On a runway in Milan, Gucci designer Alessandro Michele sent models in crisp, white straightjacket-esque shirts and workwear down a mint-green conveyor belt. The clothes, the (now-deleted) show notes explained, would not be sold commercially, and instead were meant to “represent how through fashion, power is exercised over life, to eliminate self-expression.” A few moments after the parade of white, the lights went out. When they returned, 89 looks typical to Michele’s flamboyant style were presented, his “antidote” to the repressive fashion climate Gucci supposedly operates in. If you blinked, you might have missed a model holding their hands up in protest.
Ayesha Tan-Jones, also known as YaYa Bones, is a nonbinary artist and musician who staged a political demonstration on Michele’s runway—which, ironically, the brand already framed as a protest of sorts. While being ferried down the conveyor belt in the show’s opening sequence, they held their hands up to reveal, in slightly smudged ink, “Mental health is not fashion.” On Instagram, they elaborated:
LGBTQIA+ individuals are three times more likely to experience a mental health condition. LGBTQIA+ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide, experience suicidal thoughts, and engage in self-harm, as compared to youths that are straight. 38-65 percent of transgender individuals experience suicidal thoughts. And for black and brown communities, Indigenous communities, and Asian communities in the West, mental health statistics are much higher compared to white adults. [...] 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.”
When I asked Tan-Jones about their decision to to hold their hands up, they told me they decided the night before after feeling uncomfortable with the show’s underlying message. “I bumped into another model who chose to leave the job... due to the controversial garments,” they told me. “I thought he was so bold and I had so much so much respect for him.” They also said that those with platforms to speak should “trust their gut always,” and when you do speak out, “make sure you have the energy and capacity to hold space for conversation and debate which inevitably comes with standing for what you believe in.”
It’s clear that without Tan-Jones’s intervention, Gucci’s vague vision of a sanitized future would probably have passed unnoticed, though it’s unclear if Tan-Jones’s protest translated from the runway to the audience. In the show’s official video, cameras cut away before Tan-Jones’s hands are visible, returning after they’ve already moved out of sight. Reviews on Vogue and Elle, similarly, make no mention of a model holding their hands up with writing on them. However, once Tan-Jones’s Insta post began circulating across the internet this morning, conversation on the show quickly turned from Gucci’s “actual” collection to the straight jackets that preceded it.
The fashion world has dealt with several years seasons of political scrutiny: Designers have struggled to expand their size-ranges, continued to send mostly white models down runways, and come to terms with the reality of a deteriorating climate and exploitative production cycle. This fashion month, notably, has largely passed without any real interest from the mainstream media. Perhaps it was the political climate, the upcoming election, or just a general disinterest in luxury goods.
As a method of communication, the runway naturally centers the voice of a designer, not the models who showcase a collection. The runway’s original purpose, and perhaps its sole purpose, is to be a commercial vehicle for the brands that walk them. This obviously cheapens the political integrity of these political message, like Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminists” shirt or Prabal Gurung’s “The Future is Female.”
That’s probably why Tan-Jones’s message, “mental health is not fashion,” was originally seen by commenters as a part of the brand-orchestrated pre-show message: Michele’s supposed rebellion against the elimination of individualism. As a silent participant in that space, a model’s political action must operate outside the aesthetic boundaries of the runway to differentiate itself. It wasn’t until Tan-Jones posted on Instagram that the protest registered for what it really was. The art form of fashion, then, is a perilous place to make a nuanced statement—it’s hard to take a stand against something you’re also trying to sell.
Gucci, while writing this, deleted their initial response to Tan-Jones’s protest. In its entirety it read:
“Uniforms, utilitarian clothes, normative dress, including straitjackets, were included in the Gucci SS20 fashion show as the most extreme version of a uniform dictated by society and those who control it. These clothes were a statement for the fashion show and will not be sold. Alessandro Michele designed these blank-styled clothes to represent how thorough fashion, power is exercised over life, to eliminate self expression. This power prescribes social norms, classifying and curbing identity. The creative director’s antidote is seen in the Gucci Spring Summer 2020 lineup of 89 looks, he has designed a collection that conveys fashion as a way to allow people to walk through fields of possibilities, cultivate beauty, make diversity sacrosanct, and celebrate the self in the expression and identity.”
Gucci did not respond to a request for comment. I’ll update this post when they get back to me.