Alessandro Michele is no Gucci freshman. He made his memorable menswear debut for A/W 15, a collection he designed in mere days rather than the usual months, after his predecessor Frida Giannini made a brisk departure. Michele's promotion from head of accessories to creative director ushered in a new era of androgynous Italian maximalism for the house, infiltrating the fashion industry from high end to high street. 'The "Gucci Effect" is well and truly in full swing’, reported Grazia in 2017.
As is expected of a new designer at a heritage house, for his debut Michele nodded to the archives. The difference here was that he didn't rely on them. The Gucci Flora motif, originally created for Grace Kelly in 1966, dominated the womenswear show which followed a month after the mens. Furry-soled Princetown loafers featuring horsebits referenced the equestrian symbolism throughout Gucci's history. And yet what left critics divided was the absolute departure from what came before. The cacophony of textures, prints and colours in slinky pussy bow tie shirts, embroidered knits and patterned suits began to carve out the aesthetic which feels integral to the Gucci that dominates the luxury market today.
In 2019, Vogue Business reported that Gucci were on the road to hit $10 billion the following year, reporting record sales in the first quarter of 2019 putting them 'in the running for the world’s largest luxury brand'. Lyst named them the most in-demand brand at the end of 2020. Yet by the end last year, there were also questions regarding just how much mileage was left in Michele's more-is-more aesthetic. After years of steep increase, sales declined by 22%. Were consumers suffering from 'Gucci Fatigue'? The decline in fact resulted from a myriad of complex factors, the pandemic being one, however the Business of Fashion explored the possibilities, reporting that 'the biggest challenge could be evolving the brand’s market positioning and aesthetic', and that luxury consumers were shifting towards investment items rather than the novelty items Michele's Gucci is perhaps best known for.
This year marks Gucci's centenary, a happy coincidence which has given the brand a genuine opportunity to steer things in a new direction. On Thursday 15 April 2021, Gucci celebrated with their new Aria collection, and the show notes promised a 're-birth'. Taking the house monogram, the Flora print and equestrian symbols, Michele went closer to the brand's roots than ever before. Watching the digital show unfold, the collection was such a manifestation of Gucci's iconography, that if I didn't know better, it could have been a debut. But flickers of Michele's penchant for all that glitters and gold, remained, striking a brilliant and refreshing balance with house codes that could only be the result of a seasoned hand. This proved to be a moment of consolidation Gucci desperately needed.
Unveiled in a film directed by Michele and the multi-disciplinary artist Floria Sigismondi, 94 models took to a runway lined with cameras, each flash emulating the glamour of nineties and early noughties runway paparazzi. Lil Pump's Gucci Gang set off a soundtrack featuring songs which referenced the brand in their lyrics - this was about Gucci's cultural cachet. And what better way to open than with Tom Ford's red velvet suit from A/W 96, a look which sits at the forefront of Gucci's public imagination. It was the ultimate fashion cat nip.
The nineties was when Gucci's ready-to-wear legacy began, the unabashed 'look at me' glamour of the era ran throughout Ford's tenure as creative director. As did his sex sells attitude, now seen in 2021 through the lens of fetish via Gucci's equestrian history. A slick white haired model opened proceedings, fully committing to strutting his stuff by the way, wore a black leather harness. Later, models slapped their riding whips on the glossy white runway floor. 'I have celebrated the equestrian world of Gucci transfiguring it into a fetish cosmogony', said Michele in the show notes. Founded in 1923 in Florence, Italy, Gucci's namesake introduced the stirrup motif after WW2, with the brand also making accessories for horseback riders complete with their double-G monogram and red and green stripe in an effort to establish an aristocratic legacy, (both of which Michele has previously reintroduced during his tenure). The horsebit runs throughout the Aria collection, on bags and harnesses, together with the chicest riding hats that needn't go cross country to feel viable.
Guccio Gucci's career began working at the Savoy Hotel in London, and it was here that Michele found more middle ground between his own flavour of maximalism and the brand's legacy. As we look towards a post-pandemic world, talk of the Roaring Twenties: Round Two, and partying till dawn has been on fashion's mind. Michele leant into this with glitter galore, marabou feathers and a focus on the jewellery he loves so dearly. If it doesn't sparkle we're not interested, says Gucci. Rings adorned fingers and crystal hearts were clutched in hands, a symbol which has danced throughout the mystical iconography Michele has built for the brand over the years. Images of hands and hearts are repeated across Michele's own Instagram; hands being held, hands encasing something fragile in their palms. There's the notion of protection and care here, just as Michele is holding onto the beating heart of Gucci. 'Celebrating this birthday means to pay homage to the mother’s womb then, but also to the becoming other. The legacy, but also the possibility of its afterthought', says Michele. 'To escape the reactionary cages of purity, I pursue a poetics of the illegitimate.' Alessandro Michele, it seems, is Gucci's most beloved illegitimate child, making his claim.
And yet, Michele made it clear that he had in fact set out to betray the legacy of the house. 'Gucci becomes for me a hacking lab, made of incursions and metamorphoses...On this occasion, then, I want to honour my filial affection betraying the legacy that was handed down to me. Because the promise of a never-ending birth is only renewed through an evolving capacity.'
Look 43 was the first to confirm the rumours that had been swirling this week, that another luxury house would be involved in some way in the collection - a rare sighting in the rat race of luxury fashion. Enter Balenciaga - just don't call it a collaboration. Michele told Tim Blanks at The Business of Fashion,
'I wanted to go back to the things I loved in Balenciaga and let fashion speak the same language...We need to speak with everybody, there should be no boundaries...We’re both thieves of everything, in different ways but it belongs to both of us.'
Demna Gvaslia's S/S 17 knife boot leggings came in the Gucci Flora print along with the Gucci monogram. Gucci's heritage red and green stripe stretched round the torso of a female model, draped in an unmistakably Demna Gvsalia fashion, whilst as Look 35 featured the Balenciaga fireman's jacket. The real winners were the suits which featured the Gucci monogram and both of the brands' modernised sans serif logos as one. Bringing the exaggerated sculpted hips and shoulders from Demna's debut collection for Balenciaga into the world of Gucci, the two Kering-owned brands posed a question for another time: What would Cristóbal and Guccio think?
Michele isn't afraid to mess with the system. In July 2020, Michele announced on Instagram that Gucci would switch from upwards of six down to two shows a year, in a co-ed format. Abandoning seasons themselves, later that month they live-streamed filming the campaign for the new collection Epilogue. Worldwide views reached over 35 million, making it the brand’s most-watched digital event ever. Then in December, they embarked on GucciFest, a mini-series of films which continued Gucci's mission to turn the fashion show on its head. With Aria, Michele re-birthed the Gucci legacy, honouring and dishonouring it where he saw appropriate, playing closer attention to it than ever before.
In the show notes, Michele quotes E. Dickinson:
'Nature is a haunted house
-but Art- is a house that tries to be haunted'
Michele seems to be telling us that a brand can be haunted by its own past, but its not one he intends to be held down by - whether that be the legacy which came before or after him. Rejecting most of the archives for his debut show back in 2015, Michele has now come full circle. As the Aria show closed in an Eden-like garden and models floated up to the sky, it became clear that despite a collection fit for real world dressing, Michele's penchant for fantasy wasn't lost. This was the same Gucci, but different.