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Under creative director Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s turned into a dizzying explosion of embellishment, pattern, and color. It takes a lot for a single piece to stand out, but at the brand’s resort runway show on Monday, one did: a jacket with a fur body and shiny, stiff, puffed-up sleeves printed with its interlocking G logo. Fashion fans quickly realized that it was a send-up of a jacket made in the 1980s by Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day, the Harlem designer whose 125th Street boutique became famous for catering to rappers, gangsters, and athletes like Diane Dixon, who originally wore this particular look.
In the days since the show, Gucci’s been at the center of a feverish debate over the line between appropriation and inspiration — one that’s embroiled a deep list of luxury brands, including Chanel, Valentino, and Marc Jacobs.
It’s complicated for a few reasons, the most obvious being that Day made his name by enthusiastically knocking off luxury logos, including Gucci’s. (The original version of this particular jacket used a Louis Vuitton logo print for its sleeves.) Gucci, in turn, called the jacket an “homage” to Day’s work in an Instagram post, though it only did so on Wednesday, well after the internet had begun criticizing it. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Michele has tried to get in touch with Day, without success, and that he’s interested in collaborating.
But while Michele’s intentions may be good, no one can ignore the history of the extremely white world of high fashion plundering black culture and transposing those looks on white models. (In its seasonal runway diversity report, The Fashion Spot found that models of color accounted for 27.9 percent of castings during the February shows, an all-time high that nonetheless shows how far the industry has to go.) Earlier this year, Gucci released an ad campaign titled “Soul Scene” that featured an all-black cast of models photographed at what looks like a ’60s dance party — a break from its habit of mainly using white models. And that, too, missed the mark for some people.
“While the campaign purports to celebrate black soul, it smacks of performance rather than genuine homage. Is it offensive? Not really. Is it appropriation? Well, there’s the rub. It would be if the ads included the culture. Instead, Gucci presents a reverent, painstakingly-recreated facsimile of a culture. More than anything, the campaign is about the look,” wrote R. Eric Thomas in the New York Times.
“This campaign is commodity, not culture,” he added. “It looks like us, but it is not us.”
There’s a financial power dynamic to consider: At €4.38 billion in revenue for 2016 (about $4.9 billion), Gucci is parent company Kering’s biggest luxury brand and one of its fastest-growing, with plans to reach €6 billion ($6.7 billion). The French conglomerate will be making money off Day’s unpaid ideas, and not on a small scale.
Business of Fashion’s Osman Ahmed argued, not well, that fashion needs cultural appropriation — that the internet has once again spiraled into a “virtual lynch mob,” and that “Generation #Woke” is missing the difference between real exploitation and good-natured borrowing. To this, Teen Vogue digital editorial director Phillip Picardi tweeted that BoF is ignoring the context that fashion continues to have diversity issues and that it’s often cis white men who are doing the appropriating. “And when they DO appropriate, they use qualifying language backstage. ‘It’s a chola girl, but chic’ ‘its street, but an elegant version,’” he tweeted.
For high-end brands, Refinery29’s Connie Wang tweeted, being attuned to pop culture can easily slip into taking advantage of it: “Gucci has profited off low-culture art orig. created as a response to the inaccessibility of luxury (memes, knockoffs, even vintage styling).”
Where does inspiration end and appropriation begin? Like all things in the age of social media, this conversation has turned heated and will likely stay hot, simply because it won’t be long before another brand raises the question again.