Attending a runway show is like seeing a live concert. Hundreds of fans rock up wearing their newest band paraphilia while anticipation builds in the lead up to the first track. United they stand.
In fashion, it’s Gucci’s fandom that’s more dedicated than that of any other fashion brand in the world, with attendees from all ages and backgrounds uniting twice a year at the brand’s Milan headquarters during the city’s fashion week. Those not decked out in opulent, in-your-face Gucci lurex dresses, studded horse-bit loafers, or double G-logo handbags are the ones who stick out.
But then that band plays a different genre and the crowd is confused.
Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele pulled that card out for the luxury brand’s latest Spring/Summer 2020 collection by one eighty-ing the ostentatious aesthetic he’s so carefully architected over the past five years during his tenure as creative lead of Gucci.
The show’s opening 60 beige and ivory looks were different renditions of straitjackets, worn on models standing still on three conveyor belts. There was no color, no accessories, no makeup, no distractions whatsoever, forcing the viewer’s attention to the garment’s construction and silhouette itself. The space in which the show was set was stripped back to a clinical core — red light loomed over the Olafur Eliasson dreamscape-like space pre-show, which then went white after its start (all of which will be re-used for Gucci's store displays).
While beautifully crafted, the Yeezy-like straitjackets didn’t sit well with many showgoers, nor with model and non-binary artist and musician Ayesha Tan-Jones, who staged a protest of her own by holding up her hands with a message that read “MENTAL HEALTH IS NOT FASHION”.
She makes an important point. Luckily those garments won’t be for sale, instead — in true Michele fashion — they served a more symbolic purpose.
“Straitjackets are the most extreme version of a uniform dictated by society and those who control it,” stated the brand on its show notes. One might speculate that it was Michele’s way of giving the finger to critics who have grown tired of Gucci’s repetitive show formats by saying “you want minimalism, here you go.”
What is certain, however, is the fact that Michele designed these blank-styled clothes to represent how through fashion, power is exercised over life. Normative dressing to eliminate self-expression in other words. After all, an object or rule only exists because we as human beings say so.
“Biopolitics,” Michele called it, quoting French philosopher Michel Foucault. It’s the power over life and body. “The power that legitimizes some existences, confining others. A power that imposes conducts and paths, that prescribes thresholds of normality, classifying and curbing identity, and chaining it to what is preconceived.”
If that sounds weighing, it is. But Michele has got the antidote to free ourselves from those societal norms, challenging the notion of the garment and what it stands for in its entirety. For the following 89 looks, he put self-expression back on the radar, urging consumers to resist the confinements we put on life by encouraging new forms of subjectification, and disengage the pressure of social normativity.
So this time, the music went up, models stomped down the runway in colored suiting, lace kink dresses, and oversized sunglasses. Many wore latex and carried whips. Gucci as we know it, celebrating both extravagance and sex — a number of accessories state "GUCCI ORGASMIQUE."
The message was much to the amusement of front row guests including A$AP Rocky, Gucci Mane, Jared Leto, Dapper Dan, and Iggy Pop, the latter wearing bejeweled sandals and a snake embroidered, studded biker jacket with the words IGGY on the back.
It was one of the best Gucci shows in years. Not only because for every guest at the show Gucci will plant a tree in the Municipality of Milan, thereby offsetting the emissions connected to the event, but because a lot of the designs were simplified — there were no severed heads, baby dragons, spiked masks or other gimmicks that distracted from the fashion itself. The cleaner aesthetic reminded many of Michele’s debut 2015 collection for the house that laid its foundation and set it up to become a brand that today is nearing annual revenues of $10 billion.
And it’s developed. The main reason Gucci has been so successful in recent years is that it deeply understands the power of meaning in different things to different consumer groups. Through smart digital marketing and an impeccable merchandizing strategy, the brand today caters to a wide range of demographics, from red carpet stars and avant-garde fashion editors to the nouveau riche and streetwear-wearing teens.
As much as press, retailers and consumers alike might dismiss Gucci’s repetitive evolution, that level of desirability and brand building can’t easily be replicated.