The Disneyfication of Fashion
In early March, after the conclusion of both New York and Paris Fashion Weeks, the world witnessed ‘The Happiest Show on Earth,’ orchestrated by the New York City-based brand, Opening Ceremony, inside the gates of Disneyland. ‘The Happiest Show on Earth’ is a rather weird title for a fashion show in these decidedly unhappy times where news of sexual harassment, gun violence, and political unrest swarms our daily lives. Yet despite this world-wide turmoil, Mickey Mouse has left his mark on a number of sartorial collections over the last few years. While some designers (think Kenzo x The Jungle Book) went down the child-friendly route, others such as Gucci and Coach chose a much darker vision, scrapping any form of youthful bliss from their designs. Fashion has always had a penchant for fantasy in dark and dismal times, but with people both young and old opening their eyes and mouths to rising political issues, do designers have a responsibility to reflect the times, no matter how ugly they may be? Or is it a fashion designer's job to act as a symbol of hope and positivity?
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The history of Disney fashion collaborations is a long and twisted tale. It appears that the first time Disney's empire collided with clothing was in 1978 when Anaheim’s Disneyland held its very first fashion show entitled “The Evolution of the American Woman.” However, aside from the big business of fancy dress costumes, Disney’s first real collaboration didn’t exist until the 2000s when early streetwear labels like The Hundreds and Supreme first introduced Disney to an adult market. T-shirts printed with Peter Pan’s The Lost Boys and Mickey Mouse’s smiling face are sought-after items with increasing value in the resale market.
Since then, high-end brands have been soaking up inspiration from the Disney archives. Jeremy Scott’s collaboration with Adidas in 2010 introduced The Original Mickey Hi, a sneaker born from a love for the iconic animated mouse, while Riccardo Tisci transformed a Bambi motif into a must-have print for Givenchy in 2013. A year later, Comme des Garçons teamed up with Mickey and Frozen, and in 2016, Dolce & Gabbana celebrated Snow White with embroidered dwarves and apple-printed textiles.
“Disney is such an iconic world that no one can escape,” Giuliano Calza, founder of the Italian brand GCDS, tells Heroine. For Fall 2018, Calza's brand collaborated with Disney—both on the show soundtrack (which blared out snippets from childhood classics like Dumbo) and the collection itself—saw the iconic face of Mickey Mouse plastered across vibrant knits and a Sleeping Beauty graphic hoodie. “For me, it was a dream come true. I’m a 90s kid, I still cry at Mufasa’s death. I even got arrested at Disneyland Paris when I was 17; it’s been such a huge part of my life.”
It seems that in times of turmoil, designers reach for things that remind them of their worry-free youth. Disney, of course, is a particularly attractive option that spans both countries and cultures, making Disney-themed collections attractive to a global market. But beyond producing high sales figures for both Disney and the designers involved, collaborations like this are a means of reminding people that the world isn't all that bad: “We’re living in challenging and somewhat uncertain times so I think it’s more important than ever to bring a playfulness to projects,” says Christopher Raeburn who in 2016 created two unisex bags modeled in Mickey and Minnie’s likeness.
In more recent months, this sense of fun has hit both the high-end and high-street markets. Yoox has an entire section solely dedicated to Disney collaborations—Christopher Kane’s romantic rose-inspired Beauty and the Beast collection, a plethora of designs by the likes of Vans and Olympia Le Tan, and Markus Lupfer's apparel celebrating classic Mickey, nostalgic Toy Story and the Star Wars series. Many of these collections play up the whimsical nature of the Disney brand with playful color palettes and childlike drawings, but a few have gone down a darker route, showcasing Disney’s overarching themes of good overcoming evil and the circle of life.
Raeburn’s mouse bags, in particular, were certainly more macabre than traditional Disney toys with corpse-like Xs replacing the characters' eyes; a fitting tribute to the atmosphere of today’s society. He admits that the company gives designers complete creative freedom, saying, “Disney’s openness and willingness to experiment” provides “the perfect platform to create a range that is truly modern and unique.”
Despite the tendency for Disney collaborations to steer clear of politics, the nostalgic platform it provides does allow for subtle political commentary. Both Gucci and Coach took the romance and fun out of Snow White and instead honed in on the terrifying witch’s poison apple which signified the dangers of believing what you are told. With a president comparable to a typical Disney-esque villain (except much harder to beat), other designers are showcasing fairytale elements of Disney stories to remind us all that good may eventually triumph. Disney’s strong female voices are also being amplified through these collections—Beauty and the Beast’s inventive Belle was the main inspiration for Christopher Kane’s capsule collection.
So what’s the reason behind all this subtlety? Perhaps, most simply, designers long to be political—to shout "down with Trump" and brandish the #MeToo and #TimesUp hashtags—but they simply can’t for fear of being crucified. GCDS’ Calza, who happens to have a degree in political sciences, says he always wants to promote activism but finds it challenging to do so through clothing. "You can’t be political at all or people will judge it as a marketing tool," he says. "We’re concerned with a lot of causes, but just sharing images on Instagram won’t help anyone.”
Perhaps we are too hard on clothing designers—after all, they’re damned if they do (remember Dior’s $710 ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ tee) and damned if they don’t. Disney may really be the best way to reflect during this trying time and optimistically foreshadow the better days to come. Soon, in an ideal world, people like Harvey Weinstein will have had their comeuppance, gun reform will finally have taken place, and the world will live in some semblance of peace. It may sound fantastical but without fantasy, what do we have?