For all its innovation, the fashion industry has traditionally rebuffed diversity: the proportion of caucasian models remains overwhelming; major designers tend to be men; and the clothes showcased favour a particular (thin) body type. But this season, Jamie Brewer stepped onto the runway and a revolution was hailed. In Carrie Hammer’s show, the American Horror Story actress became the first person with Down’s syndrome to walk in fashion week and was closely followed by Jack Eyers, who became the first amputee to do so. At Desigual, Winnie Harlow, who has vitiligo, a skin pigmentation disease causing skin patches of different colouring, paraded in the house’s new season, whilst FTL Moda’s show featured models in wheelchairs. It would appear that diversity is very much in this season.
Accuse me of being plagued by cynicism if you wish, but that statement alone rings alarm bells as it nods to the fear that disabilities, in particular mental illness, are becoming the lastest fashion trend with Fiona McIntosh, founder of Grazia magazine, describing depression as “the new black”. In 30 minutes of eerie tinkling from an antique music box in a padded room with only a single flickering light bulb, the audience at Thom Browne’s SS14 show were transported into a stereotypical asylum. Subtlety is clearly not the artistic director’s strong point, with mannequins hanging from the ceilings by their necks. The most likely intention behind the provocative imagery is to shock the audience to ensure a memorable season. Nearly a million people worldwide take their own lives each year; this makes using suicide for a publicity stunt utterly repugnant. Indeed, it is morally questionable enough to exploit the phenomenon for one’s own gain but to do so when immersed in an industry where suicide is so rife is abhorrent. Each year, the industry gets faster, the schedules get fuller and the expectations on designers are building. This is all in addition to the culture of ‘perfection’ fashion cultivates. Last week marked the fifth anniversary of Alexander McQueen’s suicide, whilst John Galliano in 2013 told Vanity Fair in his self-proclaimed first sober interview, “I was going to end up in a mental asylum or six feet under.” Galliano, who was fired from Dior in 2011 for an antisemitic rant, offered one explanation for his behaviour. “I committed professional suicide because it was the only escape from the terrible pressures I was facing.” Creativity and brilliance have been linked both to depression and to schizophrenia for centuries, but it has long been the general approach to resignedly shake one’s head and express what a shame it was to have lost the archetypal troubled artistic genius without recognising the sheer pressure they were under to deliver. Thom Browne is an accomplished designer at the forefront of couture fashion and it is disappointing, if he is to connote suicide in his show, that rather than validly using his platform to raise awareness of this problem, he does so to spark a media storm.