Last Saturday, I did my usual Milan Fashion Week Montenapoleone scout, bouncing from store to store and then finding sanity inside the pistachio-hued Pasticceria Marchesi, where nothing bad could possibly happen. Inside the Gucci store, a woman in her mid forties was trying on a deliciously pink quilted coat from the current cruise collection. I couldn’t help but overhear the sales assistant, with her gentle powers of persuasion ask, “What does this coat make you feel inside? Are you someone who is soft and feminine? Or do you want to be more aggressive?” The woman was a little taken aback. She certainly looked like she had interacted with more than her fair share of luxury brand sales assistants but perhaps no one had ever asked her how she really FELT in the clothes that she’d be spending thousands of euros on. Whether it was briefed from the powers at Gucci or not, this unconventional sales repartee struck me as one potent indication of how Gucci has so thoroughly and utterly changed as a brand – in its aesthetics and then everything in its universe that trickles down from Alessandro Michele’s direction.
I could have merely banged on about the many MANY (an impressive seventy looks) pretty and adorned surfaces that graced the dramatically staged runway last week. Against an immense digital screen backdrop of crashing icebergs, blossoming flowers and white noise and behind a black veil that makes some of my photographs of the show, look like I was watching it on a not so clear TV screen, there was more, more and MORE of those retro-tinged, globe-trotting and mega intricate ensembles, that have now so indelibly made their mark on not just Gucci’s cash registers but also the industry at large (Michele’s Gucci-isms have been flourishing this season on the runway as well as on the high street).
On a Gucci PR’s cue, I went to see the recently opened exhibition entitled Symbolism: Art in Europe from the Belle Epoque to the Great War at the Palazzo Reale. It wasn’t a specific reference in the collection’s press notes, which instead focused on French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s, joint-penned tome Capitalism and Schizophrenia. But the overall idea expressed in the exhibition – that artists, who drew upon internal dreamlike musings and thus found their own reality, could easily be seen in tandem with what Michele is doing at Gucci.
Walking through the eighteen themed rooms, you could see the parallels between Michele and early 20th century artists such as Odion Redon and Fernand Khnopff, in their depiction of subconscious imaginings, mythical creatures and muses. Their mission was to escape reality and oppose contemporary civilisation and similarly, Michele’s clothes go against the mainstream fashion grain to be pragmatic, commercial and adaptable. You can’t levy any of those qualities on say, a dress that sweeps the floor with pastel ostrich feathers and is embroidered with Michele’s chosen codes of hands and shooting stars. Or on a Chinoiserie-flecked brocade coat that comes lined in pink satin and embroidered with a secret dragon, just for the wearer to enjoy.
One of my favourite parts of the exhibition were the impressive painted panels by Italian artists Galileo Chini and Vittorio Zecchin, that owe their debt to Gustave Klimt. These visual feasts of pattern and colour celebrate the magic of decoration, which of course is a huge contributor to what Michele is doing. Some might say that it is all merely surface but upon closer inspection, like the Symbolist painters before him, Michele’s rendering of say a serpent, a tiger’s head, a pair of hands or even a kitty cat have deeper connotations. Women are part animal, mysterious sphinxes and showing their strength through Gucci’s newfound language, as devised by Michele. The finale mint green gown featured a black panther beaded on thee front, with an American football number on the back – a latent inference to the Black Panther Movement, but more likely a follow-up to Beyoncé’s epic Super Bowl performance of Formation (the video of course features a visible support of Gucci).
Symbols are of course a fancier way of describing the brand traits and signatures that consumers can identify and covet. And to most of the Gucci clientele, not much of this parsing of symbols will resonate, nor does it need to. What remains is an emotive appreciation of the clothes, which going by that conversation I overheard in the store, seems to be something of a priority at Gucci under Michele. And as other designers enter in the conversation of broken systems and socio-economic discontent through their collections, Michele shuns these sort of reflections of reality, by creating clothes that give internal pleasures, even if on the outside they shimmer, shine and catch the eye in every way possible. Mining these surfaces becomes a treat when you give them the time they deserve.
Ferdinand Hodler, “The Chosen One” 1893-94
Wilhelm List, “Magnolia” 1900
Giulio Aristide Sartorio, “Pico, roi du Latium, et Circé de Thessalie” 1904
Gaetano Previati, “Night” 1909
Pierre Amédée Marcel Beronneau, “Salome” 1905
Gallileo Chini, “La primavera che perennemente si rinnova” 1914
Odilon Redon, “Muse auf Pegasus” 1900
Pierre-Bonnard, “Model-in-Backlight” 1908
Vittorio Zecchin, “A Thousand and One Nights” 1913
Giorgio Kienerk, “Le printemps de la vie” 1902
Gustave Moreau, “The Sirens” 1872
Franz von Stuck, “The Sin” 1893
Leo Putz, “Parzival” 1900