Fashion doesn’t normalise fascism – but newspaper coverage does

The Sunday Times profiled Generation Identity with the headline “Heil Hipsters!”

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The Sunday Times style magazine contains a “Style Barometer” section that ranks what’s going up and going down this week in the fashion stakes. It is so exaggeratedly arbitrary and over the top in content and tone that I am convinced it’s also slightly tongue in cheek. For example, last week,  under the title of “Heating Up” was “The odd couple: Elon Musk and Grimes are our new favourite celebrity love affair. But what to call them? Gelon? Mimes?” Other things heating up were “rope bags” and “Marty McFly ironic gilets” as seen on London hipsters.

Under the heading of Cooling Down, you could find, among other things, “Being Alexa’d When someone talks to you loudly and quite abruptly, thanks to the normalisation of voice assistants in our lives. RUDE.”

But it looks like there was an editing snafu last week, because an item that should been in the hot or not list somehow ended up in the news section. “Heil Hipsters!” was the headline introducing a profile of the fashionable members of a far right group Generation Identity. Going deep into the fashion wilderness so you didn’t have to, the profile discovered a trend of racists that were “Middle-class and well-spoken, dressed in skinny jeans and New Balance trainers rather than bomber jackets and boots.” Members of Generation Identity are accused of “using slick branding and coded language to ‘normalise’ extremist views’”. The group calls for “remigration” of black and minority ethnic people and has attempted to “protect” Europe from refugees by hiring boats to block their landing on European soil and patrolling the French border in the Alps.

Sometimes, when reading the Style Barometer, I spot something going up and think, “well, that obviously looks ridiculous but maybe now that it’s in the paper it’s sort of a thing?” That’s how fashion advertising works: it sneaks into plain sight something ridiculous and impracticable, like porous bamboo bags or fur-lined slippers, and normalises them. Think of the millions of pounds that have been spent on items no sane person would have purchased, had they not seen them presented in a flattering light by a fashion editor who wouldn’t be seen dead in any of them.

This is also how racism advertising works. Maybe the normalisation isn’t in the fact that Generation Identity are wearing trainers and skinny jeans, or in what branding they use. Maybe the normalisation is in profiling them in The Sunday Times like they are a new fashion capsule collection? Or a shoe designer collaboration with a street artist – New Balance X Generation Identity.

But where you see hugely tasteless offence, some journalists see an opportunity. Because even though GI believes in ethnic cleansing, they engage in the kind of doublespeak that cynical new angle-obsessed members of the media fall for – which is to deny that they are in any way racists and are shocked to be compared to Nazis or fascists. They’re just pointing out legitimate concerns about immigration and calling for the reconquest of Europe to turn it back into a white majority continent – something they call “the great replacement”. How is that racist? It’s actually “centre left” one of the group’s members declares.

Sadly, this isn’t new. Trump’s presidency launched a thousand fashion profiles of alt-right figures. Richard Spencer was “dapper” white nationalist “riding the Trump wave” according to Mother Jones. Alex Jones (Alex Jones!) was profiled in the fashion pages of The Washington Post. The angle of reporting is always rooted in the fascination that one can hold extremist views and also be able to pick out a nice suit. I don’t understand the novelty. What do racists usually wear? Andrew Gilligan, the author of “Heil Hipsters!” thinks they wore bomber jackets and boots but I must have been going through a bad style rut because I totally missed this trend.

What these profiles on Richard Spencer’s three-piece suits and GI’s “hipster” fashion (it’s so tragic that The Sunday Times still thinks anyone who wears trainers that are not for the strict purposes of working out is a hipster, but that’s for another time) are missing is that the styled element is actually not an attempt to normalise and to blend in, it’s a stab at establishing a superior aesthetic that sets the group apart. It is an expression of a narcissistic and uniform group identity that all politically radicalised youths gravitate towards all over the world and throughout history. It’s nothing new.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Bruno, an Austrian fashionista, once interviewed a stylist after a show, the aesthetic of which she described as “trailer trash”. In the clip, Bruno then asks her if she expects these white trash people to buy the clothes and she says: “I don’t think they can afford them.” They both then dissolve in peals of laughter and he says: “We take the clothes from the homeless people and put them in the shops and then the homeless people cannot buy them.” After the laughter dies down he sighs then wisely concludes “that is the beauty of fashion.”

In these Heil Hipster type profiles, the situation is reversed. The stylists are punking the media. They are using the pretty poor bait of style to then snare an opportunity to be profiled in the most prestigious newspapers in the world and journalists like Gilligan who have won awards and broken news stories that made history, in his case where he exposed the Iraq War sexed up dossier, are falling for it. Think about it. Bruno is a better journalist than them.

It’s also a class spell. No one wants to talk to a white van driver about immigration, but GI’s new British co-leader, Tom Dupré? The son of an insurance broker from Sevenoaks, Kent, educated at the Judd School and Bristol University, employee for Standard Chartered? Why, his racism is far more fascinating and maybe far more powerful because he is part of polite society. It’s not. No one cares but white, middle class journalists because everyone else knows racism comes in all sorts of wonderful varieties, and one only has to look at history to see how exclusionary political movements, mainly those centred around young men, always came up with a style calling card. In my old neighbourhood in the East End of London, radicalised Muslim youths wore short trousers and box fresh trainers, paired with as long a beard as they could grow and a skullcap positioned just so. They would yell at me for owning a dog when I walked her in the park because dogs were unclean and forbidden in Islam. I didn’t see that hot look profiled anywhere.

But maybe we’re too sensitive, and this is just freedom of speech and people expressing their anxiety in the face of a rapidly changing Britain. Maybe it’s our fault for thinking there are consequences to the glamourising of ethnic cleansing. Maybe we are just hopelessly off trend. This season’s “going up” on the style barometer: white nationalism and minority population repatriation. Going Down: identity politics, yawn!

Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist.