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Gucci’s Glorious Ball of Confusion

Don’t mention the word ‘fluidity,’ but Alessandro Michele’s latest women’s show is… a men’s show.
Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele ahead of his return to Milan Fashion Week.
Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele ahead of his return to Milan Fashion Week. (Giovanni Attili)

MILAN — On March 19, The Victoria and Albert Museum in London will open Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear, its major fashion exhibition for 2022. It promises to “explore how designers, tailors and artists —and their clients and sitters — have constructed and performed masculinity, and unpicked it at the seams.” The V&A’s partner for the show is Gucci. How could it be otherwise? There is no other contemporary brand that can lay claim to de-seaming masculinity with quite such impact. Or, for that matter, turning it into a radical performance. If further proof were needed, the collection that Gucci’s pied piper Alessandro Michele is presenting during the current Milan Fashion Week, usually a launchpad for next season’s womenswear, will be a men’s show.

If Gucci’s return to the conventional fashion calendar seemed a little like back-pedalling after all the extra-curricular, intra-pandemic activity the brand engaged in over the past two years, Michele’s decision to show menswear confirms his impish iconoclasm. “I didn’t do all of that because I was against the calendar,” he says. “The reality was that I was declaring the idea that I’m free to do it or not to do it.” Or the reality was that Italy was so locked down that the only alternatives were … alternatives, like movies with Gus Van Sant, or on-line film festivals, or hours-long Warholian cinema verité. “It was a strange time,” says Michele. “I didn’t really feel the seasons. I felt myself disconnected from the business. And I went very deep inside what fashion was and where it could go to change the scheme of things. I couldn’t do a fashion show and I was thinking that there was another way to let the fashion talk. I think that the company did such a great job because we found different things at a time when it was not really possible to do the same things. So it was also the opportunity to say that fashion is more than just a fashion show. It can be different in a million ways.”

Still, here we are, back with a fashion show. Exquisite Gucci, Michele has called it. “The real fashion show that I was missing,” he enthuses. “I mean, it’s like sex. If I need to do sex, I want to do sex.” True, there ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby. So there is a stage, because Michele has been reflecting on the power of the catwalk in fashion. And there is another experiment which he cryptically says is very him. “In a time of collaboration, I want to say again that I’m not usually into that kind of thing. I didn’t call it collaboration, I put a million different references in my show, because I really do believe that’s what fashion is. It’s about infection. I know there’s a better word for it in this time of Covid. But what I want to put on a catwalk again is all the pieces I really love, from the street to the things that really represent my aesthetic.”

Michele’s most recent experience of the street was the spectacle he staged on Hollywood Boulevard in November. “In a way it was a kind of a political act,” he muses, “to let the people feel the space of the city. It was like an installation. It was almost more powerful without the people. We really felt Los Angeles, the gravity of the buildings, the space, the signs on the shops.” Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, surely one of the most iconic buildings in Hollywood history, was the fulcrum of the show. Michele projected himself into his fantasies of a Hollywood night in the 1920s, when that extraordinary pagoda-ed structure was surrounded by the low-rise banality of local retailers. Testament to the power of the dream. “It’s like when you go to the Acropolis,” he marvelled. Same thing — gods and goddesses. “I went to Hollywood because I was looking for my roots, for why I’m a fashion designer. The roots of the brand are Hollywood too. Hollywood stars in the ‘50s, ‘60s ‘70s chose Gucci to express their way to live in real life, not just on a set. Gucci provided accessories to the gods.”

Goddesses too, of course. The men’s collection Michele is showing actually began with a vision of Madonna, a uniquely modern Olympian, photographed at a Lakers’ game in 1993 in an Adidas dress by curator Laura Whitcomb, who forged a connection between the art and fashion worlds in the early ‘90s with a label called Label. Michele was mesmerised by the fact this was something happening in the street and under the radar in fashion years ago. And somehow that connected with his love of doing the wrong things in the right way. Hence, a men’s show during women’s fashion week. “I don’t want to say to break the rules because it’s nothing really specific, but I was thinking it was just a good moment to open the conversation about men in a moment when the industry and the audience usually see another kind of show.”

There is another point that Michele particularly wants to make. As a pioneer of gender fluidity in fashion, he has become increasingly dismayed by the way that those words — along with terms like diversity and inclusivity — have increasingly become a marketing tool, an Instagram caption for companies, destroying the power of the words themselves. “I grew up feeling myself a special boy in a different world. But everything I did had a very deep meaning. Diversity is essential, but I want to feel the real meaning of the words.”

Michele reminds me that his epochal first show for Gucci in January 2015 was a men’s show and he wasn’t thinking about “fluidity.” Now as then, he insists he still has a passion for men’s suiting. “That is something that I really love. When I started a collection, I start with the suit, also with women. It’s always about the jacket and the shoulder. So I didn’t start my career thinking about ‘fluidity’, never in my life. I started always with the relation to the face, the body. Attitude.”

Michele’s original vision has become a kind of industry template, dominant enough that there was a moment when he felt he was about to become a prisoner of fame. It passed. Now he claims he feels totally free. Free to do a men’s show during women’s fashion week. But there is so much more to a conversation with Michele. Ask him about the metaverse or the darkling dawn of the NFT in fashion and he insists he is like a creature in a zoological era, halfway between land and sea. When he reflects on his career in fashion, he realises he grew up with Karl Lagerfeld. “And now, it’s like I’m working in another age. I feel like I’m coming out of the pyramids. I mean, I’m still touching the fabric. But I’m curious. I am still alive because I’m such a curious animal. I want to know, I want to get confused. It’s like geography. You’ve never been to a place but you know things, and you can put it together.”

Quite frankly, I love Michele’s attitude. You’re in a place where you’re experiencing something new, but not quite. There’s always something else. I prefer the multiverse with all its parallel worlds that are way out of the reach of your average metaversal laptop. Michele remembers his granny giving him a hard time for sitting in front of the TV when he could be out in the garden with his six cats. Then he became allergic to cats and now he has three dogs. But he wants cats again. “I think that there is something always good when there is something bad. Change has different faces. I like to always be confused, not really understanding. I feel myself to always be very ignorant in everything, between what I know and what I don’t know, and that’s a good position.”

“I don’t like to define what I do,” Michele insists. “Fashion isn’t about that old conversation anymore. I was just trying to explain to you that the way I started on the show was just an accident. I was really looking at Laura Whitcomb, and I was wondering why she did something in the past that was so close to what we are doing. She didn’t know about collaboration, she was just commenting on popular symbols. And that’s very much what we are doing in fashion now.” And I can’t even picture a moment when this story ends.

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