Fashion and controversy go together like Lady Gaga and headdresses. In the pursuit of contemporaneity, fashion designers produce polemical collections, commenting or reflecting the anxieties and insecurities of the modern moment, whenever that might be. When the fashion world asks itself the question: "what shall I wear now?" the answer is that rarely can there be a button-up without some button-pushing in equal measure, a seam that is as it seems, or a body that goes uncontested. Fashion's most legendary maestros have been masters of PR too. It's not just Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid whose every move is watched by a generation of young women. The shady and scandalous lives of the designers also reflect contemporary consciousness and world events. Just look at the John Galliano scandal: the designer was booted out of Christian Dior after making xenophobic and anti-Semitic comments, but he seems to have been granted a pardon and has managed to land himself the position of head of creative at Maison Margiela. It seemed like post-Punk British designer Alexander McQueen selected his influences from the most disturbing aspects of public and private life. McQueen's fashion shows epitomized the public-spectacle-made-spectacular position that fashion shows occupy, defending their aesthetic relevance through politically charged choices of location, time, and decor. And as designers push the technical production and ideology of clothing to extremes, they inevitably wander into ambivalent territory and more often than not, find themselves in hot water as a result. Sure, getting into a smidgen of trouble has always been a nifty PR trick and a way of selling clothes, but designers are also boycotted by the industry and public for their stances: political, personal, and aesthetic. Let's take a look at the most stand-out moments in recent fashion show history.
15 Rick Owens Fall/Winter 2015, "Sphinx'
Already controversial to some extent for choosing to dress primarily men rather than focusing on women's fashion like the majority of the industry, Rick Owens is known for its gothy, all-black aesthetic. Adopting something of an outcast position, the brand is beloved by its fans but, like its monochrome look tends to draw a black or white reaction from the public. You either love or hate Rick Owens. One of the most talked about fashion shows of recent years was the Owens Fall/Winter 2015 season, Sphinx, which featured male models wearing garments with cut-outs designed to show off their members. We should have known better than to expect anything else from the house: the fashion world knows that Owens doesn't shy away from controversy, but the peen-peek stunt still erupted on the internet, spurring a frenzy of shocked posts. Of the collection, Owens explained that the focus put on the model's members was an effort to incorporate a childish or juvenile aspect to the presentation.
14 Alexander McQueen Spring/Summer 2000, "Eye"
Controversy King, late punky London designer Alexander McQueen, seemed to earn his crown with each and every fashion show he presented. One of the most reverberant shows was his Spring/Summer 2000 collection, which remains relevant and provocative today. The show featured as part of New York fashion week and seemed destined to shake things up. As though McQueen was some kind of vengeful angel or Prospero-like wizard, the show coincided with the night of Hurricane Floyd. Throughout his career, McQueen faced accusations of misogyny, despite creating some of the fiercest garments for women out there. He flung us into an ambivalent world in shows like Eye, which dealt with the theme of Western fears of Islam. Years after the designer's death from taking his own life, it seems like the East and West are still struggling with reconciliation. Many of the clothes in the show directly referenced traditional Islamic dress and were particularly controversial because they included sexualized versions of the niqaab. During the finale, models in burqas flew over a bed of nails that had risen from the floor. Drama.
13 Alexander McQueen all/Winter 1995
As we've mentioned, McQueen was pretty obviously one of the greatest provocateurs in the fashion industry, so it's no surprise that another one of his shows makes this list. At his Fall/Winter 1995 show, the shocks began with the show's title, and pretty much continued from there. McQueen's models were sent out bruised and battered, wearing tattered clothes of tartan and lace. Evocative of the designer's personal and design background in lower-class east London's lacemaking and Punk history, the show also garnered criticism for what was perceived by some as the fetishization of violence against women. Ever resistant of literal interpretations, McQueen threw another punch back, claiming that the show was meant to represent the ethnic cleansing of the Scottish Highlands by British soldiers during the 18th and 19th centuries. The ensuing controversy upset the notoriously sensitive designer. Far from glamorizing violence and objectification of women, McQueen argued, his intention was to design clothes that empowered women. "That really p***ed me off, being called a misogynist," he said.
12 John Galliano Spring/Summer 2000 "Haute Homeless"
His anti-Semitic comments weren't the first offense committed from the Brit-French designer John Galliano. In one of his last Dior collections before being ousted for public xenophobic comments, the designer created an haute couture collection based on Paris' homeless. Apparently, the Spring/Summer 2000 show was inspired by the homeless Parisians he encountered while he was running along the Seine. He presented a bricolage collection of shredded and tattered couture garments incorporating found objects such as miniature whiskey bottles (a reference to alcoholism) and kitchen utensils (referencing starvation) strung along the models' waists. Questions were immediately raised about the tastefulness of the collection. Many found the conjunction of homelessness with haute couture distasteful, as dresses can go for upwards of $50,000. Although the disparity between Paris' rich and poor has been the focus of ongoing civil unrest in subsequent years, criticism prompted Galliano to apologize for upsetting so many people. He stated that the show was not meant to offend but rather celebrate the style of the homeless people he encountered in Paris. "The fact that this is a matter of life and death seems lost on Galliano," Mary Brosnahan, then executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless said of the show.
