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Fashion gets political, as designers call for inclusion and diversity

Models walk the runway during the Nicholas K fashion show at NYFW on Feb. 9, 2017.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Models walk the runway during the Nicholas K fashion show at NYFW on Feb. 9, 2017.

This New York Fashion Week, it isn't just luxury coats that are making a statement.

Several designers used the runway as a means to speak out about the political climate, addressing issues from diversity to women's rights.

"Fashion is a sponge in terms of what's happening in culture," Thai-American fashion designer Thakoon Panichgul said before his presentation on Thursday. "We take it in and it comes out in certain ways, and I think that the climate will produce a lot of creativity."

Several models at Nicholas K had their looks topped off with black or gold berets. The caps channeled those worn by the Black Panthers, a militant group that defended minorities during the civil rights movement.

"The '90s was a decade promising communal diversity and unity," the brand's designers said, attributing the first step in that change to Nelson Mandela's release from prison. "Recent events seem to unravel this progress, and it's now relevant to revisit the promise of the '90s."

Desigual, a Spanish label known for its vibrant designs, made a more subtle statement. Its collection pulled together different influences, colors and materials to communicate diversity.

"We've been for 35 years talking about [at Desigual], be who you want to be," Daniel Perez, brand communications director, said backstage. "We don't dress bodies, we dress people."

Models walk the runway during the Desigual show at New York Fashion Week on Feb. 9, 2017.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Models walk the runway during the Desigual show at New York Fashion Week on Feb. 9, 2017.

Erin Fetherston created her ethereal collection with a bohemian world traveler in mind. The California-born designer spoke to unity in her show notes, saying, "We are all, foremost, citizens of the world, and we are stronger together."

"I wouldn't say that politics influenced the design process, but I just think that I draw from my own personal experience as a designer," Fetherston said backstage. "I had the privilege of traveling all over the world in my life, living in many countries, and I think this is a right that we should really cherish and reciprocate and celebrate."

On the West Coast, Rebecca Minkoff delivered a message of female empowerment. During the final walk at her L.A. show, models were serenaded by Milck and a seven-person harmony performing the song "Quiet." That song has become the unofficial anthem of the women's march on Washington, which was held following President Donald Trump's election.

The trade group representing U.S. designers also joined the conversation. Amid Republican efforts to pull federal funding for Planned Parenthood, several showgoers sported pink buttons that read "Fashion Stands with Planned Parenthood." The pins were handed out as a partnership between the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Planned Parenthood, to raise awareness for the organization.

"Civic responsibility is an important CFDA pillar," the group's president and CEO Steven Kolb said in a statement.

Yet even as politics remained a focal point, Fashion Week also provided an opportunity to raise people's spirits, Panichgul said.

"My clothes are sort of inherently feminine and colorful, and so hopefully it will create an uplifting mood for people," he said.