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When the late British socialite Tara Parker-Tomkinson was detained for hours at Zürich Airport in 2013, she made the best of it. She played backgammon with the authorities; she tweeted about the ordeal. It was all due to a mixup. When her luggage was scanned, security spotted what looked like two guns in her belongings. But the objects that raised alarm weren’t quite the real deal. They were Chanel’s Miami Vice platform sandals — stilettos designed to look like pistols.
The brainchild of Karl Lagerfeld, the shoes debuted as part of Chanel’s 2009 Resort collection. While the pumps that appeared on the runway were reportedly made of actual gun casings, the shoes for public consumption were made of plexiglass. Yet Tomkinson couldn’t easily convince airport security that the heels, also faves of Madonna and Ashlee Simpson, weren’t deadly weapons. In fact, in 2011 Parker-Tomkinson’s shoes wound up in customs for five days because of a similar misunderstanding.
Named one of Footwear News’s “10 Most Iconic Shoes from the Runway,” the Miami Vice shoes exemplify how two worlds that seemingly have little in common — high fashion and gun culture — have intersected. After Chanel released its pistol pumps, Saint Laurent debuted its Fall 2014 ready-to-wear collection, complete with gun-print shirts, dresses, purses, and jewelry worn by celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Rihanna. The pop star has also carried the “Guardian Angel” tote gun bags designed by Netherlands brand Vlieger & Vandam; those totes are still available. In 2016, country star Miranda Lambert jumped on the gun chic trend, showing up to the ACM Awards in a pair of $849 Joyce Echols gun holster heels. Those heels remain available for purchase as well.
But as calls for gun law reform have grown their loudest, and celebrities are more likely to wear orange flag pins for gun violence awareness than to mix couture and firearms, fashion has to reframe its relationship to guns, say industry experts and gun control advocates.
After dressmaker Jane Dougherty’s sister Mary Sherlach, a school psychologist, was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, she could no longer focus on fashion. She shifted her attention to fighting gun violence, speaking before lawmakers in her home state of Colorado and nationally about the issue. More than five years after the Sandy Hook shooting, Dougherty still campaigns for gun law reform but has found her way back to fashion, doing custom bridal gown alterations.
“It’s fantasyland,” she says of working in the bridal industry.
But she bristles while contemplating how fashion has used gun chic to sell a femme fatale fantasy to women. “I think it’s shocking and shows no empathy. They’re glamorizing a lethal weapon. I think it’s insulting to women, demeaning.”
She says she’s seen corsets and underwear featuring holsters and questions why any woman would want a gun positioned near her nether regions.
“Are women designing these things?” she asks. “Is this what women like, or is this men trying to entice women to start purchasing little pink pistols? It’s pretty sad.”
In contrast, she applauds celebrities for wearing orange in support of gun violence awareness but says their show of solidarity is long overdue. She knows people affected by the 1999 Columbine High School shooting and notes how long they’ve been in need of supporters.
“We have to hope in all industries, people take a stand,” Dougherty says.
And some brands are. After the February 14th mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Gucci quietly donated $500,000 to the student-led March for Our Lives demonstration taking place Saturday in Washington, DC, and in other cities nationwide. But it notably did not mention the huge donation on its social media feeds or issue a press release about the move.
When a company supports any political issue, especially one as divisive as gun control, it risks alienating consumers. Henry Navarro, a professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, says that because fashion is a business, brands must determine what their bottom line is before making a political statement. Who are their customers — NRA supporters or members of the mainstream public?
“They have to make their calculation before they make any move that would alienate their core business,” he says. “It’s always a calculated decision.”
But after a company takes a stance on an issue, it’s important for the retailer to have conviction, Navarro says.
“The problem is if you don’t follow through with it, it can backfire,” he says.
To win the public’s goodwill, expect to see fashion retailers distance themselves from all things firearms, says Jess Mederos, a New York-based fashion and wardrobe stylist.
“I think they’re going to pull anything that’s gun-related, especially now with everything that’s happened — the marches and all of the reform that’s happening,” she says. “I don’t think fashion brands will want to be caught in the proverbial crosshairs of this movement and be on the wrong side of history.”
But gun chic was once a way to court controversy. Long known for pushing the envelope, Madonna played up her pistol-shaped stilettos in 2008 by pairing them with a modest black dress. She seemingly wanted all eyes on her footwear.
