How Peta infiltrated major fashion shows
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How Peta infiltrated major fashion shows

A Peta protestor holds a sign reading
A Peta protestor holds a sign reading "Coach: Leather Kills" as she demonstrates on the runway during the Coach Spring 2024 show during New York Fashion Week in New York City on Sept 7, 2023. (Photo: AFP)

PARIS — A young woman crouched in the tall grass, waiting for her moment to strike.

It was not until seven models stalked past her hiding spot that she emerged, taking one big step over the grass and onto the runway. Wearing a black dress, winged eyeliner and a septum ring, she broke up a sequence of models dressed in all-maroon, leather-accented outfits.

The protester raised a sign above her head. It read, in English and in French: "Hermès: Drop Exotic Skins".

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) had just crashed another runway show — its fourth in four weeks. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the animal welfare group, had chosen one show in each major fashion city to interrupt throughout September: Coach in New York, Burberry in London and Gucci in Milan.

In Paris, Peta chose Hermès, a brand it said it had been protesting for at least a decade over its use of exotic skins, including by demonstrating outside its stores and by purchasing shares in the company. (Hermès did not respond to requests to comment for this article, though in the past, the company said it employs "the highest standards in the ethical treatment of crocodiles".)

Throughout the 2000s, Peta became well known for its splashy fashion week tactics — not only crashing shows but throwing pies at Anna Wintour. But in the years since it helped win the war on fur, the organisation has leaned more into corporate diplomacy.

"To be honest, it had been a while," said Rachna Shah, a partner and managing director at KCD, a top fashion public relations firm that, among other things, manages door access for guests at runway shows. (KCD was not involved in the Hermès show, but when a sign-wielding Peta protester stormed Coach’s runway in early September, it was a KCD employee who guided her out.)

"I think everyone’s guard was a little bit down," Shah said. Before this season, the last major activist disruption happened in October 2021, when the climate group Extinction Rebellion crashed Louis Vuitton at the Louvre.

This season, Peta returned to its more combative roots, specifically confronting fashion companies that it said had not sufficiently responded to its graphic activist investigations.

"If the brands don’t want to listen to the cries of the animals, then it calls for drastic measures," said Natasha Garnier, a campaigner in Lyon, France.

Sitting at a vegan cafe in Paris on Friday, the day before the Hermès show, Garnier called crashing a "last resort". She had already received advice from one of the two Coach crashers ("Pretend like you're happy to be there," she said), and she knew what she would wear — a black minidress with a zipper down the front, cinched with a golden belt.

"It is nerve-wracking," she said. "But when I think of what the animals must go through, their suffering is my fuel."

That day, another Peta campaigner named Teodora Zglimbea was doing "recce", or reconnaissance, surveying the location of the Hermès show: the Garde Républicaine, a French national guard building. The brand was planning a runway that resembled a twisty indoor meadow, she learned while walking around the space, holding a discarded coffee cup that helped make her look more official, she said.

Peta was reluctant to reveal the ways it enters fashion shows. But Zglimbea, who was in charge of both "recce" on Friday and filming the protest on Saturday, was wearing a wristband given to production staff members who require backstage access.

Often, the names of these people appear on a list managed by a security guard posted at a backstage door. Zglimbea’s name was not on any such list, she said. But lists can be flexible, and sneaking into shows is a fashion week tradition. (Last week, rumours swirled about a black market for invitations.)

The Hermès show was scheduled to begin at 2.30pm on Saturday. By 1.40pm, Zglimbea was already through a security gate, smoking a cigarette and waiting for her colleagues to arrive. The plan had changed slightly. It was more difficult to get inside than the group expected. (This was, after all, a French military building.) A young Peta volunteer named Claudia, who had also managed to acquire a wristband, would be replacing Garnier as the runway crasher.

Zglimbea and Claudia — Peta did not provide her last name — met in a bathroom and then blended into the crowd inside the show space, mingling and taking photos and finding spots far from any security guards.

"No one thought that someone would jump over the grass, so it was perfect," said Zglimbea, who spent €20 (about US$21) on plain black heeled sandals for the occasion, believing that most of her shoes were too casual to convincingly cosplay as a fashion show guest.

Once on the runway, Claudia walked freely for about 15 seconds, twirling a few times to show off her sign — although thanks to the unusual layout of the show, many guests were wholly unaware of her presence — before a staffer grabbed her around the waist. Bryan Yambao, or Bryanboy, the editor of Perfect magazine, then jumped from his seat to rip the sign from her hands. ("I love Hermès," he later posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.)

When the show ended, Zglimbea, who had remained seated for the entire show, walked across the street to a cafe, Peta's post-show rendezvous point.

Sometimes Peta demonstrators are immediately dumped out onto city sidewalks, she said, while other times they’re held for questions by security guards. More than an hour passed before Claudia reemerged. According to Zglimbea, she had been taken to a police station, where she was questioned but not arrested or charged.

Activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) stage a protest outside Pata Department Store in Bangkok’s Bang Phlat district over the alleged poor treatment of animals in the store’s petting zoo in Nov 2019. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)

In the meantime, Peta and several attendees shared videos of the protest on social media. These short clips usually go viral, said Luke Meagher, who runs the popular fashion commentary Instagram account Haute Le Mode.

"There is a group of people that love fashion but at the same time do genuinely think leather is bad and merino wool is terrible,” Meagher said. When he posted a video of the protester at Coach, “there were quite a few comments like, 'That was the best walk on the runway.'" Fashion enthusiasts wondered which brand would be the next target.

Inside the shows, reactions have been more muted. Some people record the scene on their phones, but many editors and executives pretend it is not happening, out of deference to the designers or a desire not to give attention to the activists.

"Within the room, it seems like everybody kind of stiffens up," Meagher said. "Averts the gaze."

It turns out, Hermès was not Peta's only target at Paris Fashion Week. On Monday, the organisation posted a video of Jeremstar, a French influencer, being dragged away by police outside the Louis Vuitton show. He was dressed as a skinned snake.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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