LONDON, United Kingdom — As if you needed any further proof that Alessandro Michele dreams big, he momentarily had his sights set on Buckingham Palace as the venue for the presentation of the latest Gucci collection in London today.
Obviously, that was never going to happen, but Westminster Abbey can scarcely have seemed like an easier get, so Michele was understandably surprised when the Abbey said yes. And that is how the Michele army, shock troops of mad beauty, came to be dressed under the majestic stained glass windows of the octagonal Chapter House, and marched through the Abbey’s crepuscular Cloisters, while a choir of angels sang the antique folk song Scarborough Fair.
The unlikely, once-in-a-lifetime air of the whole event meant it was quintessential Michele: a gorgeous overload that seemed to defy reason and taste and order. “You put more and more just to be crazy,” he said backstage, in that octagon of stained glass, “because when you are crazy, you have the illusion of fashion. And fashion is the biggest illusion you can have.”
But Michele is, of course, crazy like a fox. The looks he showed, 96 veils of illusion, will disassemble effortlessly into piles of sensational knitwear, closets full of pretty little dresses and proper pleated skirts, mounds of new accessories (the embroidered oversize hobo looked like an early winner) and the occasional spectacular bib-fronted evening gown in the grand style of Hollywood master Adrian.
Michele knows just how to seductively spike the sweet with the sour, literally in the case of the lethal spines that littered the collection or the roaring, snarling menagerie with which he beaded piece after piece, figuratively in the combinations of cloth, colour and ornament that pushed the ruffled and bowed and ankle-socked Tenenbaum kookiness to maximal extremes: a sheer turquoise lace confection, say, anchored at the throat by a florid red velvet bow, or a skirt in a MacLeod tartan appliquéd with a flaming King Charles spaniel (paired with black lace stockings and a psychedelically striped knit on which a cat sat comfortably in a sunburst), or a pink astrakhan jacket adorned with more spaniels whose black interior was also immaculately embroidered with a tiger which no one will ever see (that one was a personal favourite), or… whatever. Go ahead, make your own pick.
Another significant factoid about Michele: he has no interest at all in fashion’s traditional seasonal redundancies. “For the last few years, the fashion world has been full of rules,” he clarified today. “You have to buy and buy to be a la page, as the French say, and not to keep things you love. But I was thinking to add more and keep the old.” Mission accomplished.
The motifs in his work irresistibly suggest some occult symbolism, some hidden order in the glorious chaos of his work.
That ethos, coupled with the fact that “newness” holds little appeal for him, means there was a lot in today’s show that re-trod Michele’s immediate past. The danger is that the blessing of a signature as strong and singular as his will become a curse, with familiarity breeding contempt. Nothing about today’s show suggested there is any likelihood of that happening any time soon. “Fashion is like a movie,” Michele mused. “If you give the right environment, the clothes become stronger and stronger. To show a punk bourgeois look here [in the Abbey] makes it more powerful.”
The arcane grandeur of the setting did, in fact, infuse the collection with the atmosphere of a peculiar fairytale, as though Michele’s boys and girls had stepped through a magic mirror. It was a joy to trace the little rivulets of Michele’s own Anglophiliac inspiration that trickled throughout the presentation, starting with the embroidered cushions on everyone’s seats — an idea he’d borrowed from little parish churches in the English countryside where generations of worshippers perch on pillows embroidered with their family names — and proceeding through pieces as emblematic of English style as a teddy boy suit in tomato red silk, Paul Simonon’s splatter-bleached jeans from the heyday of punk and Patrick Cox’s iconic Union Jack loafers from the mid-90s.
But Michele’s fantasy England was not just a youth cult paradise. It was, he claimed, also an uncharted country of Gothic mystery. He imagined the three-headed serpent that coiled across the back of a white fur coat as the dragon of a queen. (There are few better places than Westminster Abbey to indulge such fancies.) He was also mesmerised by the cliché of an eccentric, chic aristocracy. Jacquetta Wheeler closed the show with appropriate hauteur in a classic trench elevated by a sequined tiger head and a gold-tasselled jockey’s cap.
There is something more that needs saying about the specialness of Michele’s propositions for Gucci. Fashion concerns itself by and large with the physical world and pleasures of the flesh, but this designer is equally attuned to matters of the spirit. “Westminster Abbey was built as a king’s promise to God,” he pointed out, “Scarborough Fair is a promise of love.” And Michele’s own promise? Love also, but beauty too. The motifs in his work — a bee centred in a golden sunburst, for instance — irresistibly suggest some occult symbolism, some hidden order in the glorious chaos of his work. “Nature looks chaotic,” he counters slyly, “but isn’t.”
So there you have it: Gucci, the New Order.