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Is There a New Gucci Brewing?

Tim Blanks talks in-depth to Alessandro Michele about his multi-day ‘GucciFest’ and desire to transcend ‘the old world’ before the pandemic.
Gucci Spring/Summer 2021
Gucci Spring/Summer 2021. Gucci.
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When Alessandro Michele announced in May that Gucci would no longer be part of Milan’s traditional fashion calendar, he admitted he didn’t yet have any clear idea what would take the place of the fashion shows which had, till February, been the brand’s very effective public face. What he did promise, however, was that it would be “a new story.”

Michele made good on that vow last week when Gucci launched its latest collection with a seven-day virtual film festival. Guccifest was announced with the delivery of a box — like just about everything else fashion-related in this locked-down era – which contained a full festival kit: tote bag, press release, press pass, poster, notebook, badges, stickers. Very clever. Each day’s film was accompanied by shorts highlighting the work of young designers, 15 in all, selected by Michele. (It’s surprising how many of their presentations play out as Alessandro’s “children,” though that notion is a challenge too far for his own humility.) And after each “screening,” a couple of special guests would analyse what they’d just seen. I especially liked the conversation between Alexa Chung and Kenny Schachter, the indefatigable burr under the art world’s saddle. All of that sideshow contributed to the film-fest flavour.

The seven films themselves were co-directed by Michele and Gus Van Sant, himself no stranger to the festival circuit with award-winners like “My Own Private Idaho,” “Elephant” and “Last Days” to his name. The pair had been planning to work together for a while, but the pandemic kicked the collab into high gear. Michele conceived the whole thing, Van Sant scripted it, and they filmed through October in Rome, fine-tuning the finished product till the very last minute. Van Sant brought in the legend Christopher Doyle as DP so the footage – and the fashion — looks fantastic. Is there a moment when you miss seeing the collection on a catwalk? No, not one. You’re left with the sensation that this is the way Michele’s work is best appreciated, in the focused alternate reality that movies offer, where his clothes can come to complete characterful life. His credit does, after all, read “Costumes by Alessandro Michele.” There are some faces we recognize in his cast of characters: Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, Florence Welch, Jeremy O. Harris. The others are the polymorphous family he has so convincingly corralled as Gucci’s own.

Their queen for a day is Italian multi-hyphenate Silvia Calderoni, a pale androgyne whose passage through Rome shapes seven distinct scenarios. In the first, “At Home”, she wakes, feeds her fish, does yoga, uses the loo, washes her hands. The banality (beautifully shot by Doyle) is curiously mesmerising. It’s a knack that Van Sant mastered a long time ago in his own films. And you can go further back, to Andy Warhol’s unblinking voyeurism. That’s actually what Michele had in mind. “I love to spy,” he admitted. “At the beginning, I was thinking to spy on Silvia 24 hours a day even when she was sleeping.”

Instead, we follow her to a café in the second film, the post office in the third, a rehearsal in the fourth, back home for the fifth, out again to a vintage shop in the sixth, and, finally, “A Nightly Walk,” when Silvia undertakes a nocturnal excursion to visit her friend Archie. Warhol’s dachshund was named Archie, so you might think Michele and Van Sant were tying everything up in a big pink Andy bow, except that Warhol isn’t the only cinematic thread that weaves through their films. The spirit of Fellini, celluloid poet of Rome, godfather of Italian cinema, hovers over everything, right up to the final frame of “A Nightly Walk,” where Silvia pauses in the street and the camera pulls back to reveal she is actually standing on a stage, with a huge artificial moon hanging in the sky behind her. A Fellini moon.

But there is also Hitchcock on hand for trainspotting film buffs, who may remember that, in 1998, Van Sant was responsible for a frame-by-frame reconstruction of “Psycho.” In Guccifest’s fifth film, when Silvia goes home, she watches her neighbours go about their business in a set-up that is reminiscent of the Hitch classic “Rear Window.” And in the series finale, as Silvia reaches Archie’s place, Van Sant is exiting with his dog. It was Hitchcock’s famous quirk to make a cameo appearance in his own films.

