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Were Schiaparelli's ultra-realistic animal heads fashionably provocative or an irresponsible glamourisation of trophy hunting?

The controversial couture runway moment has ignited a fiery debate.

If seasonal runways are the Oscars of the fashion industry, then the couture catwalks are every creative director's Met Gala - less accessible to a mass-market audience yet the very pinnacle of high-end fashion design.

But while they regularly provoke conversation, few have ignited such a deeply visceral reaction as Schiaparelli's SS23 couture showcase which took place this week.

Eyebrows were raised on Monday morning before the first model had even stepped foot on the runway, as Kylie Jenner strolled through the Petit Palais to take to her seat. Those front row tickets may be famously hard to get hold of - especially so for couture shows - but it wasn't the young star's attendance causing a stir, as every guest's focus darted immediately towards the unexpected appearance of her plus one; an ultra-realistic life-size lion's head sitting perched on her chest.

For those jarred by the unusual accessory - which was mistaken by many for a real piece of taxidermy before it was latterly confirmed to be entirely faux, having been “hand-sculpted” from “foam, wool and silk faux fur” - there was little respite from the visual bombshell, as three of the collection's hero looks featured similarly life-like interpretations.

Modelled by Naomi Campbell, Irina Shayk and Shalom Harlow, the faux heads of a wolf, a lion and a snow leopard - all hand-painted to look as genuine as possible - soon stole focus from Kylie.

Image: Imaxtree

“Nothing is as it appears to be in Schiaparelli's Inferno Couture” explained the brand on its Instagram page, before clarifying that “no animals were harmed in making this look.” While, of course, this clarification was critical, it didn't do much to squash the furore.

“Unfollow immediately, sickening”, commented fellow fashion designer Georgia Hardinge, while other comments garnering a lot of public support included thoughts such as: “The whole concept of this is repulsive. Regardless of whether the animal heads are real or replicas, they promote trophy hunting, which is obviously disgusting, violent, and non-progressive. Try again.”

Image: Imaxtree

Schiaparelli explained its use of these animal replicas as “celebrating the glory of the natural world” and the result of taking “direct inspiration from some of [Dante's - the collection's key motivation] most arresting images”.

“The leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf - representing lust, pride, and avarice, respectively - find form here in spectacular faux-taxidermy creations”, reads the show notes.

But while there's no denying that the design behind these pieces is quite mind-blowing in its complex exquisiteness, we all understand the power of imagery and - thanks to the undeniable influence of these major fashion houses - there's no doubt that ethical impact must be prioritised over aesthetic spectacle.

Will Travers OBE, Co-Founder of The Born Free foundation - an international wildlife charity that campaigns to Keep Wildlife in the Wild - agrees, telling GLAMOUR UK: “Anything that glamourises, commodifies and trivialises lions, wolves and snow leopards, fake or not, and which portrays them as a ‘trophy worth having’ is, in Born Free's view, deeply misguided.”

“Wild animals and the natural world, including some of our most iconic species, are under massive threat.”

“When the film Born Free was made in 1964, starring my father, the late Bill Travers MBE, and my mother, Dame Virginia McKenna DBE, there were perhaps 200,000 wild lions across Africa. Now there may be just 20,000. There is no time to lose. This is our opportunity to show we care by ending trophy hunting, protecting wildlife in the wild, and make the world a better place, one wild animal at a time.”

Somewhat surprisingly PETA founder, Ingrid Newkirk, disagrees with the collection's backlash. “These fabulously innovative three-dimensional animal heads show that where there's a will, there's a way,” she tells GLAMOUR UK. “Kylie's look celebrates lions' beauty, and may be a statement against trophy hunting in which lion families are torn apart to satisfy human egotism.”

When questioned on the concern shared by many that this collection could encourage trophy hunting thanks to a return of taxidermy in mainstream trends, Ingrid makes the point that the brilliance of the designs - and the fact that many believed the heads to be genuine - proves that there is no need for the use of real animals in pursuit of art.

“Just as the rise of faux fur has made wearing animals obsolete, these hyper-realistic faux animal heads show that trophy hunting must be relegated to the history books, and anyone who desires to decorate their walls with a lion's head can now opt for one of these beautiful, respectful creations instead. Schiaparelli's innovative designs make the point that wildlife is to be admired, not destroyed.”

But, many may argue, are these hand-sculpted, hand-painted couture designs viable on a wider scale?

While Ingrid may not take issue with the visual messaging of the collection, she did share with us her deep aversion to the materials which were used in the making of these designs. “PETA is grateful that the show sparked such a robust conversation about the violence of trophy hunting and the cruelty connected to the materials in these pieces that were actually stolen from animals: wool and silk.”

“Next up, PETA urges Kylie to extend this creativity to exclude sheep shorn bloody for wool and silkworms boiled alive in their cocoons. We encourage everyone to stick with 100% cruelty-free designs that showcase human ingenuity and prevent animal suffering.”

Will agrees that both the brand and the women whose photographs have gone viral in the last twenty-four hours wearing these replica animal heads now have an opportunity to change the narrative.

“Given the extraordinary influence that people such as Kylie Jenner, Naomi Campbell and Irina Shayk have, and the power of brands like Schiaparelli, I would ask them to consider how they can help make things better, not add to the confusion.”

Because, realistically, that's what this runway has done. Putting creative brilliance and design prowess aside, the depiction of these beautiful creatures as merely an attractive accessory has not only distracted from an otherwise superb collection, but it's muddied such tricky waters in the name of artistic nuance. It's as simple as that.

It's not about “not getting it”, as some egotistical attendees have suggested in order to back up their social media coverage of the controversial looks up-close. It's about understanding that while art, in its broadest form, is an outlet for creative expression produced to incite an emotional response, it is not a vehicle through which to encourage thoroughly damaging behaviour.

When a byproduct of your ‘art’ - regardless of your intention - could be interpreted as vindication of brutal, bloodthirsty inclinations, the creative expression - however exquisite - is rendered futile.

This article was originally published on Glamour UK.

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