‘We managed to draw quite a crowd’: a brief history of protest at fashion weeks

Last Friday, on the first day of London fashion week, a woman dressed as a goat screamed as passersby on a busy London shopping street looked on, aghast. “I had pieces of fake hair attached to me, which were torn off to imitate the suffering in the production of cashmere,” says Lucy Ferguson, who played the part of the goat. The 25-year-old activist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) said: “Underneath were [simulated] bloody wounds that replicated how the strips of sensitive skin are torn away from goats.” The action was intended to raise awareness about the cruelty often involved in the process of “combing” for cashmere. Signs read: “Cashmere Is Torture for Goats” and “The Future of Fashion Is Vegan”.

People paused to look, and take pictures and videos. “We managed to draw quite a crowd,” says Ferguson. “It’s a busy street, so lots of traffic was stopping.” She wasn’t particularly nervous before the performance: “I used to do a lot of dancing and gymnastics when I was younger, so I am quite comfortable in front of a crowd.” She was more nervous, she said, in that: “We get one shot to make it as impactful and effective as possible and to really stage an eye-catching demonstration.” Ferguson, who has been working with Peta for eight months, is used to this kind of role – the week before, she had played the part of an orca whale to demonstrate against their captivity.

A Peta protester holding a sign reading ‘Coach: Leather Kills’, and another in only underwear and body paint depicting muscles and flesh, on the runway during the Coach spring 2024 show at New York fashion week this month.
Peta protesters on the runway during the Coach spring 2024 show at New York fashion week this month. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

These Peta demonstrations are some of a few to have taken place so far this fashion month. On the New York catwalk at Coach, a protester brandished a sign reading “Coach: Leather Kills” while another protester wore only underwear and body paint depicting muscles and flesh. On Monday, at the Burberry show, one of the buzziest of London fashion week, a Peta supporter posing as a model took to the catwalk and marched around the catwalk tent, holding a sign that read: “Burberry: Animals Are Not Clothing”, in protest at the company’s continued used of cashmere and down that come from sources that Peta alleges inflict cruelty on animals.

The history of protest in fashion is a long one, from insiders such as Katharine Hamnett, who in 1984 wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a slogan against nuclear missiles when she met Margaret Thatcher, to the model Ayesha Tan-Jones, who, in 2019 while walking for Gucci in a show that featured several straitjackets, held up their palms displaying the words “mental health is not fashion”.

That same year, the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion staged a funeral at the London fashion week finale. Flowers were thrown theatrically on to a coffin and the group called for an end to the event in its current form. The group continues to target the event, and last season called for an end to the fossil fuel sponsorship of cultural events by pouring fake oil outside an official venue.

Protests of this nature are now par for the course at big cultural events. At the US Open semi-finals earlier this month, play was interrupted when climate protesters wearing “End Fossil Fuel” T-shirts took a stand – one of them glueing their feet to the floor. “Hey, if that’s what they felt they needed to do to get their voices heard, I can’t really get upset at it,” said Coco Gauff, one of the tennis players forced to halt play. Climate activists blocked the route into this year’s Burning Man festival with a 28-foot trailer, and last year Just Stop Oil protesters threw tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

Fashion shows, though, are rich terrain for this kind of protest, not least because the industry offers so much to protest about, from environmental damage to human harm to animal cruelty. But equally, fashion shows are often about spectacle. So, in a sense, it fits if the protests planned for them feature some dramatics. You couldn’t have a mud fight or spaceship inside and a person simply holding a banner outside, and expect it to make an impact. The screaming goats and fake funerals are somehow of a piece.

As Ferguson points out, with its “concentration of influential people”, fashion week is “the perfect opportunity to turn heads”. It is, she says, a “golden opportunity to visibly demonstrate the suffering that goes on behind the scenes to make the kind of clothes that are being worn on the runway”.