There was some heady stuff going on at Gucci. Not your-head-in-your-hands heady, but of the masked variety, starting with the arrival of Alessandro Michele’s click-bait invitation, a plaster-cast classical theater mask, each delivered in its own wooden crate. (The eco facts are unknown, but the optics didn’t scream low-waste environmental awareness.)
The mask — not the invitation version exactly, but others — would recur throughout the collection, a reference to classical theater (person vs. persona), and the German political philosopher Hannah Arendt who, along with writings on good, evil and totalitarianism, also apparently viewed the mask as more than a cover. (I’m taking her mask musings on show-notes faith here): “The mask becomes the means through which we become what we feel we are.” In Michele’s fall show, the mask also became one of two major accessories. The other: spikes, big, sharp and scary, descendant of punk wear of yore while telegraphing current, aggressive self-protection from every point.
Which begs the question of whether, for the first time since he became famous, Michele is working from a defensive position. After several years of mostly rapturous praise, the designer’s baseline aesthetic — eccentric magpie, nerdy and gentle — is now well-known, and it’s his challenge to advance the look. More importantly, Gucci’s recent blackface debacle has roiled the house, challenging its position at the pinnacle of wokeness, and calling Michele’s creative judgements into question. In that light, the spikes could be read as a manifestation of aggressive retreat.
Yet Michele isn’t running scared. In his post-show press conference, he refused to let a public relations rep intercept a question about the blackface episode, and noted that the situation has forced a changed perspective upon the house. “Beyond our regret…the company needs to open up to others and let others bring something in,” he said. “Beyond regret, I will keep the beauty of what I’ve learned.”
But Michele is first and foremost a fashion designer, and he opened his comments with thoughts on clothes. “Everything started from a reflection on fashion,” he said of the collection. “It’s always about appearance, but the masks were a link to the idea of what dressing means.”
Here, Michele’s reflection was crystal clear, at lease post-mental subtraction of spikes and masks: Eighties tailoring that retains but tempers his signature eccentricity — shoulders big; pants baggy and often cinched at the ankle, color and pattern mixed with a hint of restraint. The women fluctuated between wacky power tailoring and the controlled froth of lean-cut lace; the men, between dandified tailoring and a Zoot suit reference or two, and the kind of gentle fare that once upon a time (five or so years ago) might have been labeled cross-dressing but now registers as gentle gender fluidity.
For women and men, Michele offered plenty of options with a dose of alluring subversion — but not too much. For all its high-impact styling and editorial flourish, one sensed a deliberate covering of the bases: jackets — check; trousers — check; sweaters — check; cocktail dresses — check. Yes, some of it had a cartoonish quality, but there was an underlying accessibility that retained Michele’s compelling Gucci allure while tempering its excesses in favor of more measured whimsy. No masking that.