The GLAMORISATION of illness and insanity on the catwalk

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During Milan and Paris Fashion Week, designers faced scrutiny for their insensitive references to illness and insanity on the catwalk. Both Gucci and a new Paris-based label Kimhēkim used faux medical paraphernalia to deliver what many believed were ill-advised social commentaries.


For Kimhēkim’s Spring/Summer 2020 show entitled ‘ME’, IV drips were touted as the latest It bag. One model emerged onto the catwalk with her veins hooked up to a drip, bandaged and trailing a mock-IV bag behind her. She teetered in stilettos—naked apart from over-sized sunglasses and a white T-shirt with the slogan “sick”. This trivialisation of illness is a far cry from disability representation. 


The beginning of Kimhēkim’s collection featured a model with a selfie stick, next came the IV drip— are the two interchangeable accessories? Or was it a commentary on the collective sickness of a society that sees value in the number of likes racked up on a single Instagram post?


According to a brand representative, the collection aimed to show how society has begun “seeking attention by any means possible, including faking illness.” Instead of belittling illness or genuine medical treatments, they explained that the “IV bag stands for a positive, knowingly artificial, vitamin-style input… an exaggerated, caricatural representation of attention seeking.” Kimhēkim didn't stop with just the model and her IV bag "look." In a since deleted post, the brand also featured photos of the IV bags on Instagram accompanied by the caption— BOOST YOUR ENERGY • BE YOUR SELF • KIMHEKIM • VITAMINE • IV • DRIP. 


This questionable display occurred only a few days after Gucci came under fire at Milan Fashion Week for their straitjacket designs—which critics called out as insensitive, believing mental illness should never be used to make artistic statements on the catwalk. Ayesha Tan-Jones, a 26-year-old nonbinary model who uses “they”/“them” pronouns, made an unscripted gesture of protest during the show by holding up their hands on the conveyor-belt style catwalk to display a message that read: “Mental health is not fashion.”


Tan-Jones took to Instagram following the show and explained their motivations. “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.” 



Gucci clarified that the straitjackets were not intended to cause offense but symbolised “the most extreme version of a uniform dictated by society and those who control it.” Their Spring/Summer 19 show notes examined this concept further by referencing the 20thcentury philosopher Michel Foucault: “the ‘microphysics of powers’ that molecularly operates inside society … a power that legitimises only some existences, confining the others inside a regime of containment and/or invisibility”.


Though lost in translation, it seems Gucci were trying to protest against the very thing they were accused of endorsing: the oppressive restraint society places on non-conformity or difference.


But Gucci’s Creative Director Alessandro Michele is not the first designer to bring straitjacket-inspired looks to the catwalk. From the notorious enfant terrible Alexander McQueen to Rick Owens, designers have long experimented with the connotations of restriction, bondage and control that are synonymous with the straitjacket.



So what’s changed to spark this sense of outrage? Although these past instances were not as graphic as the jackets seen at Gucci—which could have been plucked straight from a mental asylum—it appears attitudes and tastes have radically changed in recent years. In light of our growing awareness about the mental health epidemic, consumers are quick to call out anything that’s offensive, gratuitous or politically incorrect regarding such serious conditions. A similar instance occurred at London Fashion Week in February when Burberry showcased a hoodie with a noose sewn around the neck. Ultimately Burberry boss Marco Gobbetti apologised for the ‘triggering’ design: “it was insensitive and we made a mistake.”


Likewise, Kimhēkim are not alone in showcasing faux IV drips. Studio Seong’s AW19 collection featured models hooked up to IV drips with the same nonchalant manner. While in 2015, Indian designer Rajesh Pratap Singh sent models in surgical masks down a catwalk lined with hospital beds and imaginary patients hooked up to IV drips. However, no one criticised this display. A few of the models were even sporting first-aid boxes or bandaged heads. Singh, who grew up in a family of doctors, said his show was a tribute to healthcare professionals who saved lives, “I belong to a medical family and it was basically respect for health workers.” No questions asked.


More than ever we are now imposing a personal moral code on art and fashion design. Artistic licence is being curtailed as consumers are quick to call out anything that’s justifiably seen as offensive or politically incorrect. It seems the intentions of the designer no longer hold dominion over how a collection is publicly perceived. In 1967, another French philosopher Roland Barthes once wrote about the “death of the author”— the changing idea that writers no longer had control over how their novels were interpreted. All meaning was created in the minds of readers. It seems we are experiencing what is the metaphorical death of the designer. Whereby a designer’s intentions or meanings no longer hold precedent, and the consumer’s interpretation is final— that old adage, the customer is always right.


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