Marian Wright Edelman once said that "Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time."
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I began channeling the energy of this school of thought as I reflected on what has been a jammed packed start to 2013. Every week has carried a one-two punch of history making events and exceptional anniversaries. Yet, the one theme that kept coming back to mind in all instances is "What does this say about service?" As a person who believes that service comes in all shapes and sizes, I found that the dynamics of January set course to teach what many of us already know. With no set or predetermined way to carry it out, we are placed on this Earth to use our gifts and abilities to serve those not in a position to speak or act on their own behalf.
When introducing HUMAN INTONATION, I chose "The NEW Purpose of Fashion" as our platform for such said service, and with it began to study just how powerful an engine the American fashion industry is and what it could be doing in service. Yet, what we typically see from the fashion industry often touches just the tip of the iceberg. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy we saw fashion pull together $1.7 million to donate to relief efforts, relative to the $20 billion generated in revenue by the industry each year. While we could focus on the less than 1 percent of giving that represents, this is about more than the money.
Here are a few points for the fashion set to consider as take-a-ways from the last days of January:
Take A Lesson from Obama:
As I watched my television (unlike four years ago when I stood on the parade route) with bated breath for the commencement of the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, it became all the more evident to me that having a voice, let alone the ear of a nation, requires acting in gratitude for the opportunity to serve others. Obama gets that. It goes beyond the symbolism of the second inauguration taking place on Martin Luther King Day and the president's hand resting on Dr. King's bible. Obama took it a step further by giving voice to a generation when he compared the gay rights movement to civil and women's rights in a way that no other president ever has. While inherently Obama stands on the shoulders of Dr. King, he is using his voice not only to stand, but to pay it forward.
All Things Can Be Done -- A Call to Port-au-Prince:
Now in its third anniversary, we recently commemorated the resiliency of the citizens of Port-au-Prince who inspired us to band together in ways that natural disasters tend to do immediately after the storm. However, to support a cause long-term, it is often challenged that a business cannot be sustained if it puts "give back" at the forefront of its business model. With focus on the bottom line and maximizing profits some big box companies do just enough in a nominal campaign to claim that they are socially responsible. More can be done. Take Donna Karan. In focusing on how she could be of service, the concept of Karan's Urban Zen is a rare gem in the industry. With a mission that steps beyond donating a percentage of proceeds or creating one time specialty items, Urban Zen is creating jobs and capacity for those rebuilding their lives in Haiti. In this respect, Karan has taken on what is no small feat, a long-distance swim where most industry contemporaries are tepid to even put their toe in the water. It can be done. Urban Zen has crossed into little charted territory for fashion, being in the trenches sharing the wealth.
Teachings from Women's Lib:
As independent women everywhere united around the 40th Anniversary of the decision on Roe v. Wade, we find teachings in empowerment and sheer determination. Against the odds, proponents of a woman's right to choose lend significance to using one's voice to empower the voiceless, and a freedom that may often time be taken for granted today. While not all will agree that a woman's right to choose is no different than a woman's right to say no or the right to insist on using protection, what is universal is that when one feels empowered in all areas of her life a woman is likely to make better choices whether preventing pregnancy, STIs, or HIV/AIDS. When people feel empowered to choose freely, it is a freedom to protect in order for one to then be able to empower others.
So what is the incentive behind three such widely varying cases? As we begin the approach to New York Fashion Week this February, my call to action is for the industry to continue to evolve in its understanding of how much more powerful it can be in incorporating the act of giving back into every stitch and pattern, every tee, accessory, and graphic design, every sustainable resource, and message. While there is something valuable in successful American fashion houses, retailers, and supply chain mongers giving back through large monetary donations, I challenge that as an end goal. The industry is ripe with more opportunities than ever to pay it forward, share the wealth, and empower others in the name of service.
While Obama sets an example, Karan exudes it, and one lone provider remains in Mississippi because of it, the next generation, like Human Intonation, represents a new class determined to do our part in fully combining fashion with service. Although it may be some time before we too are able to bend the ear of a nation, that is the beauty of this whole service thing. As Dr. King once said, "Everyone has the power for greatness -- not for fame, but greatness, because greatness is determined by service." Whether big fashion house or little fashion house, in everything we do, there is indeed room for service.
I am confident that one day the rest of the industry will catch up.