Do Pride Capsule Collections Really Give Back to the Queer Community?

When Primark slap "Love is Love" on a T-shirt, is it positive representation or pinkwashing?

When people think “Pride”, they think Born This Way, glitter, and dancing on the street. So it goes without saying that Pride parades, at least in the West, have radically distanced themselves from their political, anti-establishment beginnings. What started as riots in protest of police violence have since become displays of Pink Capitalism and homonormativity; complete with corporate floats and cishet pseudo-allies declaring ‘love is love’. Of course, Pride is about celebration — the clue is in the name, but it’s also about engaging with LGBT+ issues, every day of the year. 

When Pride celebrations and Pride-related activities refuse to actively combat issues impacting upon LGBT+ rights — whether it be Trump’s ban on trans soldiers or the fact that conversion therapy is still legal in most of Europe — they not only betray the true spirit of Pride, but are ripe for exploitation for corporate gain. So how should we react when large retailers bring out Pride-themed collections? What do they actually do for those they claim to represent?

For those of you who’ve missed them, these fast fashion Pride collections generally consist of unisex slogan T-shirts and tote-bags, presumably designed to replace or supplement the official merchandise released by Pride organisers as a means of fund-raising. Evidently, there’s a bit of an issue with this. As problematic as Pride can sometimes be, its importance to the community, especially those who have only recently ‘come out’ or who are still closeted, really cannot be understated. Therefore, Pride-themed goods which don’t actually generate funds for Pride organisers are misguided from their very conception — particularly when regional celebrations, like those in the UK’s Burnley and Bradford, have been cancelled in recent years due to lack of funds.

However, the fact that H&M, J. Crew and Tommy Hilfiger have released Pride clothing lines is testament to the growing acceptance and visibility of LGBT+ individuals in society. It certainly feels like progress: particularly when brands make an effort to secure LGBT+ celebrities as models. The H&M Pride collection, for example, was released in collaboration with Attitude Magazine, alongside a star-studded advertising campaign, featuring former Ru Paul contestant Aja, and Gabrielle Richardson, the original Art Hoe. Moreover, when a percentage of proceeds from these collections go to LGBT+ charities, it almost feels ungrateful to take issue…with “almost” being the operative word.

As open discrimination against the queer community decreases, particularly in the professional sphere, their purchasing power is on the rise. In fact, in 2015 it was estimated that LGBT+ disposable income was worth 917 billion dollars in the US alone. That’s not only a lot of rainbow T-shirts, but a pretty clear indication as to why corporations are so interested in rolling out their own pride merch. It’s obvious that big retailers’ intentions are a lot less altruistic and a whole lot more cash-hungry than they might want to make out; something made even clearer when they disregard basic LGBT+ rights in other areas of their business.

Pride collections from retailers like Primark — whose recent offering was manufactured in Turkey — have been made in countries whose track-record of LGBT+ rights abuses is hard to ignore. Even at the most superficial level, the banality of the slogans emblazoned on these T-shirts (“Love First” at J.Crew, “Lover Not A Fighter” at H&M, “Love Is Love” at Primark) contributes to the erasure of real-life struggles to procure fundamental rights and recognition for LGBT+ individuals, particularly trans, intersex and non-binary individuals, the world-over.

So, is there a way of doing it right? We can’t be under any illusions as to corporations’ intentions but, if anything, this empowers us to stop being universally grateful for the inclusion and to start demanding more from Pride collections. No Pride collection could ever be perfect, but if brands were to release ethically produced Pride collections, designed by LGBT+, particularly trans and non-binary, creatives, then they would be on a road to rapid improvement. The best offerings this year are those created by LGBT+ designers, which are, unsurprisingly, more political in tone. These include Charles Jeffrey’s LOVERBOY x Topman collaboration — a line of five T-shirts featuring artwork by LGBT+ artists commemorating the fundamental LGBT+ rights which have been won in the UK. Elsewhere, Alexander Wang’s tongue-in-cheek “Protect Your Wang” collection with Trojan is encouraging (on-brand) safe-sex.

When all’s said and done, corporate stunts like these shouldn’t distract from the essential importance of Pride and celebrating how far queer rights have come in recent years — particularly when Pride events further afield, such as the recently cancelled Beirut Pride celebrations, still come under so much negative state scrutiny.  Nor should the failings of these collections detract from the liberatory steps which fashion’s creative directors are taking to make the industry more inclusive to the queer community, particularly non-binary and trans individuals — whether it be through the rise of unisex clothing lines, or the crop of young designers, Charles Jeffrey among them, who are envisaging a fluid, gender-free future.

Whilst big corporations can offer a lot in terms of visibility, what they are selling is a depoliticised, overwhelmingly vanilla vision of the queer community. Removed from queer history and disengaged from the real-life political struggles of LGBT+ individuals, these capsule collections are nothing but smoke and mirrors. Not only do they divert funds from actual Pride celebrations, but they ask consumers to buy into the false message that LGBT+ individuals have already gained equality. While the queer community in the West enjoys more freedom than ever before, the battle is far from over. Pride’s political roots need to be re-asserted before these celebrations devolve into yet another corporate holiday.

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