Disneyana: How cartoon characters became the height of fashion

With the launch of Gucci's new Mickey Mouse-inspired collection, a look into the luxury world's love of Disney characters

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Gucci’s leather Princetown loafers, with their sleek shape, horsebit buckle and optional shearling lining, have become a footwear staple in the fashion world. They come in solid hues, metallic or velvet finishes and gingham patterns, sometimes topped with embroidered bee and floral motifs or the brand’s trademark red and green stripe. But this season, an entirely new rendition of the shoe is making its debut. Lined with lamb's wool, this It-slipper is decorated with Mickey Mouse emblems that dance across a brown background of double-G logos.

Women's GG Disney x Gucci Princetown slippers.
Women's GG Disney x Gucci Princetown slippers.

Gucci x Mickey Mouse

According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2020 is the Year of the Rat, and to commemorate the Chinese New Year, which commenced on January 25, Gucci joined forces with one of the world’s most iconic rodents, for a limited-edition collection of accessories, clothing and jewellery. Knitted sweaters, tracksuits, t-shirts and hoodies from the collection feature the playful Disney character, who also makes his mark on duffels, backpacks, luggage sets, clunky trainers, rubber slides, watches, shawls and bucket hats. For Dh10,950, you can get your hands on the brand’s cult leather Marmont bag reimagined with fanciful illustrations of Mickey and Minnie.

Miu Miu in Wonderland

These launched hot on the heels of another luxury brand's appropriation of Disney. Miu Miu, known for balancing ladylike style with a fresh, rebellious flair, wrapped up 2019 by releasing a capsule collection of festive sweaters that featured famed Disney characters from productions like Bambi, Alice in Wonderland and The Aristocats. Priced at Dh3,900, the bright, childlike sweaters have been selling swiftly on sites like Farfetch.com and Mytheresa.com.

They’re characters you’d spot on children’s clothing and school bags, yet adult men and women are shelling out thousands of dirhams to don stylish reinterpretations of these cartoon characters. They certainly make for good Instagram fodder, but is there something psychological at play? Are these wealthy consumers in the midst of a midlife crisis, provoking grown men and women to gravitate towards icons more commonly plastered on plastic lunchboxes and kids' colouring books? Not exactly. The cartoons are simply part of a wider style trend. Nostalgia has been a recurring theme on the runways of late, from the resurgence of bum bags to bucket hats, and it’s what’s fuelling this fashion fervor too.

'We can relive a little bit of our childhood'

“Disney is a part of everyone, it is what we have all grown up watching as children, and then when we grow up, with our families,” explains Heidi Shara, the Dubai-based founder of online personal styling service, Wear That, and ex-luxury womenswear buyer for Chalhoub. “So, the fact that we can wear something that is iconic, and has been part of us since we were children, teamed with some of the coolest brands, means we can re-live a little bit of our childhood, while still looking cool.”

Fashion and fairytales go hand in hand; they're both built from similar themes of escapism, nostalgia and mystery.

Disney icons hold universal appeal, offering fashion lovers, irrespective of race, religion or culture, a chance to turn back time. “Fashion and fairytales go hand in hand; they’re both built from similar themes of escapism, nostalgia and mystery. Disney’s captivating illustrations have served as an inspiration to both pop culture and fashion over the last 118 years – they rekindle memories and resonate with people from a broad spectrum,” explains Corinne Amelia, CEO of personal styling and shopping agency Style Me Divine.

“Our generation has grown up watching, dreaming and fantasising about Disney. The highlight of every childhood holiday was visiting Disneyland and being overwhelmed with emotion at the chance to meet and greet Donald Duck. Nothing quite brings those feelings back like being able to relive them as an adult, and now you get to look insanely stylish at the same time. Collaborations with Disney fundamentally make luxury more relatable in a playful yet pristine approach; the grown-up way to love Disney,” she explains.

Frozen in time

Shara's favourite instance of Disney in designer fashion was Kenzo's 2016 Jungle Book-themed collaboration. And while characters like Mowgli, Alice and Mickey may be timeless features of Disney's storied legacy, some brands are experimenting with newer films – like Frozen, for instance. "I have such a soft spot for Frozen, so of course I wanted to get my hands on a Comme Des Garçons X Frozen tee," says Shara, who points out that these collaborations are often timed to coincide with the anniversaries of Disney films, or with new releases. Commes Des Garçons launched its Frozen collection to mark the one-year anniversary of the popular motion picture, and when the new Cinderella film was released in 2015, luxury accessories brand Charlotte Olympia launched a Cinderella-themed capsule collection, which reimagined her iconic glass slippers. These transparent platform heels, priced at Dh6,960, were adorned with Swarovski crystals. Another item from the collection was an orange, Swarovski-studded, suede pumpkin-shaped handbag, costing Dh3,655.

