What’s in a house? Or more specifically, what’s in a maison? In fashion speak, a Maison is Grandiose. Stiff. An imposing address in the upper crust parts of Paris founded by a sole couturier lonesome in an ivory tower. Weighed down by lofty haute couture look placards in a salon and trains of faile and taffeta. The Italian Casa is Warm. Inviting. Familial. Me casa su casa. There’s often feuds brewing in amongst the dynasties bearing the names of these houses, fighting over creative and financial control. I oust you, you oust me. Basta!
What’s more, the question that fashion hacks continually ponder in existential ennui is – what is the MEANING of a fashion house TODAY when Tik Tok-ers, Gen Z and beyond seemingly don’t care about codes, DNA or even history. Their concept of nostalgia fixating currently on 2000s and no further back. In rebirth, regeneration and rebranding, the house is FLUID. It slips and slides. The age of fashion houses in the 21st century has been defined by jawdropping volte face turnarounds. Blink and an old logo is gone, replaced by a new one – maybe in a sans serif font. Walk into a store and marble surfaces might well become pink velvet. Instagram accounts are scrubbed fresh. New feed. No feed. NEXT!
Gucci is as BIG and TITAN as they come. It’s up there in that stratospheric bracket of mega houses, which shift the dials of the fashion-sphere. Where it goes, what it does, the world reacts. But even in its titan core-of-conglomerate form, there’s a casa. A heart. A sequinned aorta clutch. It’s a house that has been played with, moulded and shaped to fit the times, especially when it’s not particularly tethered to its originating founder. Even the most hardcore of fashion aficionados might not be able to recount the story of Guccio Gucci, the son of a straw hat artisan, who wound up working as bellboy at the Savoy Hotel in London and cottoned onto the fact that jetsetting with glamorous luggage was here to stay. And thus in 1921, Gucci struck out on his own and opened a leather goods store in Florence. That brand birth story isn’t impressed on you like other maison founders and their broken-record narratives.
What followed Guccio’s charmed beginnings was rather more turbulent. There was the bitter sibling rivalry between Guccio’s three sons Vasco, Rodolfo and Aldo, who ended up heading up the Gucci expansion during their first golden era in the 1950s-70s. Then it was the turn of the next gen of feuds between cousins Giorgio, Paolo and Maurizio Gucci who ran the company into the ground and whose untimely demise at the hands of his former wife Patrizia Reggiani is soon to be immortalised on screen in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, starring Adam Driver and Lady Gaga as the estranged couple.
Regina Demina photographed by Jenny Brough. Look: Gucci.
Perhaps it’s that famiglia drama that inadvertently fuelled Gucci’s continual states of reinvention. Too many cooks in the cucina leading to the financial powers that be tussling over its fate. Moreover, pivoting is rooted in Gucci’s history. After all shortly after opening the Florence store, Guccio saw the need for luxury equestrian gear and quickly pivoted to saddle making and horse riders’ accessories.
All that remains of this equestrian-clientale past is the red and green striped web derived from a saddle that are now oft-used house colours, and the all-important Horsebit clasp, that anchors the bags, loafers and belts – which once were the sole bread and butter of the house.
If Gucci is a pivotable and malleable house, then the creative director who has been able to (no pun intended) harness that universe and expand the language and go forth into new territory without it feeling “off-brand” is its most unlikely one. The wonderkid tale about how Alessandro Michele was hired, has been oversold for good reason. It’s a story made for TV serialisation as a young Michele worked his way through the ranks at Gucci, beginning under Tom Ford in 2002 and ending up as head of accessories under Frida Giannini. On the verge of leaving Gucci to pursue costume design in London – itself a telling portent – CEO of Gucci Marco Bizzari managed to convince him to stay.
Rip it up and start afresh! Bizzari challenged Michele to redesign the fall 2015 menswear collection in five days and thus the Michelian blueprint came to be incarnated through wiry figures in glasses, a slinky pussy bow blouse and a nonconformist languor that was then reiterated at the womenswear show weeks later. The din of a Milanese Metro. Maybe the grit of that darker seventies to eighties era of Gucci. Not referenced overtly but lingering. A romance flourishing through floral suiting, whimsical accessories and deliberately creased dresses that suggested illicit snogging on the train.
