Italian powerhouse Gucci and South-Korean label Kimhēkim both came under fire this season for "insensitive" and "tasteless" depictions of physical and mental illness in their SS20 collections, citing the "show's concept" as justification. But is this an acceptable defence?
Every February and September, each major fashion house hopes to stage the runway extravaganza of the season that will keep the new Instagram-savvy consumer generation buzzing online for months to come. However, as with every season, not all the bustle and buzz is positive.
Over the last five years, creative director Alessandro Michele has revolutionised Italian fashion house Gucci into a global fashion leader, with one of the most highly-anticipated runway shows each season. So no one expected the outcry that came from Gucci's latest spring/summer 20 collection last week in Milan.
Guests entered a room bathed in red light featuring four long moving walkways. Slowly models filed out, barefoot and staring catatonically ahead, in white clothing that resembled straitjackets. The first twenty models wore a variety of buttoned, laced and buckled styles of a straitjacket.
One of these models was artist Ayesha Tan Jones who, rather than keeping their hands down by their side, held them up to display the words "mental health is not fashion" to protest the designs.
The model later took to Instagram to address the protest: "As an artist and model who has experienced my own struggles with mental health, along with family members and loved ones who have been affected by depression, anxiety, bipolar and schizophrenia, it is hurtful and insensitive for a major fashion house such as Gucci to use this imagery as a concept for a fleeting fashion moment."
Invented in Paris in 1790, straitjackets were seen as the humane alternative to chaining up "unruly and dangerous" patients in hospitals to prevent harm to themselves and others. However, it was not long before the jacket became a standard treatment to not only the most dangerous and violent patients -- but for everyone. Poorly trained staff and ill-equipped asylums quickly became incompetent and unable to properly care for patients. It became apparent that the jacket was primarily used for punishment rather than for a therapeutic purpose. Today, the straitjacket remains a symbol of the stereotypes of insanity and mental asylums within pop culture that stigmatises patients and discourages those seeking support for their illnesses to reach out.
Jones also accused the luxury brand of using mental health issues as "props for selling clothes in today's capitalist climate" before describing the clothes as "vulgar, unimaginative and offensive."
Only days later, South-Korean brand Kimhēkim came under fire for sending models down the runway hooked up to IV drips at Paris Fashion Week. Some models sported slogan t-shirts reading "SICK" and bandages around their arms. The designer shared several videos from the show on Instagram, as well as an up-close picture of the Kimhēkim-branded IV bags, which has since been taken down. In the comments, users were quick to criticise the "tasteless" decision to use medical accessories and illness as a fashion statement.
"This is a reprehensible concept and deeply insensitive to all those who struggle with illness," read one of the hundreds of outraged comments.
Both brands responded similarly, quickly releasing statements arguing that any depictions of illness were done so within the context of the collection's artistic concept, thus excusing them of capitalising from depictions of marginalised groups.
Following Gucci's intense backlash, Alessandro Michele explained, "I wanted to show how society today can have the ability to confine individuality and that Gucci can be the antidote. For me, the show was the journey from conformity to freedom and creativity. Uniforms, utilitarian clothes, straitjackets, were included in the fashion show as the most extreme version of a restriction imposed by society and those who control it. These clothes were a statement for the fashion show and part of a performance."
Meanwhile, a representative from Kimhēkim shared with Teen Vogue that the collection, entitled "ME", "...revolves around the designer himself, his relation to social networks and his tendency to always be seeking attention by any means possible, including faking illness. The IV bag stands for a positive, knowingly artificial, vitamin-style input and does not intend to make fun of any illness or people who are actually sick. It rather stands for an exaggerated, caricatural representation of attention-seeking."
The fashion industry has long filled the space between artistic expression and commodified product, and runway shows are at the epicentre of this divide – the show has traditionally existed to present new collections to journalists, buyers and celebrity clients. However, in more recent decades, runway shows have developed into elaborately staged events much like theatre performances, no doubt thanks to the millions of eyes that can now watch everything live-streamed online.
It is here, in the muddy water that lies between unadulterated art and capitalist commodity, that brands such as Gucci and Kimhēkim are creating their elaborate concepts with little consideration for the impact this has outside the context of their runway show.
Though Gucci's defence to feature the straitjacket affirmed that the garments would only feature among the show's context, which included many restrictive styles throughout history, would not be mass-produced and released for sale, the Italian fashion house should be aware of its stature among the industry and the impact its designs have.
As an industry leader, many high street brands will take their inspiration (read: direct copies) from the designs shown on high-fashion runways. It is irresponsible of Gucci to present this depiction of a marginalised societal group without consideration of how this design could be appropriated by others in the fashion cycle. Furthermore, attendees of the show were privy to this explanation in the show notes, but Gucci did not share this explanation with its wider audience watching live streams or via their social media feeds until after the backlash had spread online. This resulted in their explanation feeling like little more than a badly-timed excuse and was far less circulated than the now-viral model's protest.
"To suggest the sharing of images of hospitals on social media is attention-seeking, even if it's in reference to the designer's personal experience, sends a dangerous message to those who share their personal experiences online with friends, family and followers for moral support during difficult periods in their life."
Even if the brand's apology was sincere, it's disappointing and concerning that the show's concept could have been approved by so many without someone flagging this for concern. Where was Gucci's diversity and inclusion panel? You know, the one that was created after the brand was criticised earlier this year for selling a turtleneck that resembled blackface? Due to previous accusations, the panel includes legendary designer Dapper Dan and has largely focused on preventing any possible race-related scandals for the Italian fashion house.
However, if the brand wants to be considered truly diverse and inclusive, its panel must consider other marginalised groups, such as those with illness and disability, and how to produce accurate depictions of diverse groups.
One commenter online suggested: "want to depict disability or mental illness in your collection? Just hire disabled people instead!"
As for Kimhēkim, the brand's response is much more troubling. To suggest the sharing of images of hospitals on social media is attention-seeking, even if it's in reference to the designer's personal experience, sends a dangerous message to those who share their personal experiences online with friends, family and followers for moral support during difficult periods in their life.
The real message this collection sent? That Kimhēkim will design anything for attention, regardless of who he offends or misrepresents. Yawn. Maybe this will become a learning experience for the brand, and moving forward; it will be more considerate. However, with the vast amount of increased press the collection received due to its controversy, it's easy to let the cynicism creep in.
Undoubtedly, these will not be the last depictions of health conditions to make their way onto high fashion runways, and it certainly won't be the last fashion month design controversy. But highlighting conversations about the negative impact these depictions can have on real-life sufferers, who can't just purchase the luxury of adopting a 'sick' aesthetic for a season and then discard it, will begin to alter societal opinions of how we treat and depict those who need comfort, support and sensitivity most of all.