Fashion labels embrace rebellious May 1968 mood
Fifty years ago, France was swept by a wave of social unrest, the May 1968 student and worker protest movement. As the country reflected on how to commemorate those events, fashion labels wasted no time in stepping into the breach. Names like Gucci, Etam, Sonia Rykiel and Camaïeu have recaptured the barricading imagery and the yearning for freedom which marked those heady days, by launching dedicated products, advertising campaigns and special events.
French label Sonia Rykiel introduced a new handbag model, ‘Le pavé parisien’ ('Parisian cobblestone' - a readily available weapon for the May '68 demonstrators), rectangular in shape and made from bullock hide. The new bag, by mimicking the shape of something “once used to storm the Parisian streets,” rekindles “the rebellious spirit typical of Sonia Rykiel’s early career.”
Sonia Rykiel is rooted in Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés district, not far from the Sorbonne University - one of the protest movement’s hotpoints - and at the time its collections contributed to the unshackling of the female figure from dated design strictures. According to Frédéric Godart, a sociologist of fashion and lecturer at the INSEAD business school, with this new handbag the label gives a clever nod to the spirit of the times, using “a certain kind of irony.” “It’s by no means a matter of ignorance, because [Sonia Rykiel] was created in those days and the choice is deliberate, but it’s very amusing to see that a cobblestone, a heavy object synonymous with violent rebellion, can turn into a harmless luxury handbag!”
The ad campaign for Gucci’s pre-Autumn 2018 collection, entitled ‘Gucci takes to the streets’, goes down the road of blatant parody. Steeped in a May '68 mood, it follows, reporter-style, a group of students as they sit in at a political meeting, set up their banners and join a demonstration. It looks real, though these young men and women are clad in Gucci from head to toe. A contradiction? The Kering group’s label has been ridiculed on social media, as people denounced the appropriation of a protest movement that was a hotbed of anti-capitalism by an extraordinarily profitable luxury group.
Instead, according to Frédéric Godart, the Gucci campaign is “an expression of total creative freedom, through which a brand can make any subject matter its own, retaining only the elements which are relevant, in this case the visual elements specifically.” Gucci’s is “a sort of parody, not in the negative sense of the word: a vision that is detached from politics, retaining only an aesthetic element, however idealised.” Gucci’s characters are hippie-ish, starry-eyed students, while the May 1968 movement also mobilised blue and white-collar workers, intellectuals and agricultural labourers, all of them united against governmental policies.
Was ready-to-wear born in 1968?
Footwear brand Kickers didn’t even exist in May 1968, but nevertheless it has introduced a product inspired by the period: one of its signature bootie models was personalised for this season by a student of Créapôle Paris, the French capital’s applied arts academy. Kickers claims it embodies the 1968 legacy. “Kickers is a child of May 68, and its story began in 1970, driven by a burning desire to outfit a young generation that was intent on living its dreams,” wrote the Royer group’s label.
The advent of ready-to-wear fashion in France was indeed linked to the evolution of society in the 20th century, and the 60s were the decade which hastened the rise of fashion designers over the great tailoring names. “Ready-to-wear fashion first appeared in 1945, but it established itself alongside haute couture in the 1960s. A few years later, in 1973, it was institutionally recognised,” said Godart, referring to the creation of the French Union Chamber of Ready-to-Wear and Fashion Designers.
“It’s no surprise that fashion labels wish to celebrate May 1968, as it was a period which played a big part in revolutionising the apparel market,” added Godart. Jeans and miniskirts became ubiquitous, and so did figure-hugging synthetic fabrics.
French lingerie retailer Etam tried instead to give a contemporary twist to the anniversary, and from 17th to 20th May turned its shop windows into free-expression boards, where clients could write their own messages. May 1968 marked “the start of a liberation movement and of a new awareness from which the feminist movement of the 1970s emerged,” wrote Etam in its Frenchliberté manifesto, emphasising how the fight for the liberation of women is just as much of an issue now as it was then. Etam’s initiative may elicit a smile, but by making the anniversary resonate with current ideals and grievances, the label is trying to connect with the aspirations of its existing and potential customers.
All of these initiatives offer the ideal opportunity for using a “very vivid communication language,” as Frédéric Godart puts it. Rykiel mentioned its “rebellious spirit”, and Camaïeu played on the words ‘grève générale’ (general strike) by printing ‘rève générale’ (universal dream) on one of its t-shirts. Indeed, May 1968 is a bottomless source of slogans for breathing new zest into the fashion industry’s sometimes (too) uniform communication style.
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