The rest is fashion history as Michele went on to architect the most dramatic turnaround of fortunes at the mammoth house, both in the creativity and the money stakes. No biggie. There’ll be House of Gucci sequels starring Jared Leto, holding a meta wax head of Michele from Gucci’s F/W 18 Cyborg collection. Bet big, go bold or go home was the strategy and it worked, granting an only-way-is-up trajectory for the house and Michele. Today there are generations that won’t remember Gucci any other way, nor can they imagine it so.
Sam Quealy photographed by Yann Weber. Look: Gucci.
Lazy generalisations about Michele will have him pigeon-holed as a vintage-loving romantic maven. Hence why banal words such as “quirky” are repeatedly bandied about, when describing Michele’s oeuvre. Dissect his collections (and they tend to be biggies upwards of seventy looks on average) and what you’ll find is meticulous research of the past sitting alongside stylistic curveballs. Storied garments rooted in yes, vintage pieces, but then jolted to the present with say, a baseball shirt or a funky trainer, or a spiky piece of jewellery.
Perhaps the one defining trait of Michele’s Gucci is how utterly unsettled he is on one particular aesthetic realm, skitting from one thing to another. Those double GG’s live in all manner of contexts and situations. On a bondage necklace in da club. On a straw hat that sits in Provence (cleverly nodding to Guccio Gucci’s roots). On a lycra onesie made for an eighties themed workout. On hiking boots that are sorta/kinda meant for the outdoors but not. Normcore. Florcore. Cottagecore. Goblincore. Hypebeast. Hypebae. Michele has a veritable answer that fits under those disparate hashtags and they all manage to hang together under one happy casa roof.
The iconic Gucci Flora scarf print, designed by Vittorio Accornero for Grace Kelly, who then became an avid Gucci customer, in itself holds an obvious metaphor for the era of Michele. Perfumes literally BLOOM. So too does the now-expanded Gucci Beauty world. There’s the homeware that is also replete with flowers. There’s a Gucci Garden figuratively and physically ensconced in Florence, the birthplace of the house, with Michelin starred cuisine to boot. The Gucci Flora iconography takes on so much more than just plain old reissued form as Michele finds new ways for his own Gucci floral garden to grow. And Michele is always looking beyond the house’s own archives. A flower might appear in the shape of a Ken Scott collaboration for instance featured in the Ouverture collection, which is an ode to the original “fashion’s gardener”.
From the get go, Michele has made a point of embedding symbols, iconography, words – with hidden or overt meanings – into his collections. Cynics might call this IG-baiting. Or they are the visual cues of a designer who confesses to “pursuing the illegitimate”. In other words, mining the depths of a house and calling it his own. Gucci misspelt as Guccy is the most obvious example or when a tote is graffitied with “Real”. Chateau Marmont. L’Aveugle par Amour. The serpent snaking its way literally and symbolically. Liberty prints. Gucci’s place in pop culture is for sure entrenched but Michele constantly seeks to keep adding to this entangled lexiconography. As if to say to the gen pub, Gucci is more than just the GG.
Speaking of which, Gucci’s eponymous GG canvas, conceived because of a shortage of luxury materials in the post-war era, wound up on tourist tack under the leadership of Maurizio Gucci in the 1980s. Diluted, overexposed and cheapened. That same GG canvas three decades later is present and correct and more in yer’ face than ever. It’s been overlaid with characters ranging from Donald Duck to Doraemon – icons hailing from two different continents – or more cynically markets that props up that all-important profit margin. Michele doesn’t shirk from it and consistently it crops in every collection under every possible garment iteration. Gucci’s bag remit, which was once Michele’s domain, also doesn’t shy away from revising the past. Cue reissued versions of Bamboo and the Jackie hobo, named after Jacqueline Kennedy, that play on their quaint Dolce Vita era past.
Aesthetics aside, perhaps the biggest tidal wave of change that Michele has brought about is a mode of communication and collaboration that would have most comms people in the luxury field running scared. If you’re an open house that centres itself on being everything-under-the-sun then inevitably haters are gonna hate. Maybe maisons don’t FAIL. And a house as big as Gucci might never really falter. But Gucci has proven itself to correct flaws. When Michele showed a GG puff sleeved bomber jacket as part of their cruise 2018 collection, it was immediately called out as a like for like copy of a piece originally created by legendary Harlem outfitter Dapper Dan in 1989 albeit with a different logo. Handing the reins to Dapper Dan wholeheartedly and funding an atelier in Harlem as well as collaborating meaningfully with the hip hop couturier is an above and beyond gesture that cleverly adds Dan to a Gucci famiglia of a different sort.
