MILAN, Italy — It began with a thunderclap. As disconcerting as the catwalk carpet, woven with pink snakes in full 3D effect. Alessandro Michele announced his presence in ways both overpowering and insinuating. Fashion is his language, clothes are his words. But the way he presented himself with his show on Wednesday was almost as a cartographer, mapping emotion, like the extraordinary inspiration he claimed, Madeleine de Scudéry’s Carte de Tendre from 1654, “a map of tenderness, a moving topography of desire”. What kind of research does it take to cough up a fur-ball of such impressive dimensions?
“I become mad sometimes,” Michele admitted. “Looking at a 1970’s way to do fabric from the 18th century. Trying to use this kind of vocabulary to write a new story.” He said he was designing up until the very last minute. He only stopped because the show was about to start.
True, there is absolute madness in what Michele is doing at Gucci — but it is shored up by the most extraordinary optimism. “Sometimes we have everything in front of us and we don’t realise,” he said. So he put everything in front of us, a gorgeous chaos of old and young, old and new, done and unfinished, shiny and dull, prim and louche, magical and terrifying. In fact, paradox is his language just as much as fashion is.
That’s why the snake is such a motif for Michele. It coiled down the spine of outfit after outfit, toxic but entrancing. Its symbolic nature could scarcely be lost on a designer who is so engaged by the meaning of signs. The collection was laden with details — map prints, embroidered eyes and mouths, beaded birds, pearls studding the heels of shoes, rings and things — that played like a history of Italy in all its contradictory mass of Catholicism and profligacy. Michele’s particular skill is to make that past look like something the future might crave. “They’re the bags my mother was using,” super-chef Massimo Bottura marvelled from his front row perch. “But Alessandro is projecting them to 2025.”
If a punkish proposal seemed like the essence of the men’s collection that Michele showed in June, he amplified it for his womenswear. It’s fabulous that a spirit of defiance and confrontation could be attached to clothes so seemingly delicate. But that may be Michele’s ultimate paradox. From fragility comes a fashion statement of overwhelming power. Remember, the show began with a thunderclap.