Does sex still sell in fashion?

A model presents a creation from the Prada Autumn/Winter 2014 collection during Milan Fashion Week. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

A model presents a creation from the Prada Autumn/Winter 2014 collection during Milan Fashion Week. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Published Sep 26, 2023


Perspective by Rachel Tashjian

The age-old notion that "sex sells" was put to the test at the Spring 2024 shows of Milan Fashion Week, where it was hard to square big brands' ideas of what's hot with the way people are actually using fashion to insist upon bodily autonomy.

The marquee show of the week - in fact, of the season - was the debut of Sabato De Sarno, a former soldier of Pierpaolo Piccioli's design team at Valentino, as creative director at Gucci.

Fashion brands swapping in new creative directors is about as run of the mill as football teams swapping players - which is to say, it's just a part of the game at this point, adding to the seasonal zest even if it's a bit exhausting and formulaic.

But by the time the Gucci show rolled around on Friday afternoon, the pump had been primed for something, if not extraordinary or new, then at least different. (Good different!)

The entire city was plastered with the words "GUCCI ANCORA" - "Gucci again," as in the desirous raptures of "more, more, more!" - and a handful of pre-show press and imagery positioned De Sarno as the harbinger of a new and refined aesthetic.

"I want people to fall in love with Gucci again," De Sarno told Vogue, a slightly incongruous wish for a brand that made over 5 billion euro in revenue for Francois-Henri Pinault's Kering group in the first half of 2023 alone, when it was pushing products made by its ousted creative director.

We live in a culture of reboots, of course, and Gucci is the Spider-Man of resets: Tom Ford, who took the reins as a nobody in the 1990s, wrote the rules for the fashion house reinvention story.

De Sarno's predecessor, the Renaissance portrait-like Alessandro Michele, was almost singularly responsible for yanking fashion design into the age of Instagram: a mishmash of references and styles from all over the world and across history, shown off with a shameless braggart's irresistible flair.

De Sarno's task, it's believed, was to smarten things up, which is to say dull them down. But not too down.

Every brand is clamouring to make quiet luxury without saying they want to make quiet luxury, but every fashion executive knows people aren't buying $525 (about R10,000) Loro Piana cashmere baseball caps just because they like the way the fabric feels on their heads.

De Sarno's collection was a surprise - not because it felt new, but because it was a snoozy idea of sexiness.

He opened with a beautiful coat, shown over shorts and a white T-shirt, and followed with what felt like a 20-something's notion of what adults - somewhere, wherever they are - might wear: pencil skirts with enormously impractical slits up the front and back, minidresses galore, a few fringy skirts, going out tops, a sheath dress made of French terry.

A sparkling front row, including Julia Roberts, Ryan Gosling and Kendall Jenner, watched pair of tiny shorts after pair of tiny shorts materialize (many riding uncomfortably up the models' rears).

One particularly sad look was a pencil skirt worn with a gray zip-up sweatshirt embossed with "Gucci" - something you might throw on in a rushed moment of insecurity.

Nearly every look had a coordinating bag, pulling no punches about who the real stars are meant to be here.

What is this meant to inspire us to aspire to?

The clothes also raise questions about, one, how young people really think about expressions of sexuality, and two, what "luxury" actually means today.

De Sarno had planned to show the clothes outside on the street, but rain forced him indoors.

Maybe the youthful spirit would have come across more directly in the original plan. But you can see that Gen Z has embraced crop tops and short-shorts and lingerie-dressing not because we are living in a time of lip-smacking sensuality, but because many people are feeling a new sense of comfort and freedom with their bodies.

In other words, revealing your body isn't for the benefit of others, but for you alone.

A tightly tailored jacket and matching hot pants, or a minidress made from strange and stiff leather, doesn't say independence or celebrate that in today's world, what a person thinks of their own body is the only opinion that matters.

And instead, the Gucci clothes looked a bit vulgar - especially on a full cast of young, previously unseen models, uncomfortable with the runway expanse.

Second, it suggests a grotesque reality in the corridors of the luxury business, which is synonymous with fashion now: smooth, risk-averse, people-pleasing.

Luxury is no longer about showing us what we haven't seen before, but comforting us with the familiar.

What's hard to square here is that fashion designers have convinced the wealthy to wear the craziest stuff, especially over the past decade - the oversize tailoring and daring logomania of Balenciaga, or even Michele's cacophony of colours, snakes and sequins.

Now, executives are demanding, or fashion designers are eager to offer - or, more likely, both - a vision of global blandness. To dazzle, intrigue or delight is to fail.