11 Jean Paul Gaultier's Fall/Winter 1993 "Chic Rabbis"
Although he was fined and ousted from Dior for his anti-semitic comments, Gaultier also created a show entitled "Chic Rabbis", in Fall/Winter 1993. Apparently, the show was inspired by a trip to NYC where the designer encountered a group of rabbis leaving the New York Public Library. Gaultier said he loved the elegance of their dress with their hats and huge coats flapping in the wind. However, naturally, the collection came under fire for being culturally insensitive. There were also specific complaints from Hasidic groups concerning female models in the show who were wearing traditionally masculine hairstyles and clothes. And although the collection was deemed pretty culturally insensitive all round, it is also true that it struck a nerve with audiences, and succeeded in posing questions about societal groups, structures, and codes. Chic Rabbis may seem a humorous title for a collection of couture, but it certainly wasn't without its serious ramifications.
10 Chanel Spring/Summer 2015
It's the job of director of Chanel Karl Lagerfeld to always have his finger on the pulse. In 2015, he tapped into feminism's recent wave and staged a protest at the end of his show. Hashtag activism and pop culture protests are on the rise, and Lagerfeld's models also took to the 'streets': a runway entitled Boulevard Chanel, created inside the Grand Palais. Cara Delevingne and Caroline de Maigret had megaphones, while a parade of models including Kendall Jenner, Georgia May Jagger, Edie Campbell, Joan Smalls, and even Gisele Bündchen brandished signs that read "History is Her Story," "Feminism Not Masochism," "We Can Match the Machos" and "Ladies First." Even male model Baptiste Giabiconi waved a "He For She" banner, which just might be our favorite nod to Emma Watson's global UN campaign yet. The "Free Freedom" sign may have been an ironic nod to Free the Nip, the cause du jour for models like Delevingne, who opened the show, and Kendall Jenner, who Instagrammed about it post-show. "I'm Every Woman" blared from the speakers, and everyone danced in their seats. Did Lagerfeld just co-opt feminism to sell some clothes? All we know is that feminism itself is controversial at the moment.
9 Chanel Spring/Summer 2017
Over the years, Lagerfeld has transformed the Grand Palais into a supermarket, art gallery, IT center, and now a space station. This season, Paris Fashion Week was kicked off with an Instagram-ready display: a branded rocket ship launched at the end of the show and rose 33 feet to the tune of Rocket Man. The show was 60's space age futurism, with space cadets, blankets, and prints. The new and improved version of the two-tone pumps of fall 2015 was a knee-high, glittery, Jetsons-style boot with a toe cap, worn with glitter tights. As shown by the likes of Riri and the model world, boots are very much in at the moment. The ongoing headband trend seen across this year's fashion weeks was in evidence, too. Obviously, the Chanel version came with pearl embellishments. And because it’s not a Chanel show without a witty accessory, there was a rocket-ship bag. Rock on.
8 Marc Jacobs Spring/Summer 2017
Whizzing over to New York this year, the fashion week ended with a dramatic bang thanks to Marc Jacobs' decision to outfit the models walking in his show with multi-colored dreadlocks. As soon as images from the show hit social media, the outcry was swift, with many calling the use of dreadlocks — primarily on white women, including Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner — cultural appropriation. But Jacobs spoke out in response on Instagram, where he defended the dreads, saying “I don’t see color or race – I see people” and “funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair. I respect and am inspired by people and how they look.” Hairstylist Guido Palau was also quoted as saying rasta culture — regarded as the cultural origin of dreadlocks — was "not at all" the inspiration for the look. These comments didn't do much to calm critics, as the "cultural appropriation" controversy rages on.
7 Yeezy Spring/Summer 2017
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="962"] Via Dailymail[/caption]
Held at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, one of New York's most spectacular sites, Kanye West's now infamous show began with shuttle buses there and back. An hour and a half later, the bus riders joined the crowds and waited in shadeless 83 degree heat. The official start time was 3 PM, but it was not until 4:15 that the West family made their entrance and another 20 minutes before the first model strutted down the runway. The street-cast models were also said to have been standing, sitting and passing out in the middle of the runway. On top of this, the collection was generally agreed by reporters and fashion critics to have been as faded as the models. This could have been because they had been tortured for some hours prior to the show's commencement, but the pale palette failed to inspire most viewers. West, however, said: "I want to make pieces that can be timeless". It seems time was of the essence.
6 Givenchy, Spring/Summer 2016
The Givenchy Spring/Summer 2016 show built up a whole lot of buzz well before the models headed down the runway. But not necessarily for a good reason: the show was held in the shadow of the Freedom Tower — once the site of New York's Twin Towers — on September 11. Initially considered a pretty controversial choice of time and location for a fashion show, the fashion press was generally appreciative of the gesture. Givenchy's Haute aesthetic was strangely of a piece with the scale, drama, and surreal quality of this memorial of public mourning. Not to mention it's typically black mourning palette. And though it might not seem particularly respectful to use September 11th to sell clothes, its capitalist gesture was in keeping with the twin towers. Although still in somewhat questionable taste, the choice of setting and the collection itself were both praised by those who attended as a powerful and moving experience.
