The disabled artist tells FASHION how Gucci offered, and then rescinded, a potential collaboration.
After the blackface turtleneck debacle earlier this year, Gucci’s been trying to course correct, launching an initiative to help increase diversity in the fashion community. But its track record when it comes to cultural appropriation and insensitive management is far from stellar. There were the out-of-context Sikh turbans on white models last year, the mental illness-inspired collection just last month, and now they’re embroiled in a sticky mess with Vancouver-based disabled artist Sharona Franklin, which industry watchdog Diet Prada shared on their Instagram earlier this week.
Franklin, who has gained a social media following for her edible gelatin sculptures (and was featured in a New York Times story about Jell-o art in August), was contacted by Gucci in May to collaborate on an upcoming campaign. After signing an NDA and participating in multiple phone calls and chain emails in which her plans for the campaign were shared, the offer was rescinded citing budgetary concerns. Last week, Gucci’s Cruise ’20 campaign dropped, featuring a series of gelatin desserts that bear a striking resemblance to Franklin’s work. According to Diet Prada, the desserts were “supposedly attributed to set designer @davidjameswhite_ , who has since deleted his posts.”
FASHION reached out to Gucci for a comment, and received the following response:
“Brightly coloured jellies have been used previously by Gucci as a campaign decoration and have often been incorporated in designs throughout the years by different artists and chefs. Each selection process — for a campaign, for a show, for an event — consists of a series of phases before an artist is chosen for a collaboration. We do not always proceed with every artist we approach for consideration for a variety of reasons that can be logistical, technical or time-related. We nonetheless have the highest respect and appreciation for the creativity of all of the artists we consider, even if they are not selected for a collaboration.”
We spoke with Sharona about her work as an artist, how disability impacts her work, and how the Gucci “collaboration” came about.
Walk us through how the whole process went down, from the invite to the rescinding of the offer.
I was contacted in May by Gucci about this project with jellies in Italy. They said that they love my work and wanted to collaborate on a campaign. They emailed a few times and sent me an NDA, which I signed. We then got on the phone and they asked ‘what do you need to make them, what’s your process, how do you find materials, what are your elements, what inspires you?’ I spoke to someone at Simmonds [a design company based out of the UK], who said Gucci was one of their fashion clients, and was also emailing with the whole Gucci production team including the brand’s art buyer & creative production manager.
Did they give you any direction on what kind of work they were looking for?
They did. In an email they asked if products could be incorporated into the jelly. I responded: ‘Yes I incorporate fabrics and accessories and everything in the jelly. I can provide sketches. What kind of dimensions do you want? Let me know about the gelatin mould. I can source them or design them myself.’ Over the phone [the Simmonds rep] had said it’s going to be shot between July 2 and 5 in Rome, and he asked when I would like to come out there. I told them that my process takes about two days. So in June I asked if any solid dates had been confirmed. I said it’s getting close to the travel date, can you send over the contract and confirm the terms so I can review? That was June 10. I followed up, nothing, followed up, nothing. Finally June 21 they said due to the budget they’re getting someone else in Europe to execute it.
At that point had you already shared images and briefs with them?
All the images on my account we had kind of discussed and he said ‘let me know what you’ll need.’ So I’d shared details about how I inlay them into the jellies in layers because it takes a specific technique to insert non-edible objects into them. And I told them I would need at least two days to assemble it. And that’s why in his email he was trying to confirm with the rest of the team what those days would be.
What were your thoughts when you saw the Cruise ’20 campaign featuring jelly desserts?
I was upset when I saw the pictures but I was just trying to ignore it because I had signed an NDA. But so many people were messaging me about it [on social media], I thought ‘well, people should know because it is pretty unfair and unjust.’ It was very misleading for me.
Did you feel like you needed to consult a lawyer or speak to anyone about the NDA before speaking out about it?
I didn’t. I live in social housing and I’m disabled and I’m on social assistance. I don’t even have funds for anything like that. Even for my doctor’s appointments I often have friends help drive me and stuff. My life already has a lot of barriers and challenges so I think I just.. I was worried about the NDA but I also thought ‘this corporation doesn’t care about me or a lot of people.’ I honestly didn’t think that it would get to Gucci, I thought Gucci’s so big and this stuff happens all the time, no one’s going to notice.
And lets talk about your work, because that’s what attracted Gucci to you in the first place. Tell us about the kind of work you do as an artist.
I do edible and biodegradable sculptures. I do a lot of papier mache along with gelatin because I like to use materials that decompose and are more connected to nature. I’m really inspired by creating new mythologies, kind of like bionic mythologies about current issues. A lot of my work is about bureaucratic structures and divisive economic structures, and how marginalized people are often left out of larger industries. A lot of my work is advocating for that. But a big aspect of my work is the cellular component of the gelatin and the connections to the body. And biotechnology as well. Because I’ve grown up taking a lot of different treatments like DNA modifiers and transgenic medication and I’ve always been really curious about where these things come from and how they’re not really less discussed. A big part of my practice is also subverting domesticity within disability.
What do you mean by that?
A lot of disabled people become so tethered to their home and are often deemed un-useful in the workplace or invalid in reproduction and especially in feminine roles like becoming a mother or taking care of the home because it is a lot more challenging for us. But I just want to work within those areas to show that it is entirely possible and you can simultaneously be successful and productive doing creative work and doing domestic work, and being a disabled person.
I saw that you commented on Diet Prada’s posts requesting that they highlight the fact that you’re a disabled artist. Can you explain why it’s important to you that that be addressed?
It’s important for a few different reasons, the first reason being that disabled people of all different types of disabilities have to work so much harder to get to the same places that non-disabled people experience professionally. The other thing is that they specifically asked me [about my disabilities], which I think is rude and interrogative. If someone identifies as a disabled person, just as someone identifies as trans or a person of colour, it’s nobody’s right to ask them to verify or specify what that is out of a medical context. They asked me and I thought well on one level maybe I want to keep it private but one another level maybe this is a good place to advocate for these specific disabilities. So I told them and then they chose to leave it out. And that erasure was pretty upsetting because I don’t often tell everybody my diagnoses.
How does your disability impact the work that you do as an artist?
When I’m bedridden I’ll use my computer a lot, I’ll make digital work and I’ll write down ideas. When I make physical work like the sculptures I have to take a lot of breaks and I have to ask a lot of friends to help me acquire materials because I can’t really carry things and lift things, and I can’t drive.
These days brands are talking so much about diversity and inclusivity but their actions aren’t matching their words. What do you think the industry can do on a whole when it comes to actually enacting some of these things that they like to talk about?
I think they’re really great at showing the aesthetics of how to work with people, especially people with disabilities. They look to find people who are very visibly disabled [without] the understanding of how to treat people. So I think they need to reconsider the way that they communicate, the way the industry is set up, the way that bodies are dehumanized, the way that production is dehumanized, I think all that’s really important. And the way they outsource work—a lot of artists are getting ripped off, a lot of third-world workers are being exploited. All of that needs to change.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.