More than before, we need another reality to survive. It’s something very human.

I’m sure there’s a whole lot more texture I missed, but my point is that my filmic experience of Michele’s new collection was a lot more layered and enthralling than ten minutes in a fashion frow, and that was a gratifying insight, speaking as someone who thrilled to Gucci’s last live performance in February. So long ago now, but remember the entire backstage transformed into a carousel which slowly revolved while the models were made up and dressed.

But Guccifest achieves something equally memorable on behalf of fashion. Time is suspended. I haven’t mentioned that the umbrella title for Silvia’s morning-to-midnight seven-parter is “Ouverture of Something That Never Ended.” I interpret that as a hymn to the eternal present. Michele didn’t attach a seasonal label to his collection. He also mixed his new clothes with looks from his first collection as creative director, five years ago. You’ll definitely recognise the red pussy bow blouse on one of Silvia’s musician neighbours. The footwear in the queue at the post office features the fur-lined mules that helped launch Michele on an unsuspecting world. The silk plissé confection that Silvia grandly throws off her balcony is also from that first collection. They’re all being re-issued as Michele’s riposte to seasonality, temporality… “Time is not relevant,” he told me. “It doesn’t exist when I go back to the flower print red dress or the pussy bow. It’s still beautiful. What I did then is still powerful.”

I return to the idea of the alternate reality, which is filtered through every stage of Michele’s Ouverture. “What am I doing in this dimension?” wonders a wistful young client in the café. “Fashion is always another reality,” Michele said. “Art and creativity are another reality. More than before, we need another reality to survive. It’s something very human.” His movie-buff mum gave him his celluloid education. “When she was watching movies, she needed another reality. My mother loved women going to bed in full makeup, like Lana Turner.” He admitted she would have hated Silvia on the loo. “But I don’t want to be like my mum, I want to pee.”

That droll reality is the curious crux of Michele’s Gucci. “Haute couture was never the origin for me,” he insisted. “The origin is street, it’s vintage, it’s pop stars. That’s where I learned everything about fashion. Joy Division didn’t care about haute couture. And I was thinking about that in this lockdown, nobody can steal fashion from me. I was at home but I was still a fashion designer. So let’s go back to T-shirts, let’s go back to the skirts of my granny, let’s go back to the socks I loved when I was a basketball player. Simple pieces, simple shapes. But then I put something beautiful inside that, like Silvia, when she is wearing the dress embroidered with pearls. I was always trying to make that conversation, turning fashion upside down.”

I’ve always marvelled at the defiance in Michele’s work. He knows there are people who’ll never get it. “I think it’s the moment to leave fashion alone,” he said. “Let it run free like a kid everywhere, don’t put boundaries to it.” It’s also a moment where people have been creating under an extraordinarily dark shadow. I always seem to end up talking about death with Alessandro. Covid came knocking in Italy this year. When everyone was told they couldn’t leave their houses, he was scared. All those things he’s always fixed on — the basketball shirt, the white socks, the vintage dresses — became like memento mori. But it was a sign. “We were running like superheroes but we weren’t living. Even now, when it’s finished and we’re outside, I don’t want to be in the old world.”

Signs, signals, codes… there may be a new Gucci brewing. The ten-cent word of this season is Eschatology (on Harry Styles’ basketball shirt). It’s the science of “end times,” last things. But Michele is pragmatically optimistic. “If we’re born alone and we die alone, now I want to be with other people. The way we are together is very powerful.” Put simply, he’s in the mood for a proper revolution. Quite how that will play out is scarcely clear, but, with the help of Gus Van Sant, Michele has at least set a new bar for his industry with his Guccifest. And, as he points out, even if Silvia stands all alone in her surreal world at the end of “Ouverture,” under that huge luminous, artificial moon, she faces the future unafraid.

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