“We know that Madonna has a bit of a punk side,” Navarro says. He asserts that for her the shoes may have represented a form of empowerment. At the time, her marriage to film director Guy Ritchie was unraveling.
Six years after Madonna stepped out in her Miami Vice heels, Rihanna appeared to be using the same playbook. When she went out to dinner in gun chic, she carried not one, but two pistol-themed purses. One purse was shaped liked a gun and another featured gun print. By carrying two such clutches, she made it impossible not to notice her unorthodox fashion choice. But both women faced criticism for their fashion-and-firearms looks.
A representative from a group called Mothers Against Murder And Aggression told the British newspaper Metro: “I am horrified that Madonna can see these shoes as fashion. As a mother herself I would have thought that she would have paused for a second and thought about all the young people here and in her own country that have died because of gun crime.”
The Guardian also criticized Madonna for her “killer heels” while noting that “unusual heels are very au courant in fashion.” And the Huffington Post called out domestic violence survivor Rihanna for sporting not only the Saint Laurent clutches but also the gun-embossed Vlieger & Vandam tote years earlier, when so many abused women die as a result of gun violence. Rita Ora, Rumer Willis and the singer Cassie have also carried V&V’s Guardian Angel bags, which the Museum of Modern Art added to its permanent collection in 2006.
Designer Carolien Vlieger told the online magazine Shift in 2008 that she and husband Hein Vandam begin designing the Guardian Angel bags as a reaction to xenophobic news reports about violence in Rotterdam’s immigrant communities.
“The bags were more a reaction to the media angle than to anything we experienced ourselves,” she said. “We thought it was kind of overreacted, a way to make people feel unsafe. We never expected to go on with the Guardian Angel bags for so long!”
Today it’s hard to believe that an A-list celebrity would brazenly embrace gun chic or that a fashion brand would release a collection of such fashion. In fact, purveyors of the trend like Saint Laurent and Joyce Echols did not respond to requests for comment from Racked about their controversial past collections. While it might be unwise for brands now to do anything to make them look like gun sympathizers, Mederos is not hopeful that the gun chic fad will die for good.
“I definitely think that for the time being we will not be seeing ‘gun chic’ like in previous seasons, but I have little faith that it’s the last that we’ll see of gun purses and shoes,” she says.
Eliminating gun-inspired fashion is one move retailers can make, but donating to causes like March for Our Lives shows the public that a brand isn’t simply giving lip service to an issue, Navarro contends.
It lets customers know that “I’m going to put my pocketbook where my mouth is,” he says. “When you do it the other way around, it looks like you are taking advantage of the hype. There’s a really fine line.”
Designers Jill Martinelli and Sabine Le Guyader of jewelry brand Lady Grey announced Tuesday that they would donate all proceeds from sales of their helix cuff to March for Our Lives. Martinelli has a personal connection to Stoneman Douglas High. She graduated from the school in 2000, and her younger sister is currently a student.
“My little sister lost one her lifelong best friends, our sweet neighbor Luke, along with three other friends that day,” Martinelli said in a statement. “Sabine and I know just how hard it is to stand up for gun control in any way, but the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas have stood up harder and pushed back stronger than anyone else has....”
Martinelli and Le Guyader stressed that it’s not the first time Lady Grey has publicly supported gun control. When Ivanka Trump purchased the helix ear cuff in 2016, the duo announced that it would donate money from her purchase to Everytown for Gun Safety.
Lady Grey isn’t the only small retailer to donate to the gun control cause. Handbag retailer Kara announced on March 13th that a portion of proceeds from its hand-painted Masha Reva pinch pail bags would support March for Our Lives.
“I think a lot of brands are getting more involved in donating or raising awareness for causes they support, given the political climate in 2018,” Sarah Law, Kara’s founder and designer, says.
Navarro argues that context is important when discussing the intersection of guns and fashion. In the 1960s, antiwar imagery paired guns with flowers or doves to promote peace. Such imagery begged the question, “What if guns could shoot flowers instead of bullets?” Navarro says.
If fashion continues to turn to guns for inspiration, it will likely be in this form of pacifist imagery.
But dressmaker Dougherty thinks guns should have no place in fashion, period.
“There’s no reason for that kind of look,” she says of gun chic. “People are dying.”