A procession of transhumans, walking in trancelike step through a suite of operating theaters
– Sarah Mower, Gucci Fall 2018 review, Vogue Runway
For those fashion philistines of you still unaware, Alessandro Michele is luxury fashion’s greatest disrupter. Appointed to Gucci as Creative Director in 2015, he has reinvented the brand as one of the industry’s biggest commercial successes. The sorcery behind Michele has been his maximalist aesthetic hedonism in mining late 1970s glam through a dazzling ethnographic travelogue. Gucci’s latest venture is a new Masters program at Polimoda, Italy’s leading fashion school. The credited postgraduate course will be taught by leading Gucci professionals and upon completion, students may secure a coveted internship at Gucci or one of the other labels owned by Kering, its parent conglomerate. This means finally for students a direct return investment is now available between the prosaic work of a Masters research and the tinsel psychedelia of Gucci’s fecal matter.
The fashion press are equally excited. 1 Granary, the youth mouthpiece of the corporate university, writes “Are brands the future of fashion education?” A kind of naive question since fashion universities already market themselves as employment programs for billion dollar multinationals (our alumni work at Louis Vuitton, Puma etc.) Polimoda simply makes their realisation as corporate appendage exceptionally clear. What makes this Masters such great satire though is just how perfectly Gucci’s cheesy fanfiction approach to design allegorises the happy marketisation of the university today. This harmony could not be better expressed than the Polimoda University Concept statement, so lyrical I’m quoting it in full:
Language disguises the mind and fashion disguises the body. Given fashion is language, fashion is thought. The thought-moment is what we call concept.
On the contrary, today’s aesthetics of glamour reflect the ethics of possession, mass narcissism, screaming titles, finance and programmed obsolescence of technology.
The concept of fashion displacement brings attention back to what really counts: the body and mind of young students, their gaze as it is, full of dreams and nightmares.
The greatest aesthetic revolution is therefore the absence of glamour. It is not realism but simply reality, it is the present and future life of subjects, our students, who do not want to be objects.
Away with the masks and commercial promises, it is the time to concentrate on content and research the key that opens the doors to knowledge: to become what you are.
Of course, only the opposite of this drivel is true. The global policies of deregulation and privatisation, in varying but permanent degrees, have transformed the university from a public good into a knowledge economy. Adopting free-market ideologies, students are handled as customers and academics, service providers; all competing for bits of human capital. Degrees are streamlined for “real world” prospects in which the humanities are made redundant. University presidents and vice-chancellors whose salaries exceed a million a year work as stockbroker managers while the proliferation of deans and deanlings manufacture strategic plans detailing anodyne axioms that are endlessly interchangeable. Literature regarding the corporate university is extensive, such as its governance by shareholder capitalism (Wendy Brown), the fall of the faculty and rise of managerialism (Benjamin Ginsberg) or as a criminal organisation (Fred Moten & Stefano Harney). As part of the MA online brochure, Polimoda praises the “innovation” of one student, unable to afford tuition costs, who raised the money through a GoFundMe. This is the sadism of the academy today: financially fracking your network for an internship training.
But if all this reads terribly tired to the Sternberg Press literate reader, Gucci gives you a refreshed update with its utterly gay despotic tackiness. A kaleidoscopic pastel face-fuck of sci-fi monarchs, hollowing out queered pasts for a Dazed & Confused present. Take their Pre-Fall 2018 video campaign for example, which recreates scenes from the May ’68 riots shot with a hilarious mix of vintage filters in HD render. What better trailer for the general Guccification of the University? The aspirational revolt of the working class and student activation of educational institutions, fabulously narrated in Kering glam. While Harvard has their sponsored professors of sleep medication, Arizona University has its Starbucks pedagogical partnership, only the Fashion University has the renaissance-raver Alessandro Michele.
We shouldn’t just pick on Gucci though, despite Polimoda’s particularly deistic embrace. Kering has its omnipresent hands in several fashion universities. Take for example the branded alliance with the London College of Fashion in working together towards “social responsibility”. In this merger of fantastic inequality, Kering receives a valuable and cheap research program of student-labourers whose efforts are repaid with years of debt peonage. But you can’t blame LCF for their Faustian bargain. The beast is in the building and our only choice is how to work with it. It’s also probably true that the Guccification of fashion academia is a relatively benign acquisition in contrast to its departmental peers: Big Pharma directing medical schools or Raytheon funding science research. At the same time, fashion is one of the top global pollutants. When the University approves these branding hacks to talk and teach, never is their composed psychobabble confronted by their passionate activism for human misery: the wage slavery of third-world citizens, cannibalizing the earth through toxic textile manufacture, staggering tax evasion, the exploitation of blood diamonds or the overproduction of unfathomable amounts of clothing. And as our bureaucratic logic abstracts any responsibility, no one leader is to blame.
Nevertheless the theology of Fashion Business teaches us ethical emancipation. In these lectures industry fellows parade their entrepreneurial work done in “activating” impoverished slums. Like how the Ethical Fashion Initiative organisation motivates an incredible colonial reimagination of the “African worker” as commodified artisanal labourers applicable for a detached Western enterprise. The answer to Gayatri Spivak’s question “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is yes duh, but only through their use-value under luxury fashion. This is the new “ethical regime” of the free-market. At the 2018 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, one panel labelled “Leading the Change” included bosses from Kering, Li & Fung Trading, H&M and Target. Amidst all the virtue-signalling, one “leader” did offer a remarkable admission (and I paraphrase): wage-slavery cannot be alleviated as that would require corporate moral pariahs in lifting the wage, an impossibility, as the market, by definition, is competition. The university is integral in legitimizing this logic. Itself a church of competitive financialization that promotes these venal misanthropes, it simultaneously appears as an independent moral arbiter.
Whether or not Gucci’s saturated Wes Anderson safari discotheque is your thing, Michele’s talent in designing Pepsi pansexual activism is just as lucrative as the upward mobility designed by the University. The press notes for the Fall 2018 collection quoted Donna Haraway and Michel Foucault with the same conciet as academia’s current season in quoting social justice. And with Polimoda’s acquiescence to the dreamy lobotomy of Petra Collins™, we align with Kering’s bottom line above all else: their requirement for greater accumulation of new capital, in which ethics are only produced through lethargic, principally unverified, piecemeal reform. As Kering’s economy of trust and goodwill is bolstered, the material consequences of its inequality fuels astonishing human misery and environmental destruction. As the university metabolises these forms of investor innovation, dusty principles of self-governance and independent creative inquiry are replaced with androgynous sci-fi Colors of Benetton leaders, electrifying the brand of education and ethics.
A concept developed in Elke Gaugele’s essay The Ethical Turn in Fashion. Policies of Governance and the Fashioning of Social Critique.
Matthew Linde is an independent fashion curator, writer and PhD candidate at the School of Fashion & Textiles, RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. His research project addresses the boutique as a performative space that seeks to expand curatorial and communicative approaches for fashion practice. He is the founder of Centre for Style, an experimental venue for fashion curation and alternative retail strategies, that made appearances in various art biennales and institutional contexts from 2013-2016. He is based between New York and Melbourne.