The Main Character Energy Of Alessandro Michele’s Gucci

Earlier this week at the Gucci Cruise show, I sat atop a hill around a castle from the 1200s and saw: the 1920s inside the 1940s interpreted by the 1970s, ruffs, looks from the mind palace of the legendary costume designer Edith Head, a flimsy outfit with a dalmatian-print muff that I overheard another attendee call “immensely powerful,” smokin’ hot weirdos in sloppily-fitted peignoirs, a see-through black gown covered in seashell chunks, and really cool jewelry.

Creative director Alessandro Michele’s interpretation of this collection came in the form of an 824-word treatise on the relationship between philosophers Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt and the latter’s love of quotations. Huh! Kind of pretentious. But go off I guess! Because you know what? Maybe there is simply not enough pretension in the world. Give us more puff around stuff! If you didn’t know, as Michele wrote, that “what can seem, at first sight, atomized and dispersed, like the stars in the sky, through Benjamin’s eyes becomes an assembly of complicity: a connective structure that lights up the darkness through the epiphany of a constellation”—well, it’s high time you learned!

I think that’s why creative celebrities love Gucci—it has a mix of unapologetic and often tacky beauty lacquered with an artist’s view. The collection was called Cosmogonie, implying the creation of a new system of stars, and fittingly, celebrities were ever-present and dazzling at the castle. Lana Del Rey balancing a cigarette between two long red varnished fingers; Paul Mescal giggling under his mustache; Jeremy O. Harris swanning. (Harris is one of the only celebrities who really knows how to swan anymore.) Lou Doillon with her pregnant belly bare beneath a black suit, a cowboy hat on her head, and a lollipop in her mouth. Elle Fanning’s eager-to-please (but passably evil?) grin. Dakota Johnson behind aviator sunglasses on a long glam chain, uninterested in doing anything that she wouldn’t enjoy. Jodie Turner-Smith dressed in red and black stripes like a tap dancer from the most glamorous circle of hell. It’s so old Hollywood.

I guess what all these people have in common is that it seems at some point or another, someone told them what they needed to do to succeed, and they ignored it and are all the better for it. They have the creative courage to be fabulous. At the (absolutely awesome) afterparty, Mark Ronson played a remix of Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness,” and she got up on a chair and lip synced. Even Lana fangirls over Lana! That’s true movie star behavior.

Speaking of true movie star behavior: this collection was packed with geometric suits and dresses that reminded me of movie costumes from the 1930s and ’40s, when self-starter screen sirens like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo were obsessive about what they wore in their films. (Edith Head once said, “You don’t design clothes for Dietrich. You design them with her.”) And there is a sort of self-determination about the characters that have made Michele’s Gucci runway what it is.

That’s why it was so exciting for those first few years (Michele started as creative director in 2015), because these figures in spangly Yankees jerseys over yowzer-priced ice skating getups and indescribably sleazy footwear were exactly what we thought all the “experiences” of the mid-2010s—attending music festivals, listening to TedTalks, doing nouveau forms of meditation, eating clean, reading books of essays, posting pics from Positano and Tulum—were going to make us look like. It was the aesthetic manifestation of the maniacal but discriminating social media feed: well-traveled, relaxed but anxious, open-minded, and wealthy. That’s probably the closest thing we have to a contemporary definition of “cultured.”

Many of the models in zigzag dresses and skirt suits looked like angry, nasty, crazy women ready to kill for love or money. (Probably both.)

It’s beginning to feel like fashion has moved past Instagram, though. I don’t think it will ever leave the platform, and I think brands see it as an essential tool for communication, but the influencer community and fashion at large are rapidly trying to embrace TikTok and even leaping ahead precociously to web3 and the metaverse. (Gucci recently started accepting cryptocurrency as payment in its stores, which I think is kind of genius—in the metaverse, the culture is costume.) Representing your personality through a bunch of squares of stuff, almost like a checklist to prove you’ve had the right experiences, no longer feels au courant. And at the same time, the fashion world is tittering about the fact that Gucci has gone a bit stagnant (Business of Fashion described the brand’s financial performance as a “growth hangover,” though Gucci is largely responsible for Kering’s pandemic-era success and business is booming in North America), and that the shows are a now-familiar remix of 1970s geeky-swag bricolage.

Is there a relationship between the malaise of Instagram fashion and the Gucci Question, as it were? More important to me than Gucci’s sales figures are the fact that the clothing has gotten much more interesting over the past three collections, starting with the Love Parade show last November that brought us Jessica Chastain’s one-for-the-books Oscars dress, and into the sex and suits of Fall 2022. And now with this Cruise show, a sort of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” set in the Middle Ages. (Which…dope.)

Given the strength of the clothes, I wonder if the Gucci Question is really about something more like the problem of a great band whose fans ruin the fun. You love the songs, you love the musicians, you might even feel like they’re you’re everything, but you go to the festival and the fans are like people from a completely different universe. If I see one more guy in Dover Street Market wearing those white Ace sneakers with that little gold bee and a T-shirt from a forgettable Supreme collab, filming TikTok videos about having the best weekend in New York….you get the picture.

Anyways, doesn’t every brand under the sun have this problem? And there’s a shift that I’m sensing in these clothes—a transformation that began last fall, from the forensic study of global richsterdom of Michele’s earlier collections to a “Hooray for Hollywood”-inspired pursuit of treating yourself like a character. Many of the models in zigzag dresses and skirt suits and lusty fur coats, with their strong antiheroine shoulders, looked like angry, nasty, crazy women ready to kill for love or money. (Probably both.)

The clothes had a polish and strength designed to prepare you for the role of your life, rather than some slate of consumer experiences: a chocolate-red Paul Poiret-ish velvet dress with silver flowers and a diamond cut-out at the belly button; a fantastic gray and black striped skirt suit that reminded me of Garbo standing in a striped suit in a striped room in The Single Standard; and a creamy suit with diagonal buttons and aggressively absurd red feather epaulets. Costume designers from this period indulged in this sort of geometric play because it looked so great on camera, creating multiple surprising tableaux over the course of a few frames, which might suggest that Michele, too, is tired of a world contained by the still frames of Instagram and ready to create clothes that move.

In between these looks were a sloppy slew of see-through dresses and underpinnings. (Even the bras and underwear were translucent, which could have looked lascivious but instead, at least in front of a giant castle, looked almost galvanizing.) The stiffed sinner? The jilted lover? Or just a gal, sitting at her mirrored boudoir smoking a cigarette because everything is realllly bad right nowww!

As with the Vuitton show last week, there was a thrilling comfort with feminine darkness, which is what makes early Hollywood films so splendid. But it also signals a willingness to see something bad and gritty that has forced women to build ourselves into a relentless wall of strength over the past few years. The true glamor girl of today is no innocent ingenue, but a determined, irate woman who will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

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