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Schiaparelli snow leopard couture
Courtesy of Schiaparelli

PETA thinks the Schiaparelli outrage is stupid, and it has a point

Despite all the angry internet users and anti-fashion conspiracy theorists, the charity described Daniel Roseberry’s couture collection as ‘fabulously innovative’

When Dante Alighieri spoke of the tortured apparitions he encountered on his voyage through hell, he described witnessing the souls of heretics being entombed in flames, adulterers battered by the winds of lust, and the violent submerged in boiling blood. There were nine circles in total but there should have been a tenth: dedicated to the kind of people that write things like “do better”, “unfollowed”, and “it’s a no” underneath a fashion brand’s Instagram post. This is what happened after Daniel Roseberry showed his latest couture collection at Schiaparelli – inspired by The Divine Comedy – where foam-moulded lion heads, snow leopards, and wolves accessorised hourglass gowns. 

“It is glamourising trophy hunting as fashion again as they look extremely real,” said one person on Twitter. “The price of a real lion’s head will sky rocket.” Another, on Suzy Menkes’ Instagram, said “How about putting a whole indigenous person on her [Irina Shayk’s] body? We will now understand the seriousness of the matter.” Though there are instances where critique is well-founded (like when a designer pedals hate speech, or is outed as a sexual predator) rarely is this kind of moral posturing warranted. Social media has created a new lens for almost all pop culture to be breathlessly analysed and fashion, perceived to be excessive and meaningless, is a dartboard for its most cynical hot takes.

Runways have always inspired strong reactions (humour, wonder, disgust) but the current locus seems to be rage – stirred by Balenciaga’s controversial SS23 campaign, which was quickly connected to tin foil hat theories about paedophile rings and satanism on TikTok. Just as Dante had lost his way in life, and was banished to the fiery abyss, so too have internet users. “This can send the wrong message that it's beautiful to walk around with an animal’s head attached to your clothes,” as someone else commented, despite the creations being made from resin, wool, and silk. That people think a couture collection might ennoble big game hunters is a little outsized; the designs harboured no violence, the animals weren’t bloodied, impaled, or punctured with bullet wounds. 

The aphorism used to be that everyone online was a critic, but they’re now also conspiracy theorists. Even PETA – as questionable as the organisation may be – has seen the value in Roseberry’s craftsmanship. In an interview with TMZ, the charity’s president Ingrid Newkirk said “[The look] celebrates lions’ beauty and may be a statement against trophy hunting, in which lion families are torn apart to satisfy human egotism… These fabulously innovative three-dimensional animal heads show that where there’s a will, there’s a way.” People often ask contemporary designers to be bolder in their visions, to channel the savage glamour of Alexander McQueen, but they wouldn’t have been able to stomach all the morbid fascinations with death, gore, and sex that he put forward. “Now I truly see why Alexander McQueen didn’t let these people into his shows,” as TheKimbino wrote on Twitter. 

Similarly, animal rights activists have spent decades campaigning for an industry-wide ban on fur, but remain unsatisfied with fashion’s alternatives. The same people are not outraged when faux-leopard print or crocodile skin emerges on the runway, despite the environmental footprint of producing those synthetic substitutes. Some of the sillier criticisms that have surfaced in the past 24 hours have challenged Roseberry to faux-taxidermy a human’s head as a fashion accoutrement. “How would u feel if those were dogs, cats or even a person’s head?,” one person commented on Schiaparelli’s Instagram, seemingly unaware that Rick Owens, Shayne Oliver, and Alessandro Michele have actually done that before. 

It stands to reason that the same righteousness – and annoying, virtuous tone – is rarely directed towards other visual arts with equal enthusiasm. “It really proves how people undervalue fashion as an art form and reduce it solely to consumerism because hyperrealism in other visual arts is hardly ever debated at this scale,” as HFT member Chloe Kennedy notes. Might galleries and museums start putting a ban on Gentileschi, Goya, and Caravaggio for encouraging people to behead their enemies and eat their young like a flank of raw meat? If anything, the collection compounded Elsa Schiappareli’s long-held interest in surrealism, where (cooked) lobsters figured on empire-waisted dresses and metal insects were strung together in acetate necklaces. 

The truth of those motifs proved less unsettling because they were more cartoonish, and people can’t project an emotional world onto beetles as they would with mammals. Spectators don’t want to see the actual suffering of those animals, they just enjoy the perfect rendering of an iconography. In his accompanying show notes, Roseberry said the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf represented “lust, pride, and avarice” – just as they did in The Divine Comedy – but perhaps they’ve now also become the unwitting symbols of their own ferocious commentators, their silent screams frozen into foam. All of this is to say: God help us when Damien Hirst, who is best known for preserving cows, sharks, and sheep in formaldehyde, launches his own – for now rumoured – fashion line.