Alessandro Michele is in a bit of a funk – or at least that’s what his last Gucci collection, shown in Milan during the Fall/Winter 2020 show season – seemed to say. There’s a good chance you’ve seen the whole affair by now. The show was titled ‘The Ritual’, and according to press notes and general observation, seemed to center around the elaborate habits of dress: the personal and broad universality of that action, to be sure, and the broader sense of fashion shows and the industry.
The illustration was in the staging of the show. Guests entered by the backstage entrance, walking their way through the raucous and wildly untidy hub of the dressing, hair and makeup area. It’s the space normally reserved for press coverage, behind the scenes photographers, and frantic employees. A tad literal, perhaps, but it got part of the point across: that the veil was being partly lifted, that show attendees were made privy to the process. And what is a fashion show if not the sum of its processes? The many moving parts in the lead up to an expensive major fashion show are often hidden away, the glamorous parts reserved for the front of house.
Then the guests were seated around the circular rotating platform that was the dressing area. As the soft, starting beats of Ravel’s Bolero played, the curtains around the platform fell. Again, the ritual of fashion was made visible. The models, in white robes, were being dressed by staff, visible to all. Slowly, as the outfits were worn – per instructional photos and styling notes – the models walked to take their place along the inner circumference of the platform. A sort of carousel, spinning in their places and on display.
Here’s where the choice of music seems pertinent. Bolero is one of the most iconic pieces of classical music, and certainly the most famous of Ravel’s oeuvre of work. It was composed as a commission for a ballet in 1928 by the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein. It was a modernist musical composition at the time, defying the conventions of lyrical and narrative music for ballets. The crux of Bolero is repetition: it repeats, insistently and stubbornly, a motif that builds and builds on itself. Not, crucially, in variation but in repetition and in layering. First, the drum beat that never changes. Then, woodwinds. Then, strings, then the big percussion. Then, after a maddeningly long and repetitious crescendo, it climaxes briefly but intensely with a modulation – a slight one that lets go of the pent up build up. It revels in its own release for a while, brief relative to the length of the composition, before settling back into its original key and pace.
It’s hard not to read into that soundtrack choice as an indictment of the fashion system, and perhaps of the creative position that Michele has been cornered into as the creative director of Gucci. It’s now modern legend that Michele helped revive the flagging house of Gucci, saving it at a desperate moment of need when its previous creative director Frida Giannini had abruptly left. Very quickly, Michele had been appointed the creative head of the brand, and set to work with a clear brief he had proposed to Francois Pinault of the Kering Group which owns Gucci.
Michele was wildly successful from the get-go, and much of that had to do with the clarity of his vision. Post sleek, sexy prescriptivism, the designer had proposed quirky, personal kitsch. A sort of peek into a mind made up of individuals with funky attitudes and fancier wardrobes still. The particular style of clashing classicism and camp shouted for individuality, difference, and in character. All of a sudden, there wasn’t a single paragon of fashion-according-to-Gucci, so much as there were a million versions bound by a mentality more than a look.
That’s been Michele’s strength, and it’s what he’s returned to time and again since that runway debut in 2015. It’s been tweaked, evolved, and even done a gander down the path of neurotic, clinician sexy, but it has, as a whole, been the same. It’s something that critics have raised issue with, but it’s what Michele has stuck with. More cynical critics might describe that as corporate greed – why change a winning formula? If this look could bring the brand back to the forefront of fashion’s zeitgeist, and more than double the bottom line, why change it? Yet more sympathetic observers might wonder whether Michele is simply saying: this is me, this is what I like, and this is what I’m doing.
The latter guess isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is so anathema to what we’ve come to expect of fashion – wild, polarising, swinging one way this season then another the next – that it has that rare quality: sincerity. And so the question is, can we truly penalise Michele for simply being true to himself? The fashion circus is notorious for demanding more all the time, and it’s had its fair share of damage and burnouts on creatives who have buckled under the pressure. The industry demands more newness, more change, but is that really fair to the designer who has one very good message and wants to keep refining it? Even for the head of design at a billion dollar brand like Gucci, is not the message that the industry is wringing its creatives dry and tossing them aside, expendable, when they’ve had enough?
And so we consider The Ritual. The whole charade of putting on a fashion show every six months – three, if you consider the interseasonal collections. Giorgio Armani recently went on an uncharacteristically public rant toward the press, decrying the obsession with trends and imploring journalists to cover the collections with a sharper, more critical eye. It’s true that Armani is a difficult designer to cover in the current media landscape: he has been cutting much the same shapes and silhouettes as he did decades ago when the Armani power suit came to success and fame. The mentality has not changed much: it’s quiet, assertive power. It’s as resistant to trends and baroque displays of decoration as it was in the 1980s. For a journalist, it’s hard to revisit the same thing – save for minute alterations and adjustments – every six months and expect to find something new to say.
A designer like Armani had the comfort of decades to make his word decisive, and to refine his message and vision. Enough time to build, from the ground up, an empire now worth more than US$6 billion. A designer like Michele does not have that luxury, as is apparent in the fashion landscape today. The message, overwhelmingly, seems to be “say what you have to say, and when you have nothing new to add, get lost.” It’s a terrifying thought, and it strikes me as painfully indicative of the consumptive way we treat fashion, as both literal and cultural product.
And so we return to Bolero, Ravel, Michele, and that widening gyre of fashion’s ritual. The world keeps spinning, and Gucci puts one model after another onto its spinning wheel. At the end, a door opens and the models walk off the platform and file off into the distance. Then, the employees, in their uniforms, line up around the platform like the models before them and take their curtain call. Finally, Michele takes his requisite bow.
It’s one of the most conceptually provocative presentations Gucci has shown in a while – certainly more sound than its previous attempt at a sanitarium via a whitewashed venue, travelators, and straitjackets. This was almost frightening, in the insidious ways it suggested at madness and frustration. The clothes, obviously, had very little ‘new’ to them, insofar as they were a continued translation of Michele’s vision into fashion. Think of it as a chapter repeated in a book, save for a few stylistic flourishes and syntactical rearrangements. Or perhaps think of it as another layer of instrumentation in something like Bolero. There’s that maxim about insanity – doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. That may be true, but isn’t there too a case to be made about the beauty that can occur from repetition? Not from change and drastic turns, but in sensing the subtle shifts and modulations, in the small peaks and dips in pitch and volume. When you tune in closely enough, you begin to read the vibrations, feel the seismic in the tremors, detect the wavering human hand. Put your eyes and ears to the ritual, and it follows that you’ll pick up on beauty.