“It’s clearly meant to be a provocative move,” said Sarah Unger, senior vice president, cultural insights and strategy at Civic Entertainment Group. “The surrounding discussion speaks to the broader tension in fashion between art and capitalism.”
The show sparked criticism on social media and initially on the Gucci runway itself, as model Ayesha Tan Jones, who walked the show, held up her hands in silent protest with the message “Mental Health is Not Fashion” written on her palms.
According to Gucci, the opening looks at the show, were the "most extreme version of a uniform dictated by society and those who control it." Michele designed "these blank-styled clothes to represent how through fashion, power is exercised over life, to eliminate self-expression."
"They encouraged the model's protest as support of free speech, which is a fairly forward-facing, proactive way to weather controversial runway choices," Unger said. "The more interesting question, perhaps, is whether moments like this will be constructive in terms of meaningful institutional change in the fashion industry, which has dealt with recent criticisms of making tone-deaf choices."
Michele is not the first designer to show straitjackets on the runway—although his were the most literal references to hospital clothes. Alexander McQueen, who once said he “finds beauty in the grotesque,” featured masks and straitjacket-inspired looks in his collection. And Rick Owens included a bondage-inspired straitjacket in his Fall-Winter '14 collection.
"From a design perspective, I'm confused," said Anke Loh, Sage Foundation Chair of Fashion Design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, about the Gucci show. "Without any interpretation, this was a straightforward straitjacket. That is something I don't find very imaginative, and I would say he's a really good designer. I've seen some really good work from him."
In February, Gucci stopped selling a $890 woman’s sweater, part of its Fall Winter 2018 line, after complaints that it resembled blackface.
Then in May, there was the $790 headscarf that resembled a turban, called the “Indy Full Turban.” This caused the Sikh Coalition to tweet that the turban is “not just a fashion accessory, but it’s also a sacred religious article of faith.”
The brand promptly announced long-term initiatives to promote diversity and awareness and in July appointed lawyer Renée Tirado as its first global head of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Whether backlash against the Milan show opener will impact sales remains to be seen. Sales at Gucci, whose parent company is Kering, rose 12.7% in the second quarter this year, shy of the forecasted 14.5%. In the first half of 2019, the label's revenue was up 19.8% and 16.3% on a comparable basis.
“It might temporarily affect business but globally, retail is suffering,” said Roseanne Morrison, the fashion director at Doneger Group, a retail and forecasting consultancy firm in New York. “Gucci is the most in-demand brand from sneakers to handbags in the world. The accessories are the driving force of the collection and that’s not going to change.”
Gucci's hero handbag of the moment, the "Gucci Zumi," retails from $1150 for a mini bucket bag to $6,000 for a snakeskin medium top handle bag. The handbag was recently showcased on a world tour of star-studded parties in Milan, Paris, London, Tokyo, and New York.
For the rest of the Milan show, Gucci kept the focus on the clothes that are designed for retail. Morrison said the runway collection was a stark departure from the quirky, nerdy looks that have dominated the Gucci runway in recent seasons.
"It was very sleek, very simple, he used black, which he doesn't really prefer," Morrison said. "There were not too many prints, a lot of solid colors. I could see this having a more universal appeal for sure."
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