The fashion industry, to both its internal and external participants, is a realm permeated with smoke and mirrors that can often be perplexing. Much like the driving force behind today’s social media giants, fashion can be a crutch that props up the projection of a filtered, idealised version of our reality to the world. Concealment of flaws is a large part of fashion’s dollar-making mechanism: Everything is polished and nothing ever fails.
What happens then when we deviate from the norm? What do we gain from following the beaten path?
The rigid politics and the powers that be within the fashion system make it hard — often unrewarding — to be critical. But sometimes, though rarely so, a lone provocateur perseveres and prevails.
In late September last year, towards the end of Milan Fashion Week, Gucci invited guests to its Spring/Summer ’20 runway show. Showgoers were ushered in and seated in a room basked in red light, lined by four moving walkways, laid under a constellation of glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. When the lights went up, the travellators rumbled to life and, standing motionless and barefoot on them, 21 models emerged: Each strapped in calico-white garments in striking resemblance to straitjackets.
Written in the distributed show notes, the present society is said to be shaped by a “microphysics of powers”. It continues to explain the term as a subliminal form of “extensive governmentality that, through a set of institutions, devices and mechanisms of subjugation, imposes behavioural rules internalised by the individuals... they prevent the free circulation of discourses and end up creating a disciplinary society: a society that controls, confines and regulates life.” The title of the collection is “New Forms of Subjectification”.
Amid the suspenseful beeps of the soundtrack, a deadpan voice reverberated, “I don’t think—I don’t know what normal would be.” Renditions of the straitjacket came aplenty: There were enveloping boilersuits, giant sleeves that grazed the knees, swathes of restrictive buckles. One of them, donned by nonbinary model Ayesha Tan Jones, stood out and became the main source of the show’s ensuing polarity — but not particularly for its design. Jones, who uses the pronoun “they”, held their palms out (see image two in the slideshow above), unlike the other models, to display a scribbling of the words “mental health is not fashion.”
Later, their protest extended to an Instagram post with a longer statement, where they identify as an artist with their own struggles with mental health, and that “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.”
Alessandro Michele, creative director of Gucci since 2015, has been heralded as fashion’s own abolitionist. Once upon a time, when Michele first broke free of anonymity, the sensibility he instilled into Gucci — eccentric, eclectic, inclusive — posed a challenge to the industry. He introduced an uncharted sense of fluidity — be it within creativity or the gender discourse — that heralded a new era in fashion. Beyond his robes, slippers and handbags, Michele is shaping an identity that Gucci’s growing acolytes are more than gleeful to pour money into to get a slice of, which they’ve done in numbers that have transformed a label that had drifted far from the conversation to one at the centre of it. Michele’s fresh perspective was, by all measures, radical.
Now seasons into his tenure, his insistence on persistence is.
After the white-clothes figures disappeared at the end of the walkways, what proceeded was a chapter far detached from its prelude. A gush of black flurried in as pleated gowns. There was a deliberate omission of the usual print heaviness, where instead, blocks of colours infiltrate leotard tops and slitted skirts, or shift-like hostess dresses and dominatrix business suiting.
This was not unfamiliar territory. All of this belonged to Michele’s syntax of idiosyncrasy. So what was the opening act all about? What exactly did Michele want to say?
“I wanted to show how society today can have the ability to confine individuality and that Gucci can be the antidote,” he said later after the show. “For me, the show was the journey from conformity to freedom and creativity. Uniforms, utilitarian clothes, such straitjackets, were included in the fashion show as the most extreme version of restriction imposed by society and those who control it. These clothes were a statement for the fashion show and part of a performance.” And given the show was partly about freedom, Gucci felt the model should be free to protest.
Hari Nef, an actress, who was a guest at the show, wrote on Instagram that she perceived it as “more a provocative reminder of submission than a glamorisation of insanity.”
one does not usually leave a fashion show dwelling on power submission capitalism exploitation and their intersections with luxury—or, maybe, one does (i often do). as @vanni74’s show notes to today’s @gucci show read, ‘our present...is shaped by a “microphysics of powers”’ which “[prevents] the free circulation of discourses and [ends] up creating a disciplinary society...that controls, confines, and regulates life.” he goes on to ask: “can [fashion] offer itself as an instrument of resistance? can it suggest experimental freedom, ability to transgress and disobey, emancipation and self-determination? or fashion itself risks to become a refined device of neo-liberal government that ends up imposing a new normativity, turning freedom into a commodity and emancipation into a broken promise?” the clinical whites that opened the show were upsetting—willfully: more a provocative reminder of submission than a glamorization of insanity. but then, the glamour: lallo’s tightest, sleekest collection yet—with more than a few kinky s&m flourishes. poison gives way to seduction (i like it that way). clothes, perhaps, aren’t there to free anyone. fashion certainly isn’t, nor is it ever free. today, thankfully, it felt dangerous
It’s important to note that for fashion to be truly radical, its very systems and structures need to be questioned. In this case, Michele, perhaps in the name of innovation, treaded into the unknown. “I’m afraid of getting bored,” he said. “I always have to try something new.”
A risk, albeit not fully considered, was taken. A juxtaposition of extremities was presented in critic of the zeitgeist. The critic roused its own critic. And an unprecedented discourse came to life. While fashion creates a sense of innovation and constant renewal, its inherent structure is harder to challenge or change. It’s only when critical opposition exists that the path to truly pioneering cultural expression is paved. And Michele’s openness to it might just be the starting point.
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