The clothes remain manifestations of rich imagination and craft. Yet the awe has faded, parallel to the element of surprise. Alessandro Michele thus stands at a precipice, a position that speaks as much to fashion’s frenetic, unforgiving pace as to his spring output of Gucci. By any standard of designer tenure, even at this revolving-door moment, Michele’s Gucci is in its infancy. He took the helm less than two years ago, breaking through with a dissonant gentleness that, in a single round of men’s and women’s shows, re-charted the house’s creative course, sent sales instantly upward and had all of fashion talking. Yet as early as last season, one heard rumblings that Michele should move on lest he find himself stuck. Never mind the widely tolerated redundancy of streetwear, not just single-designer, season-to-season, but across the category, or the irony that the right person shows a mundane hoodie and social media goes agog. For better or worse, we are where we are, and, in a few short seasons, Michele’s embroidered tigers growling fiercely from oh-so-delicate eveningwear have become expected.
Backstage, the designer confirmed that for spring, he wanted to “talk the same language” as in previous seasons, while writing “another chapter of my story,” one of invented romance and wonder. His typically heady program notes opened with a quote from Vladimir Nabokov about the birth of literature, that it was born not when a boy fled the valley crying wolf with a wolf at his heels, but “when he came crying ‘wolf, wolf’ and there was no wolf behind him.”
Michele drove the message home unsubtly, staging his show as a fairy-tale dream sequence, all relentlessly pink — tufted banquette seating; walls and curtains of mirrored squares, the latter strung vertically to shimmer with movement; an ominous, otherworldly fog heightening the disorientation (and hindering clear viewing of the clothes).
This was the setting for Michele’s nerdy, wacky, crazyville parade, a lineup that recalled the John Galliano of once upon a time, not in the clothes themselves but in the diverse cast of characters. “This is a way of talking about love and quirkiness,” Michele said. To that end, multiple references converged, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes in conflict. Throughout, he used language as liberally as any other design detail, at times merely scripting, “Loved.” Daring us to think of “modern future” as something far afield from sterile minimalism, he splashed the words across a number of intensely wrought pieces, and he reminded us that life isn’t all fashion fun: several looks heralded “Hollywood Forever Cemetery.” Indeed, with their deliberate pallor and blank stares, some of the models looked like the lovely, ghostly beings of old, scary movies — gloriously bedecked for an afterlife of offbeat high style.
Still, as with last season, one felt the sly push-pull of bottom-line reality. Hence, the flamboyant tailored day looks that swung Seventies; a double-zebra mink coat that astonished; and the digression into short, tight, Hello-Sailor Eighties-land. One could even extract commerce from the so-witty-your-head-spins styling: Mega eyewear moment, folks?
It was an adventure in storytelling by fashion, delivered with wit and skill. Yet at times the frenzy felt like something more than that of euphoric, maximalist fashion — the frenzy of what-next? Michele has earned every bit of the attention and praise lavished on him during his early fashion fame. His challenge is to figure out how to retain and develop his design ethos — inclusive, should he choose, of more tigers, snakes and whatever other fantastical motifs might fuel his expression — while keeping Gucci’s newly passionate audience enthralled. To that end, he might look at Valentino. Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri, who also rocked fashion with a different-drummer gentleness, and had to figure how to keep it moving. They did. The smart money says Michele will, too.