Heidegger’s thoughts on authenticity, Camus’ writings on the nature of rebellion, 17th-century cartography and the stage wear of Elton John – the catwalk show that opened Milan fashion week did not follow a formula smacking of obvious commercial success. But this is Gucci, where the designer Alessandro Michele’s avant-garde approach to luxury has confounded the industry.
The fashion house’s financial results, released this summer, showed a phenomenal 43.4% sales growth. Even more striking is that Gucci, whose catwalk set mapped the Roman site of Horace’s Villa and whose show notes touched on post-structuralism, is adored by a younger generation most fellow heritage brands struggle to connect with: half of all Gucci customers were born after 1980.
Michele is the most successful fashion designer of this decade despite – or perhaps because of – not seeming particularly interested in clothes. In a 25-minute pre-show briefing for editors, held in the grandly modernist Milan palazzo Gucci built for its golden boy, Michele did not mention a single garment.
“Sometimes I think, it would be easier if I could just make some beautiful shoes for the shop. But no, I want to change the aesthetic of this whole company and that way I can change what fashion is. I want to make things that create possibility, that make an opportunity for the world to change and to grow,” he said.
Diversity and authenticity are recurrent themes. “I am trying to push the idea of fashion, and to destroy the old codes of fashion,” said Michele, who was wearing a heavily embroidered jacket that an hour later featured on the catwalk worn by a female model.
“Fashion is trying to keep alive codes which are from the age of the New Look, of Mr Dior. The old way of thinking that goes, ‘the new season is blue’ or ‘the new ballerina look’, I am not interested in that. And when the casting people say to me about a model, ‘she is beautiful, she is a new face, she has beautiful legs’ – I don’t care about that at all. I care about the way the girl is romantic, the way she sees the world, not that she looks a certain way. I want to tell stories so I think in a cinematic way.”
Michele’s Gucci, steeped in Medici symbolism and Renaissance silhouettes when it burst on to the catwalk at the beginning of 2015, last year shifted toward disco and from there toward hip-hop, with many an eye-catching red herring – such as a fur-lined loafer – along the way.
This season the aesthetic took a turn toward glam rock, with clothes inspired by Elton John’s stage outfits. Tour jackets, high-waisted jumpsuits and power-shouldered blazers were worn by male models dripping in jewellery and female models whose crispy fringes resembled Renate Blauel, whom Elton John married on Valentine’s Day 1984.
But for all its progressive talk, Gucci’s success is built on an identity that remains largely stable from season to season. Its fans will pay elevated prices because by rejecting the trend cycle, Michele sells pieces with a longer shelf life, remaining recognisably Gucci for more than one season.
All the key elements of the Gucci aesthetic – slick 1970s sportswear, drugstore barrettes, shrunken trousersuits, rainbow stripes, geek-chic glasses, obtuse slogans, backless shoes, a certain old lady-ish silhouette of a fur coat over a long dress, Disney references, pearls – were in full effect.
How Gucci turns this arthouse script into box office gold was hinted at with the invitation to the show. Each guest received an ornate pharmacy tin inscribed “GUCCY” containing candles, matches, scented paper and silk thread. “The show is a spell I cast on you,” explained the designer. “Like a wizard.”