Is the Controversy Valid? Gucci Gets Called out After Its SS20 Show

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Has it really been five years since Alessandro Michele leapt to the top of Gucci – as an unknown name – and completely radicalized its aesthetic? 

Time flies. 

His logo-washed, retro-inspired, gender-bending collections styled with a heavy-hand have become Gucci’s signature. The brand has not only made bank in the Michele era, but also inspired legions of imitators. It has also faced challenges. 

Gucci has a younger consumer base than most luxury houses. More than two-thirds of its sales comes from millennials, according to Morgan Stanley estimates. As such, it is more vulnerable to the dictums of social media, so when the house drops a balaclava top that mimicked racist blackface or a culturally appropriative Sikh turban, the backlash is swift and severe. Sales have recently dipped for the first time in three years. 

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Photo: Courtesy of Imaxtree

Refusing stagnation, Michele decided to change course for Spring/Summer 2020. His stripped-back collection eschewed claustrophobic styling, embraced cleaner silhouettes, and simplified its typically saturated surfaces. It was refreshing to (finally) get a good look at the clothes. 

However, the collection only came after a confusing line-up of asylum-esque straitjackets, which made the models look like patients in a mental institution – a resemblance made stronger by the fact that they seemed to be in a clozapine stupor as they stood motionless on a moving sidewalk. Very Girl Interrupted.

These looks were not for sale. On Instagram, Gucci explained this strange preamble, saying, “Alessandro Michele designed these blank-styled clothes to represent how, through fashion, power is exercised over life to eliminate self-expression. This power prescribes social norms, classifying and curbing identity.”

Ayesha Tan Jones, a non-binary model who was cast in this portion of the show, held their hands up in protest. Across their hands was written the phrase: “Mental health is not fashion.” This was not a planned moment in the show, but a decision on their part to call attention to the crude use of straitjackets, which they accused Gucci of using to “fetishize mental health”. In the astute words of Business of Fashion’s critic Tim Blanks, “The show was barely done and the controversy was already boiling.”

Ayesha Tan Jones Gucci SS20
Photo: Courtesy of @ayeshatanjones

We would argue that the fetishization of mental health was not Michele’s intention. In fact, his stated intention was pretty clear, if not all that easy to understand. The straitjackets were a reaction to the constructs that bind society to rules and mores, while the latter portion of the collection represented the freedom of individual self-expression – bucking the binds and reclaiming one’s power. 

The muck and mire sucked the fun right out of what was one of Michele’s most serene and mature collections to date.

However, it doesn’t read that way, “read” being the operative word here. Gucci’s show notes laid out the presentation’s complicated philosophical underpinnings, supplied by Michel Foucaults notions of biopolitics, to support its thesis. But these ideas, as lofty and valid as they are, are hardly digestible for a generation of kids who buy Gucci clothes en masse to (ostensibly) fit in with their peers. Gucci represents a contradiction by commodifying the exact type of self-expression that Michele is imploring the public to explore – and selling that commodity for thousands of dollars. 

In fashion, visuals are more important than words. While it was a powerful idea to use the tools of oppression (a straitjacket) to call out oppressive powers, Gucci made itself vulnerable to the mob that can only see as far as what it looks like on Instagram, not what it means when positioned within the greater context of social power structures. 

This one was a tough nut to crack. There were so many layers of ideas, reactions, comments, sales figures, and philosophical treatises to wade through that the muck and mire sucked the fun right out of what was one of Michele’s most serene and mature collections to date. Still, it’s worth a close look, hemmed by personal introspection. What it means for Gucci’s future remains to be seen.

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