Will Schiaparelli’s Animal Heads Define the Post-Balenciaga-Scandal Era?

In the wake of 2022’s Balenciaga scandal, one figures that fashion brands are currently walking on eggshells. As it revealed, after all, all it takes is a single controversy to turn the world’s hottest brand upside-down.

Schiaparelli is no Balenciaga, though.

The haute couture house, currently helmed by American designer Daniel Roseberry, doesn’t create hoodies and sneakers for the mass market; Schiaparelli instead focuses on flashy runway shows, handmade apparel that celebrities wear on the red carpet, and ultra-exclusive creations created for deep-pocketed clientele alone.

So, perhaps Schiaparelli figured that it exists above the social media scrum that tore Balenciaga apart. If that’s the case, let the controversy that Schiaparelli faced on January 23 put things in perspective.

That was the day that the venerable French maison kicked off Paris Fashion Week’s couture season with a typically glam runway show packed with celebrity attendees, from a crystal-studded Doja Cat to Kylie Jenner, who wore a dress fitted with a massive, handmade lion’s head sculpture.

The lion head, like the other animal faces created for the Schiaparelli Fall/Winter 2023 runway show, was entirely fake, a manmade reference to the highly symbolic three beasts of Dante’s Inferno.

However, the firestorm that the collection swiftly whipped up was all too real.

Across Twitter and Instagram, fallout was swift. Commenters on Schiaparelli, Roseberry, and Jenner’s Instagram posts ripped the collection for “glamorizing” big game hunting, “provoking” dangerous behavior against animals, and “sending out mixed messages.”

Schiaparelli added a disclaimer to its Instagram posts — “NO ANIMALS WERE HARMED IN MAKING THIS LOOK.” — but it was too late. The animal heads were stripped of intent and dissected at face value.

This reaction mirrors, to some extent, the controversy recently stirred by a few recent Balenciaga campaigns.

Therein, a child model posed with a leather-strapped teddy bear from Balenciaga’s SS23 collection which then kicked off a wave of outrage that spread across the globe.

It must of course be said that that Schiaparelli’s controversy will not likely hit the ignominious heights of the Balenciaga scandal.

For one, Schiaparelli is alien to the average onlooker whereas Balenciaga is comparably quite recognizable (at least for its prior history of controversial creations if nothing else).

The Balenciaga scandal was also furthered by American political commenters, especially those on the far-right. It dovetailed neatly with politicized terms like “groomer” and existing suspicions about the fashion industry.

It’s highly unlikely that the Schiaparelli fallout will similarly align with American reactionaries. Right-wing pundits, generally the fiercest proponents of the culture war, are pretty sympathetic to big game hunters, for instance.

Still, the Schiaparelli incident may give the fashion industry further pause. It just goes to show how quickly even the most benign intentions are deprived of context by social media users hungry for call-outs and cancellations.

Not that the industry is above legitimate criticism, by any means. Brands have been rightly tackled for racism and insensitivity but these fresh scandals are of a different breed.

Rather than calling out institutional injustice, these controversies are kicked up by public interpretations of source material.

Schiaparelli’s inspiration and resulting designs surely seemed inoffensive on paper. Who could’ve expected the animal heads to blow up like they did?

That’s the problem presented to fashion brands in the wake of the Balenciaga scandal: is it possible to predict blowback in this ultra-sensitive cultural climate? If not, what then can you do, if anything?

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