While some of these luxury fashion pieces may seem gimmicky, or one-off trend pieces without longevity, Amelia says that on the contrary, they can hold timeless appeal. "Gucci's iconic Ace trainer was a hero piece of the last decade, as was its Marmont Handbag – team these with Mickey Mouse and they are guaranteed classics," she says. And while it might feel like we're seeing a resurgence of Disney in fashion now, the luxury world's relationships with the fantasy film powerhouse is in fact deeply rooted. And these collaborations, both old and new, historically sell like hotcakes – often garnering stupendous resale value. In the 1930s and 1940s, French jewellery maison Cartier produced limited-edition 14-karat gold charm bracelets topped with enamel Disney character charms – and while they retailed for prices under Dh400 when they first released, they've now become rare and coveted. Last year, a Cartier bracelet depicting Snow White and the Seven Dwarves sold at auction for Dh436,176, and a Cartier Pinocchio bracelet is currently on the Christie's auction block.

Shoes from Gucci's new Mickey Mouse-themed collection. Courtesy Gucci
Shoes from Gucci's new Mickey Mouse-themed collection. Courtesy Gucci

Disneyana endures

“Disneyana” is a term that has come to cover Disney-themed memorabilia, which includes clothing, accessories and jewellery. Maha Al Quaiti, marketing manager at The Luxury Closet, which sells pre-loved designer goods, says that while clothing usually has a lower resale value than accessories, since ready-to-wear trends are constantly in flux, limited-edition Disney fashion pieces have a hype value that makes them more in-demand.

"The aim of these collaborations is to target a younger generation, or art-driven individuals, and they create a big buzz, so the pieces become more expensive when they're no longer produced," she explains. Red Valentino, a diffusion line of Valentino aimed at youth culture, put out an entire Snow White-inspired collection in 2014, which featured clothing, clutches and shoes with punchy prints modeled after poisoned apples and the heroine's trademark red hair bow – some of these items landed online at The Luxury Closet, alongside a Cinderella clutch by Charlotte Olympia.

Bambi couture

Though many high-end collections that pay homage to Disney are bright and peppy, some designers reimagine the characters through a darker lens, influenced by edgier, grunge-inspired fashion – a savvy approach, since streetwear has been dominating the runways in recent years. Bambi first debuted on the catwalks at Paris Fashion Week in 2013, when Ricardo Tisci incorporated images of the loveable deer in sweatshirt, t-shirt, tote bag and backpack designs for Givenchy. These were, for the most part, black, and keeping with the aesthetic of the fashion house, borderline-gothic. According to Amelia, Tisci made Bambi “a style icon” that year, as the brand’s Bambi-themed products reached cult status.

Marc Jacobs’s 2018 Mickey Mouse collection also took a streetwear approach and featured deconstructed, graffiti-style images of the mouse on denims and oversized hoodies. “Nowadays, work and day attire are becoming more casual and fun, and luxury brands are embracing youth culture by including 20th century icons like Mickey Mouse or Bambi to their clothing lines. This kind of collaboration is universal, and the main aim is to attract millennials,” says Al Quaiti.

Luxury brands are embracing youth culture by including 20th century icons like Mickey Mouse or Bambi

So, while Disney fashion items may certainly evoke a sense of nostalgia for older consumers, they’ve also helped luxury fashion houses appeal to a younger audience. Coach, for example, was an aging American leatherware label before Stuart Vevers joined as creative director in 2013 and gave the brand a more fresh and youthful identity, pushing brighter colours, trendier silhouettes and younger celebrity ambassadors. In 2016, Coach debuted its first Disney collaboration and a year later, the two teamed up again on a wider range of leather goods featuring both Mickey and Minnie.

In 2018, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White were the muses for the label's A Dark Fairytale collection. "It was fun to explore the darker side of these stories and mix Disney's nostalgic charm with Coach's creativity to bring my memories from these fairy tales to life within our world of accessories and ready-to-wear. The Disney spirit truly reinforces the new youthful perspective we are bringing to luxury at Coach," stated Vevers. The names of the Seven Dwarves, like Grumpy, Happy and Sneezy, were embroidered as patch-like appliques on clutches, cross-body bags and totes, while flowers, jewels and poisoned apples were plastered on hoodies, t-shirts, jackets, shoes and a leather notebook – the latter was bought by this writer, and it is where, once upon a time, she started jotting down notes for this very story.