Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele is among a rare breed of designers that captivates you season after season. While his collections are easy to be mistaken as homogenous — the designer after all believes in evolution over revolution — Gucci remains one of the hottest tickets of the season, evoking a sense of anticipation ahead of each new show.
Add controversy to that mix and you’ve got a crowd paying attention.
The ultra modern set of mirrored floors and ceilings, and over 120,000 yellow LED lightbulbs covering the walls around the 100-meter long circular runway, illuminated by kaleidoscope of lights gave little away. Neither did the plaster, stone-like sculptural hermaphrodite mask that served as the show’s invite, nor did the dogs barking and lions brawling against the Basque carol Gabriel’s Messageon. The countless variations of face masks, golden ear cuffs — inspired by Eduardo Costa’s Fashion Fiction #1 gold sculpture — and wax Madonna tears worn by many of the models, too, could be confusing without context.
Upon reading the show notes — written by Michele’s long-term partner Giovanni Attilli — it all made sense, every detail of it. “The mask as a cut between visible and invisible,” it stated, referring to the facade people put up everyday, in which there’s both truth and yet deception. “The mask itself always holds a tension between divergent impulses: exhibition an concealment, manifestation and protection, vanity and modesty.”
“In today’s life, pieces of clothing are used as masks, they fill in who we are,” Michele tells a select group of reporters during a press conference post-show. The clothing he designed for his latest Gucci collection included his signature wild eclectic range of mix-and-match items, from faux fur leopard coats to quilted suiting and trousers, logoed knee pads, Hawaii shirts, Victorian era shirting and leggings that came in every colorway imaginable.
Girls held sneakers in their hands while guys wore heeled horse-bit loafers with the words “sucker” and “lollipop” on them, a subtle reference to Michele’s sense of humor and his love for the banal.
Masks, in the literal sense, came in versions of haunting masquerade, visor caps and in leather with sharp metal spiked. The latter being inspired by 16th and 17th century collars Michele found during an auction.
“They’re used to defend ourselves but when we wear them we also define who we are,” Michele says. “Many times I had to defend myself, I was a kind boy but I needed to wear spikes.” The barking dogs on the soundtrack now made sense, as did the show invite and setting which forced people to be hyper aware of themselves and others, literally being visible for the world to see from all angles. Golden jewelry covering ears and eyes was made in respect to the importance of our senses.
“Clothing isn’t something that’s dead. Garments are very much alive, they express themselves,” Michele goes on.
All made for genius theatre, just the way the Italian designer likes it. It’s clear that Michele’s creative vision has been allowed to stretch far beyond his design work on the runway, from innovative set designs to savvy marketing campaigns, unorthodox casting, his unexpected choice of collaborators and over-the-top visual merchandising in stores.
So it only makes sense why Gucci’s CEO Marco Bizzarri gives him the freedom to do so. Last week Gucci’s mother company Kering announced the Italian house’s revenue grew by and impressive 37 percent from €6.2 billion in 2017 to €8.3 billion in 2018. It says it’s on track to hit €10 billion soon.
Financial figures aside, Michele is building a luxury house with longevity, not an easy feat in an age when pressure on fashion designers has never been bigger with lead times shortening and the number of yearly collections increasing. But Michele has the rare ability of being in tune with the cultural zeitgeist, it’s what he and Bizzari have in common and why the pairing has been such a success story so far.
That doesn’t mean he always gets it right. Just last week Gucci pulled a black sweater with bright red oversized lips from its stores and issued an apology after social media users called out its resemblance to blackface, the racist caricature. It has since said it would “put four initiatives in place in a long-term plan of actions designed to further embed cultural diversity and awareness in the company.”
“It was a very important time time to me and the company. Of course we’re very sorry and this will help us do things in a different way,” Michele admits. “We’ve all learned a lesson and it’s here to stay.”
That’s Michele, not afraid of tackling the difficult questions head on (a Gucci representative initially declined to answer any questions related to blackface but the designer insisted).
When asked about Karl Lagerfeld’s recent passing, again Michele wasn’t press-shy. “Karl Lagerfeld was the most beautiful example, not just in fashion but in life. He exemplified life and I really loved him,” says Michele who worked under Lagerfeld and Silvia Venturini Fendi at Fendi in the late ‘90s. “He used to call me the DJ, because I had short blond hair, wore chains and always had my music with me,” reminisces Michele. When asked what that made Lagerfeld, Michele laughed: “He was sort of a Peter Pan, like a young boy.”