MILAN, Italy — Step into Gucci’s Pre-Fall showroom today — the old space on Piazza Oberdan, the walls now Alessandro-ised with painted Orientalist herons and butterflies — and the reason for Signore Michele’s sledgehammer impact became instantly, glaringly obvious. First, there was a roomful of every-which-way Dionysus bags (his contribution to the 'It' phenom). Then that space opened into an Aladdin’s cavern of clothing and accessories, the excessive, unabashed, joyous eccentric likes of which has become something of a forgotten art in fashion. But Alessandro Michele is here to refresh our memories: as far out as you can go, there are people who will go there with you… and want you to go even further.
His Pre-Fall collection for Gucci was epically scaled — 80 looks compared with Spring’s 65 — and it was lavish to match, exquisitely, sickly so. You could make a solid case for Michele having reanimated — and updated — the dialogue between the 1940s and 1970s. That particular exchange has enriched fashion at least since Yves Saint Laurent scandalised Paris with his collaborationist couture in 1971, but with Michele, you could imagine the silvery shimmering clothes from old Hollywood black-and-whites suddenly transmogrified into screaming Technicolour. Such texture: the coat in a gilded jacquard, trimmed in pale rose mink, collared in orange astrakhan, lined in black shearling, and closed with a big plastic flower. If that doesn’t holler celluloid diva, nothing does. The aloe green astrakhan trimmed with poppy red mink was positively restrained by comparison.
Oh yes, there was definitely a fur story. The surreality that underpinned items like the mink coat stained with moons and stars, or the fur in a geometric green and purple design, worn over a little silken camisole evoked the manicured louche-ness of Donna Jordan, Jane Forth, Angie Bowie, the high priestesses of early 1970s glam. The patchworked super-platform boots, the shoes with lips, the bags with eyes each consolidated the idea. But then there was a dress with a ruffled apron front that had Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce written all over it — except for the lavish trompe l’oeil embroidered chain, with a small, sinister snake coiling through the links. The simple shirtwaister silhouette reworked in rose gold sequins was a startling hybrid of function and anything-but. A long, pleated lurex dress had all the sinuous elegance of an Adrian design (we’re still working that alt-Hollywood angle here) except that it was topped with a silk bomber, on the back of which was embroidered a screaming bobcat in a cowboy hat.
As Michele profligately piled things on, the collection teetered on the brink of a gorgeous chaos.
Surreal? Plenty. That's what happens when you're in love with abundance. As Michele profligately piled things on, the collection teetered on the brink of a gorgeous chaos. An elegant column in white wool had a roaring tiger embroidered on its bodice, butterflies floating through a field of poppies around its hem. That combination of menace and prettiness could almost be the designer's signature. A full-skirted prom dress in black crystal-strewn tulle was appliqued with a hare leaping over a moon and stars. It had all the dark magic of David Lynch’s more dreamlike visions, especially when you noticed that the shoes it was paired with were evilly spiked. It’s a fairy tale, isn’t it? The exquisite blue evening dress hemmed with an orchard of trees; the sweater with the castle, appliqued clouds floating above; the blouse with a trail of black beaded ants around its peter pan collar... in every story, an odd little drop of poison.
And the stories that Michele is telling with each of his collections grow increasingly complex. He’s not ignoring the codes of the house, but he is twisting them in an eerie way. You’ll never feel the same about Gucci’s red and green stripe. A simple denim skirt assumed an edge when an embroidered kingsnake went slithering up its side seam. The skins that are a house staple looked perverse when they were crackled into a pink bomber jacket, or cut into a pleated skirt in black leather. The most traditional thing in the collection was the carriage print, a nod to Gucci’s equestrian roots, even though it wasn’t actually archival. But once it was paired with that black leather skirt, all bets on tradition were well and truly off.
Two more things: the pussycat embroideries and the photos in the lookbook. Pussycat bows are already a signature for Michele, but there was more to these cats. I’m thinking Martin Eder, the wonderful German artist who manages to imbue banal domestic motifs — such as household pets — with surreal threat. Which leads on to Michele’s choice of Ari Marcopoulos as his lookbook photographer. The photographer's work has an urban rawness. For Gucci, he was shooting richly embellished clothing against a décor Michele describes as “Pompeian”. With real birds. And pomegranates. The goal was “depth.” As is the style, so is the content. Deep.