Fashion is ever-evolving. In recent years alone, we’ve seen the appraisal of neon, the rise of bike shorts and — a moment of silence please — the return of the middle part for trendy hairstyles. But as the industry releases swaths of innovative takes on items both new and old, fashion at large remains stagnant in a cycle of insensitivity.
Gucci is only one of the latest under fire for its runway blunders. Having dealt with accusations of blackface and cultural appropriation in the past, the high-end fashion company now finds itself vastly critiqued for its use of straitjackets at Milan Fashion Week.
Gucci’s Creative Director Alessandro Michele is behind what the label called “blank-styled clothes” in a Sept. 20 Instagram post. The label clarified that the controversial pieces were not for sale and that the garments represented the “most extreme version of a uniform dictated by society and those who control it.”
We live in a world where Urban Outfitters attempted to sell “Depression” and “Eat Less” shirts to its impressionable young audience, where anxiety is commonly marketed as a fashionable commodity and where high-end luxury labels can attempt to pitch straitjackets as statement pieces. Gucci can try its hand at damage control, but it can’t clean up what this latest controversy reveals: a severe lack of sensitivity that runs deep in the fashion industry.
Wait, pause. Rewind. History repeats itself.
As Gucci’s blunder came into the international spotlight, the Paris Fashion Week runway sat center stage for a similarly dismaying display. The brand Kimhēkim showcased models strutting with fake IV poles in tow. While the company received a flurry of furious comments on their Instagram for the distasteful display, the brand has yet to formally address the issue. Accountability in the industry is truly zero-to-none, and underrepresented groups, such as those with physical and mental illnesses, will continue to bear the burden of stigmatization perpetuated by clothing designers.
As is the case in most displays of gross exploitation, it is up to the victimized groups to voice their concerns. Model Ayesha Tan-Jones protested Gucci’s exploitation of straitjackets while modeling the clothes at Milan Fashion Week. Tan-Jones, who identifies as non-binary, wore the phrase “mental illness is not fashion” on the palms of their hands and displayed them for the audience to read throughout the duration of the show.
"I chose to protest the Gucci S/S/ 2020 runway show as I believe, as many of my fellow models do, that the stigma around mental health must end," they explained on Instagram. "As an artist and model who has experienced my own struggles with mental health, as well as 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."
Mass conglomerates seek easy profits in the worst ways, exploiting mental and physical illnesses for the sake of a quick buck or an innovative runway lineup. The truth is an ugly one. Company profits will oftentimes not bear too great of a burden and the incident will inevitably be lost to time as the industry patiently awaits the next great mistake to stake its claim on international headlines. As consumers, it is crucial for us to remain informed and hold businesses accountable to whatever extent possible. If we do not cause an uproar, forcing designers to face their mistakes and confront a jaded public, then we are complacent in perpetuating the industry’s insensitivity. Neither mental nor physical illnesses are fashion statements.