What, exactly, is fashion’s obsession with geishas?
Last week, Vogue got in trouble for dressing Karlie Kloss as a geisha for a fashion shoot that will appear in the magazine’s diversity-themed March issue. And on Wednesday, Alessandro Michele presented his fall 2017 collection for Gucci, where, among the myriad of personality types (that ranged from “punk” to “bride”), he included the brand's version of a geisha.
According to the show notes, the collection was “a transformative whirl that reassembles fragments, codes, and stories projected on a fresh horizon of sense.” Never mind the term-paper language, but what Michele is suggesting here is that his use of geishas — and other Oriental motifs — is his creative right. It’s not the most political correct thing to say these days, and Michele is among others who feel this way.
Just this week, professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was dropped from speaking engagements and a book deal over inflammatory remarks meant to test the limits of free speech, and bait liberals obsessed with “political correctness.” The fashion industry has a history of pushing boundaries as well — as with any other art from that attempts to move on from the status quo — from many designers’ aesthetic fascination with homelessness to designers' erasure of marginalized people’s contributions to the trends they promote. When confronted with criticism, designers oftentimes respond with First Amendment reminders: “I wholeheartedly believe in freedom of speech and freedom to express oneself though [sic] art, clothes, words, hair, music…EVERYTHING,” Marc Jacobs wrote after he was attacked online for putting dreadlocks on models, and apologized.
Michele’s interpretation of Gucci has been unique because of the many ways he's broken the rules of what a traditional collection can be, as well as who it is for. This particular offering explored that idea of the Gucci community by playing fantasy dress-up with the models as part of an “alchemist’s garden.” Inhabiting different people’s perspectives and walks of life has been a strong theme this year, with Demna Gvasalia exploring “stereotypes” for Vetements’ most recent show. But Gucci makes an argument here — that creativity is borne from riffing on existing tropes. “Substances are selected, analyzed, decomposed, and treated,” the show notes continue. “It’s a creative process with the beat of slow incubation and sudden epiphanies.” You can imagine a greenhouse laboratory where one botanists toils for years to graft an apple tree onto a pine tree; somehow, magically, a pineapple emerges.
Gucci’s "pineapples" were born out of some obvious origins. There was the ‘80s hair metal dude. The nebbish nerd. The Palm Springs grandma. The guy who likes Wes Anderson too much. Japanese paper parasols adorned with flora and fauna motifs in the beginning of the show transformed into oversized velvet lampshades at one point. Bamboo walking sticks became gold-tipped arrows that became a Godfather-esque scepter adorned with a white cat and a brass knuckles. Chinese peony prints decorated a qi pao in Look 9 — by Look 112, it was on a ruffled blouse that looked more Swiss than Shanghai. This collection was as much about borrowing “Oriental” symbols (especially symbols associated with Western depictions of Orientalism, like Chinoiserie, rather than real Asian cultures) as it was about making the argument that parasols, peonies, and bamboo belong to the world, not just one culture. Plus, those elements have been an integral a part of Gucci's historic iconography — and Michele has proven to be a master of tapping into Gucci's archive to present old tropes in new ways. It's worth mentioning that this has led to incredible financial and cultural success, even outperforming the cash-cow that was Hedi Slimane's Saint Laurent.
Seeing any Western model dressed up in the costumes of minority ethnic groups and cultures that the West has colonized and exploited, though, inspires a knee-jerk reaction: it's culturally appropriative. The argument for the other side, that Michele also seems to endorse, is that cultural appropriation is just misinterpreted cultural appreciation — and that performing as other cultures and using from them for your own purposes is just a form of celebration. Basically, sharing cultures is good thing; minority cultures borrow from white cultures all the time. No harm, no foul.
But of course, there is harm — what this line of thinking does is reinforce existing power structures. White men and women are commended as forward-thinking for borrowing from other cultures, and non-white men and women are seen as silly or a curiosity. Consider the aforementioned Vogue shoot: Though geishas in Japan might see the photo spread as a novelty, or even a flattering homage, Japanese-Americans — within the main target demographic of the magazine — see it as yet another example of their culture being boiled down to a simplified stereotype (because, of course, the shoot is about "Japan" and "Asians" — it's not explicitly about geishas). It’s fashion pulling on the easiest lever, using the least possible effort, to appear cosmopolitan. In Gucci’s case, the relationships between the oppressed and the oppressors are much less easily definable, but there’s something to be said about a white man feeling like he needs to make a point that his magpie approach to cultural symbols is not only okay, but it is necessary.
“An androgynous, hybrid, spurious revolt […] saps the foundations of the deadly rigidity of dichotomous thought,” the show notes add. The brand describes dichotomous thought as good-evil, man-woman, inside-outside — it also can describe right and wrong. If political correctness means calling out things as wrong without leaving room for nuance, and free speech means qualifying everything as right without leaving room for nuance, then Michele is legitimate in wanting to reject dichotomy. This "you're wrong, I'm right" mentality has negatively affected discourse in America, the U.K., France, and in Michele's Italy as well. It could be argued that seeing the world through this lens is the impetus for every conflict, whether it's between two people or two nations. We need to look in the gray areas if we expect the world to become more interconnected and empathetic. We need to recognize more commonalities between us than differences. We need to make more pineapples.
But, the danger in that is getting too caught up in this pick-and-choose mood board path to creativity is that it becomes very easy to erase the life story of those symbols; to forget how they were used to hurt those who first created them, and reward those who appropriated them. Orientalism proposed that a fictional version of the East — where Asian, Middle Eastern, and North African countries all made up one aesthetic style — was in fact real.
That risk is actually revealed in Gucci’s new logo, an Ouroboros, which depicts a serpent (one of the brand's most-popular and most enduring symbols) consuming its own tail. It's message: Life is cyclical, but if we rely too much on repetition and appropriation, we’re doomed to destroy ourselves in the process.