Fashion is a sphere where the weird and unusual is gradually normalised, where trends which are first encountered with a skewed face and a bewildered ‘huh?’ gradually trickle down into the mass-market. In menswear during the past year, this process of trickle down has begun to integrate the appearance of predatory imagery in clothing.
Snakes seem ubiquitous, featuring in Givenchy’s ‘Cobra’ series; Saint Laurent’s ‘Serpent’ prints; newcomer Bruta’s ‘Marco Polo’ collection; and in Gucci’s short film The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and their ‘Sky and Garden’ and ‘Kingsnake’ ranges. Sharks pop up in Moncler’s and Thom Browne’s ‘Shark’ prints, and in Saint Laurent’s ‘Sweet Dreams’ range. Givenchy has a rogue series of ‘Rottweiler’ and ‘Baboon’ prints. Gucci has moved in on Kenzo’s turf, rivalling their tiger-logo with its own series of tiger prints. And finally, not forgetting the archetypal predator, Saint Laurent’s ‘T-Rex’ and Paul Smith’s ‘Dino’ designs concretise the trend.
Imagery is slippery: why do so many consumers, myself included, turn a blind eye to the ethical problems enacted when fashion glamourises and profits by its own sins?
Immediately, these predatory images face ethical problems. In 2013 Rana Plaza, a Bangladeshi factory filled with eight storeys of ‘fast-fashion’ production lines, collapsed: 1,134 people died. Rana Plaza had been built at minimum cost, and cracks had emerged as the weight of production outstripped the building’s capacity. Amongst many others, Primark, Matalan and Benetton had all invested in Rana Plaza, and the structural burden of their production units on the fragile building might say something about the weight of the moral burden facing each company and their industry. Arguably, each has blood on their hands.
Rana Plaza has become the ghost that haunts discussions about fast and cheap fashion, discussions which are rooted in predatory imagery. For example, the Guardian’s coverage of the disaster read “1,134 people died to feed the world’s appetite for cheap clothing”. Primark is not Givenchy, but they are connected more than it might first appear. Trends from the collections of Givenchy, Gucci, Saint Laurent, and the like, will trickle down into the shelves of fast and cheap clothing companies. Gucci’s tiger-series has already found its way into ASOS Bomber Jackets, for example. ASOS was not invested in Rana Plaza, but it is one of the leaders of fast and cheap clothing. This shows not only the supply chain, but the chain of influence: fashion is a food chain, and Givenchy, Gucci, and Saint Laurent are the sharks, snakes and Rottweilers. In the shadow of the Rana Plaza disaster, this trend of predatory imagery enacts and profits by the association between predators and fashion.
Yet ethical criticism of fashion designs and collections is commonplace. The most effective criticism has probably been the organised campaigns against the use of real and faux animal fur. Though fur is tangible – it makes ethical opposition easy. Imagery is more elusive. What about snakeskin prints, such as Gucci’s ‘Snakeskin’ sneakers, which similarly glamourise and commodify animals? Cultural appropriation also continues to be a problematic area. Givenchy’s ‘Crazy Cleopatra’ range seems not only to appropriate but to imitate and reduce cultural imagery to mockery; and camouflage continues to be the most baffling trend, glamourising and profiting by the imagery of warfare. Of course, there are some who resist, many even in the case of real fur. But then again, imagery is slippery: why do so many consumers, myself included, turn a blind eye to the ethical problems enacted when fashion glamourises and profits by its own sins?
Fashion is a food chain, and Givenchy, Gucci, and Saint Laurent are the sharks, snakes and Rottweilers.
These food chains don’t finish at suppliers and designers. Gucci’s ‘embroidered tiger t-shirt’ will cost £560, Saint Laurent’s ‘T-rex patterned jumper’ costs £640, and Givenchy’s ‘Crazy Cleopatra printed jacket’, an eye-watering £1,530. Consumers become prey. According to Forbes, Gucci sold $4.3 billion in the financial year to May 2016, and they estimate the brand’s value at $12 billion. The marketplace becomes a feeding ground, and yet for the sake of imagery, colours, fabrics and shapes, so many of us volunteer ourselves as prey.
Does this mean that we prioritise imagery over ethics? It is important that this question is separated from other questions which frustrate buyers and designers alike. It is not a question about the sustainability of the fashion industry, or the global politics of fashion, and it is much further from questions about materials, such as fur and snakeskin, than it might originally seem. Instead, this question of imagery belongs to the trickier domains of art, politics, and experiences. How sinful does an image have to be before you take ethical objection?