5 Victoria's Secret 2012
You won't remember this outfit from the VS 2012 runway because it was cut before the TV broadcast aired due to the stir it caused. Cultural appropriation much? As usual, it was the Native American tradition that was misused, this time by the fashion world. Controversially, Karlie Kloss, a white woman, walked the runway in a what appeared to be a knock-off of a traditional Native American headdress and tribal-inspired lingerie. Apparently, no one at the brand saw the potential problem entailed in the appropriation of traditional dress, in ignorance as to its meaning and origins. Cultural appropriation is a buzz phrase at the moment, and the use of Native American tradition in a non-traditional sense has been a hot topic throughout the United States, from sports to, of course, fashion in recent years. Perhaps picking up on this trend, or perhaps ignorantly participating in it, Victoria's Secret used their platform to showcase some pretty overt cultural appropriation. The brand and model later apologized for the awkward fashion mishap.
4 Vivienne Westwood Spring/Summer 2009
Rather than casting traditional models in her Spring/Summer 2009 show, the notoriously zany Brit designer Westwood chose to use members of the Roma community to showcase her gypsy-inspired designs at Milan Fashion Week. At the time, tensions between gypsies and Italians were running especially high, so it was a problematic and provocative choice. The collection and the concept of the show were both criticized by a member of the city's council, Tiziano Maiolo, who said: "I think the designer has a romantic notion about gypsies that is 100 years out of date. If she wants, I will take her on a tour of the nomad camps. These people do not want to work, they live by thieving and they have no respect for the law." But once again it seems like fashion succeeded in putting its finger right on the trickiest aspects of contemporary social life. Questionable, or exquisite taste? Provocateur campaigner-designer Westwood would have you decide.
3 Ksubi Spring/Summer 2002
The front row is the ultimate clique. So imagine the screams when live rats were released on the runway at Ksubi's shocking Spring/Summer 2002 show. The no-Fs-given crew of skaters, surfers, and street artist brand released a whopping 170 rats onto the runway, where according to reports, one rat died on the runway. The infamous brand debut at Australian Fashion Week featured dreadlocks, stonewash denim, a giant lampshade hat, and a rat-like headpiece. Critics and animal rights activists denounced the stunt, but there's no doubt that it put Ksubi on the global fashion map. Founder of Mercedes Benz Australia Fashion Week, Simon P Lock recounts the riot: "There was certainly a mood of expectation when the lights went down in the Blue Room. Like a scene from the Pied Piper, a wave of them in all shapes, colors, and teeth-length charged down the 30-meter-long catwalk. A wave of shrieks and screams followed them as the guests in the front row freaked out. There were people literally climbing over each other to get out of the front row and its eye-to-teeth view of the rats. Others tucked their feet up underneath themselves, fearing a stray rat was about to leap over the Perspex." Would you have been a Pied Piper follower, or a front row shrieker, so to squeak?
2 Rick Owens Spring/Summer 2015 "Cyclops"
Noted for his peen-peeping garb (see above) Rick Owns has never been shy of pushing the boundaries when it comes to clothes. This was apparent at his show, entitled "Cyclops", which featured models carrying other (human) models as accessories and backpacks. Besides looking seriously weird, many thought that the stunt dehumanized the models, in a grotesque and monstrous-seeming gesture in keeping with the show's title. But in fact, it also commented on the fashion industry's enslavement of people around the world in the pursuit of cheaper and more plentiful garments. The disparity between the makers and the wearers of the clothes was brought into direct visual focus in this bold move by the designer, whose advice to young designers hints at the controversy surrounding his collections: "Learn to not take anyone too seriously and learn to listen to your gut. There are so many ways to learn — not just academically...Logic tells me that you have to decide what you really want to do, do a lot of it all the time so you can throw away your mistakes and your voice will emerge for better or for worse...I wish I knew that I didn't have to try to be someone else — that I could just work with what I had...Be a hungry real artist."
1 Misha Collection Spring/Summer 2017
At Australian Fashion Week, Misha Collection is the latest brand to receive negative critical attention for whitewashing and cultural appropriation this season. The show angered the public when it sent a troupe of all-white models down the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia ramp, while Beyoncé’s “Formation” played in the background. Bella Hadid, who was purportedly paid $400K for walking in the show, led the troupe of all-white models on the runway. Beyonce was controversially pipped to the post by white singer Adele for Album of the Year, spurring accusations of racism. The “fiery black power anthem” Formation also highlighted the absence of racial diversity on the runway at Misha's show. The juxtaposition of the homogenous casting and the song’s explicit message of celebrating powerful Black women rankled with many. The backlash started after Hadid’s agency, IMG Models, posted a video on Instagram on Monday. “How you gonna use black songs but not black people smh,” wrote one user, while another praised the collection while criticizing the casting, writing: “Love their stuff but where is the variation in skin colors for their models.”