OPINION: Fashion shows are meant to provoke. But some of the recent runways in New York, Paris and Milan went too far.
Last week at Paris Fashion Week, Korean brand Kimhekim sent models down the runway pulling IV bags on trolleys for no apparent medical reason.
If the stunt was designed to draw attention to the brand, it worked, but not in the way the designer might have hoped.
Kimhekim did not return emails from The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on Monday but a brand spokesperson told Teen Vogue the bags signified the designer's "reliance on social networks and its tendency to always seek attention by any means possible, including faking illness".
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"The IV bag stands for positive, knowingly artificial, vitamin-style input and doesn't tend to make fun of any illness or people who are actually sick," the spokesperson said.
GUCCI / YOUTUBE
Models at Gucci's Cruise 2020 show sport facial art bearing an uncanny resemblance to that of Mark Cropp, or Devast8.
Try telling that to many chronically ill people who have to contend with IV bags as part of their treatment. They're not cool, sexy or fashionable.
One person who spoke out against Kimhekim's show was Vancouver-based artist Sharona Franklin, who has multiple chronic illnesses.
"I was pretty frustrated and I didn't articulate myself well but I spoke from my first instinct," she said by phone on Monday. "But I'm glad I [spoke out] because a lot of disabled people have to live their lives editing their feelings to make them more 'palatable' to other people. "
Franklin said when she first saw the footage she mistakenly thought the designer had used models with illnesses. But she quickly viewed the show as "making fun of [sick] people for seeking attention ".
She said she has suffered terrible bullying through her youth and now, aged 32, has only found her voice to advocate for people with disabilities and chronic illness. She said the brand's explanation, as it appeared in Teen Vogue, seemed like "back-pedalling".
"The first instinct is they're probably bigots … it's too ignorant for them not to have that problem," she said.
The same could be said for Gucci, a much larger company (not that size is an excuse for tone-deafness), that drew criticism for its show in Milan that featured models in clothing that drew widespread comparisons to straitjackets. The move drew an in-show silent protest from model Ayesha Tan Jones, who scribbled "Mental health is not fashion" on her palms for the cameras. And yes, this is the same company that just hired a diversity officer after a string of garments that raised cultural, racial and religious concerns.
The trifecta of poor taste ends in New York, where streetwear brand Bstroy showed off varsity-style hoodies featuring the names of US school massacres such as Columbine and Sandy Hook, complete with bullet holes. No-one has to explain why this is sick and tasteless, and yet someone at the brand thought it was … clever?
Regardless of the designers' intention, fashion needs to do better, especially on the world's biggest stages. While some progress has been made on casual racism or cultural appropriation in fashion, these latest examples show there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to sensitivity in the extremely complex area of health and mental illness.
Australia's leading body on eating disorders, the Butterfly Foundation, said the findings by Gucci and Kimhekim were "extremely unhelpful in reducing associated stigma", specifically of mental illness.
Chief executive Kevin Barrow said the fashion industry is influential "when it comes to encouraging or discouraging positive messaging when it comes to body image, and it is clear that, by commodifying mental and physical illness, it has unfortunately missed the mark. People experiencing illness are not being taken into account as consumers of these brands, and instead, the stigma that often exists on these platforms is being perpetuated. "
Anne Muldowney, chair of the Chronic Illness Alliance, added that fashion brands in question displayed a "deep disrespect and a total lack of understanding of how their actions deeply offend people living with chronic illness. Illness is not a fashion statement, but a daily reality for millions of people that deserves respect, not mockery. "
No longer is it solely left to fashion critics to view and analyze what's on the runway. Social media has ensured the audience, which is often made up of young, impressionable people, can see it all for themselves.
Many things in a show, from imagery and props to the clothes themselves, are able to offset and cause offense when viewed in this unfiltered way. (We've deliberately not republished images of the shows mentioned above in any detail for this reason.) Although, this sort of edginess for the sake of it is never OK.
Fashion is not perfect, and things, often that no one can reasonably predict, inevitably slip through the net. But there is nothing subtle about IV bags or mock bullet holes. There are many more creative – and respectful – ways to make a point.
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