Gucci is Alessandro Michele's world. Watch the James Franco-produced fashion documentary The Director (2013), an often overlooked inside look into Gucci under Frida Giannini, and it's hard not to notice Michele in the shadows (he was then head accessories designer) and contextualise his later comments about feeling so uninspired by the direction of the brand that he was heading for the door. Fast forward seven years and Michele has stepped firmly out into the spotlight. Closing the door on the heteronormative and sex sells-eras of Giannini and Tom Ford, Michele has taken Gucci firmly into both a new decade and a new era, with a riot of eclectic co-ed runways later served up in video campaigns rich with fantasy, myth and a good dose of celebrity. The latest offering - a mini-series of films called GucciFest which took place in lieu of a September runway show - was a moment to reflect on all that the Gucci universe has become.
Michele's debut A/W 15 men's and women's collections turned the Gucci the fashion world thought they knew on its head. With pussy bow blouses, floral chiffons and fur Princetown loafers, Michele's penchant for vintage eclecticism was quickly picked up on by a divided press. Many were unsure where this Gucci was headed, had the new CEO Marco Bizzarri taken a chance which was about to backfire? They needn't have worried, because Michele's Gucci has since reigned supreme with their sell-out Dionysus bags and Harry Styles' seal of approval raking in a new generation of Gucci devotees. Last month the Business of Fashion referred to the brand as Kering's 'cash cow', reporting that the Gucci made up 60% revenue for the luxury conglomerate in 2019.
Since 2015, Michele has turned the Gucci brand upside down, with the past two seasons spent turning the fashion show inside out. The A/W 20 show in Milan saw guests led backstage before models were dressed on a central podium - it proved to be a final hurrah before the pandemic swooped in. Gucci is yet to return to the runway show format, unlike many of its peers (other Kering-owned brands have also been notably absent from racing back to do things how they were). The A/W 20 collection was then photographed by the models themselves, before a 12 hour live-stream of the Cruise 2021 campaign shoot replaced the runway show in July, concluding Michele's three-part investigation into fashion rituals. That's all without mentioning Michele's announcement in May that Gucci will be playing by their own rules from now on, staging two shows a year rather than the norm of six, give or take.
Last week's mini-film series saw Michele put his money where his mouth is. Gucci's IGTV reeled off seven episodes (titled the Ouverture of Something That Never Ended) directed by Michele and filmmaker Gus Van Sant, together with premiering films by fourteen young international designers. By unveiling the new seasonless collection with a peppering of easter eggs from the Michele archive, together with inviting other designers into the Gucci-sphere, GucciFest was a meditation on how the brand's past has been setting up for an alternate luxury future.
Having always enchanted with their campaign films, which have included Lou Duillon starring in a Greek myth and Gucci Mane joining Sienna Miller at a seventies-style party, what unfurled last week hammered home the message that not only can film rival the runway, but that the Gucci world is not the exclusive one it once was (we're not talking price tags here). Ouverture of Something That Never Ended follows Silvia Calderoni, a woman of many talents, throughout a series of days in Rome, as the new Gucci collection is spliced with the old and worn by all manner of strangers, companions and friends.
In the opening episode, academic Paul B. Preciado leads a lecture on gender theory which seems to speak directly out of the television screen to our protagonist Silvia Calderoni. As Preciado talks about the social and political constructs of gender, we're encouraged to think about the role clothes have to play in both creating and destroying these constructs, and in turn, how Michele has played a fundamental role in making this an acceptable narrative within the luxury sphere.
'I really admire both Alessandro Michele and Gus Van Sant. For me, they are queer artists, in the sense they are contributing to expand the way we understand gender and sexuality. In the film, clothing is used without a normative relationship to gender. Silvia goes to the closet and tries on different outfits. The first one, the pale pink and yellowish sequin dress, is hyperbolically feminine, with the long ruffles and pink hat, but it is also anachronic, in that it seems to come from another historical period, or even from a fairy-tale…But in the next scene, Silvia is wearing pants and a shirt. Throwing the flowery dress through the window is almost like letting go of one of the main signifiers of female gender in terms of fashion. It is also letting it fly and be re-appropriated freely by any other body, whatever gender, female, male or non-binary. Maybe it is also because I am trans, but I love men wearing dresses. I think dresses for men should be the outfit for this revolution we are living' Preciado said.
The industry should, however, be wary of how much credit it gives to Michele. Take Styles' recent US Vogue cover for instance, where he wore a custom Gucci gown causing the internet's worst keyboard warriors, such as American commentator Ben Shapiro, to throw their toys out the pram at this apparent threat to masculinity. Whilst Styles, his stylist Harry Lambert and Michele have all rightly been applauded for challenging gender norms, there's still a long way to go. Daily Beast ran a story titled 'Harry Styles' Vogue Cover May Be Historic But It's Not Radical', highlighting the absence of Black and other non-white people in the Styles-Vogue narrative. The same could be said of Michele's GucciFest. Despite Silvia Calderoni's fabulous performance and the inclusion of Black, queer and trans voices throughout both Van Sant's films and those of the international designers, it was perhaps a missed opportunity to give the role of the protagonist to someone who wasn't white.
What did prevail throughout the seven episodes was the message that the Gucci identity is above all one of fluidity and personal choice. As we follow Silvia from their flat, to a café, post-office, vintage shop, theatre and back out and onto the streets of Rome, the friends and strangers she encounters are all at once connected by their Gucci garb, but also proudly different from one another because of it. Viewers were of course also enticed by a cameo from Styles, who appears in a phone conversation with Italian art critic and theorist Achille Bonito Oliva alluding to the moment of rebirth Michele is heralding. Singer Florence Welch also appears as she handwrites notes to slip into people's pockets. Van Sant finishes things off with a rather marvellous cameo - you'd be forgiven for mistaking him for Elton John at first glance with his glittery sunglasses and striped suit, which also reminded one slightly of a Princess Di number.
The GucciFest also premiered films by other designers: Ahluwalia; Stefan Cooke; Mowalola; Bianca Saunders; Gareth Wrighton; JordanLuca; Gui Rosa; Jord, Luft, Eld, Vatten; Shanel Campbell; Rui; Charles de Vilmorin; Yueqi Qi; Boramy Viguier and Cormio all took part. Inviting the voices of other creatives to share their own unique fantasies under the Gucci umbrella was perhaps the best signifier of the welcoming attitude Michele's Gucci is taking on, rare to the exclusive nature of luxury brands. Whether you're dressed to the nines in Gucci or wearing any of the other brilliant designers, the Gucci universe welcomes you with open arms.
In some way, Michele has shattered the very thing luxury brands survive upon - that you need to buy in to the brand to be included. The Ouverture of Something That Never Ended wardrobe felt the most accessible yet, especially when set in the context of a fictionalised Gucci vintage shop in episode 6. It would be a mistake to read this accessibility as tarnishing the aspirational values of Gucci, because the world GucciFest carves out just makes the Gucci-identity even more appealing. Although you might not need the clothes to get the part, the Gucci identity presents an inclusive luxury for the future, where difference and community exist all at once.