a vehicle to raise funds for victims of COVID-19 and for charities supporting Black and Indigenous people, both in Australia and abroad.

Alongside the slogan tees, Boohoo also created a range of charity T-shirts for the British healthcare system, the National Health Service, as the severity of the COVID-19 crisis became apparent. The shirts feature a rainbow with the words “The Greater the Storm, the Brighter the Rainbow” printed on them, and all proceeds are going to the NHS Trust to support healthcare workers. 

Elsewhere, an anonymous group of fashion industry professionals called Virus Collective has created an online store full of COVID-19 merchandise with phrases like “Quarantine and Chill” and “Wash your Hands” printed onto hoodies, tank tops and T-shirts, and 25 per cent of the proceeds are donated to the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 response.   

There have been some questions raised regarding selling charity products during COVID-19, particularly by slow fashion advocates like Venetia La Manna who said in a column for the British newspaper The Independent, “We may be raising valuable money for healthcare workers, but we’re simultaneously putting the lives of the people who make our clothes at risk. This puts extra pressure on healthcare workers in other parts of the world, so we’re thereby contributing to a never-improving system.”

Venetia instead suggests DIY-ing a T-shirt you already own to support a cause while donating the cash you would’ve spent to a charity directly.

Meanwhile, in the world of streetwear brands have been using the power of the drop model to raise much-needed funds for everything from the pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement. The drop model is when brands release a limited amount of coveted products during a short time frame, something that creates a lot of hype and results in collections selling out almost as soon as they’re released to the public.

The wildly popular streetwear label Supreme was able to raise over $1 million for COVID-19 relief with just one collaborative T-shirt release, while Reebok has teamed up with underground skate zine Sneeze to create a limited edition version of its best-selling Club C style, with 100 per cent of the profits going to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Boosting morale 

Back home in Australia, Melbourne-based swim and casualwear label Skwosh has released a range of pastel-coloured slogan tees and jumpers featuring the phrases “Isolation Vacation” and “Quarantine Dreams”. 

While not donating its proceeds to charity, the aim of the collection is to boost morale during a global crisis. It states on its website that, “Just because it’s the cheapest holiday you’ll ever have doesn’t mean it can’t also be one of the most fashionable ones.” Made locally at its Melbourne factory out of 100 per cent cotton, these pieces are far more ethically produced compared to the Boohoo tees which are made from 95 per cent polyester by workers forced to endure terrible conditions

From inception to execution, the product took roughly five weeks to make it into customers’ hands and the production of it helped support Skwosh’s fellow small, local businesses. So why exactly did Skwosh decide to create irreverent, pandemic-themed stock at a time like this? 

Speaking to Skwosh’s designer Jack Turner, he says that during this challenging time, the team were thinking of different ways they could engage with their audience that were appropriate yet true to the brand. It was listening to Skwosh’s customers on Instagram that really propelled them to create the quarantine merch.  

“We wanted to do something that would require input from our audience but also make them smile at the same time. That’s when we came up with a series of fun, isolation inspired tee designs that our customers could vote on,” says Jack.

Initially, the team wasn’t sure if the idea would even be produced, but upon receiving huge amounts of support from customers, they launched a small collection which, in time, may even become a collector’s item.  “I recently overheard someone talking in the street about how these tees were going to be the new Pokémon cards in years to come. While that’s a very flattering comparison, I know culturally we’ve got a long way to go before we reach Pikachu status!” says Jack.

Check your privilege

Although Australia has done well in the fight against COVID-19 compared to many other countries, it doesn’t negate the fact that many countries around the world are still experiencing a collective trauma. Many factors contribute to an individual’s experience of the virus including racial disparity, socio-economic status, and preexisting health conditions. 

While for some quarantine was a time to play board games, bake banana bread, work and stay safe at home, for others it meant losing income, being trapped in a house with their abuser, or even losing a family member or friend to the virus – the farthest thing from a “staycation”. 

As a result, buying and wearing these T-shirts is, in a way, showcasing your immense privilege. In an interview with i-D magazine, trend consultant Sam Trottman said, “I’d be conscious about wearing a T-shirt like this when obviously there are people out there dying. This is such a big crisis and yet some brands are capitalising on it,” 

Skwosh, however, doesn’t see it that way. Jack says they haven’t received any backlash at all for producing quarantine merchandise during a pandemic. “I think people understand that we are just trying to get a bit of fun back at a time that’s been really trying for all.”

While some may argue that quarantine merch is distasteful whilst we’re still in the midst of the crisis, Jack hopes that one day they’ll serve as a physical archive and memory of what we went through in 2020. “If our tees are kept as a memento and somewhere down the track people dig them up and smile because it’s a reminder of a little fun they were able to have at such a pivotal time in our history, then that’s okay by me. A smile is all we’re after.”

Like any fashion trend, the choice to buy into crisis merch is up to the individual. Whether you’ve bought a COVID-19 slogan shirt to make light of the tough situation we’ve found ourselves in like Skwosh customers, you’ve purchased streetwear in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, or you’d rather not have a physical reminder of the chaos of 2020 in your wardrobe forever, it’s up to you.

However, maybe during these volatile, political times, we can pause to think about our purchases. We should consider who made the clothes we’re buying and in what conditions and empathise with those who might be in a tougher situation than us – try to imagine how they may feel seeing a crisis-related slogan T-shirt walking down the street. 

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