YANIS photographed by Jenny Brough. Look: Gucci.
The values that we so often demand from brands even as their boardrooms are unwilling to yield real discernible change manifest in a litany of tangible gestures. Whether it’s CHIME, the zine edited by activist Adam Eli promoting LGBTQ+ rights or Gucci Equilibrium’s support of various charitable organisations around the world proffering positive change or venturing into sustainable materials such as recycled nylon ECONYL, could so easily be read as CSR (corporate social responsibility) lip service but under Michele, the missive seems plausible. We can DREAM in Michele’s sequinned, feathered, frothy, florid clothes but we can also DREAM of a better world, as trite as that sounds.
And it is that we come to the oh-so-important centenary. 100 years in fashion marks LONGEVITY. HERITAGE. HISTORY. All heavy words that are overused in fashion speak. And yet do they really matter in the long term scope of Michele’s multi-pronged modus operandi? Filmed in Rome’s Cinecittà studios and co-directed by Floria Sigismondi, Gucci’s centenary show began in Guccio Gucci’s former workplace the Savoy and plays out to a catwalk of intense paparazzi to a soundtrack of Gucci-referencing balling hits like Lil Pump’s ‘Gucci Gang’ and Kreayshawn’s ‘Gucci Gucci’. The name Aria – the solo part of an opera that soars above the rest – is deliberately deflective, as Michele’s Gucci-verse is anything but a solo effort.
The opening look was Michele serving up an unapologetic homage in the shape of Tom Ford for Gucci’s F/W 96 red velvet suit as worn by Gwyneth Paltrow. LEST WE FORGET, let’s talk Tom fucking Ford. For we are not worthy of the chapter of Gucci’s story that shaped not just the house but fashion at large. Appointed as creative director in 1994, Ford gave Gucci its ready to wear raison d’etre with his scintillating “sex sells” vibes that were the antithesis of the minimal nineties. Ford hit billions with GG shaved into pubic hair and clothes that revealed, slinked and were intended to be hiked up by roving hands. Those sexual advances might be out of step with a post #MeToo world but when Michele takes on fetish gear, first by welding a flogger in the sexplosive SS20 collection, and further expanding on that world in Aria, he taps into the psyche of a post-pandemic world too where dating like the fluidly sexual apps Feeld and graphic Grindr are day to day chat fodder.
But then came the boldest move in the tearing up of the centenary celebration rule book. As if Michele was deliberately volte-facing on himself, he decided to Hack the House. Balenciaga is a bona fide Maison, with that aforementioned trains of faille and couture placards with ghosts of its past in its Avenue George V atelier. Under the creative directorship of Demna Gvasalia, this maison has also thrown off some historic shackles. In Gvasalia, Michele saw a fellow “thief” – a borrower of ideas and concepts, that are ripe for interpreting and re-interpreting. Breaking the internet aside, having Balenciaga and GG sit side by side and layered atop of one another, is the equivalent of putting two fingers up at supposed house codes and systems. How SURE are you of the foundations of a fashion brand, when we live in a world where politically, socially and climatically we are constantly teetering on the brink of doom-dom? It may or may not be the roaring 20s as most fashion enthusiasts like to portend as we are still in the throes of a worldwide pandemic, but Michele is going to ensure that at the very least Gucci is on an extreme edge, refusing to rest on a hundred years of branding laurels.
Gucci’s GG’s will continue to find themselves in new places and times and on new audiences. Gucci’s sphere will keep expanding because fashion is crossing fields like never before. If houses can be hacked and the X’s keep multiplying, then Gucci becomes almost boundless in its scope. Never mind the next hundred years, the next hundred days might spring unexpected twists and turns. Buckle up – the ride isn’t over yet. All that’s left to do then is make like Lady Gaga in her Patrizia Reggiani mega get-up in the currently meme-ing film trailer, and swear on it. Make it your mantra. “Father, son and the House of Gucci”
After all, some things are just meant to be forever SACRED.
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