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The House of Gucci at 100

Gucci has been in the news recently because of the star-studded House of Gucci. But while the film certainly paints a picture of a notorious period in the Italian firm’s history, Peter Howarth explores why the Gucci of today, as showcased on Sloane Street, is something of a different animal

The Gucci archive in Florence 
Gucci's creative director Alessandro Michele

Last year, a couple of weeks before Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci premiered in Los Angeles, the Italian fashion house at the heart of the story, which is currently celebrating its 100th anniversary, decided to stage a huge fashion show in the City of Angels. The timing was clearly no coincidence.

Though Gucci was not officially involved in the production of the movie, which tells the story of a particularly notorious period in the house’s history (from 1978-95), it had lent clothes from its archive for the wardrobe, and invited director Ridley Scott to sit front row at the show, along with a stellar guestlist that included everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow and Serena Williams to Billie Eilish and Tyler, the Creator. One of the stars of the film, Jared Leto, even walked the catwalk. Leto has previously also featured in Gucci ad campaigns.

However, the intention here was not to promote the movie, but to make a statement about Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele’s love of cinema and almost mythical regard for Hollywood itself, which he describes as “Nine letters dripping with desire”.

Called Love Parade, the show – which showcased spring/summer 2022 menswear and womenswear – marked the return to a real-world catwalk after a more than year-long hiatus and digital-only presentations due to the pandemic. Here, Michele explained his very personal connection with cinema: “[My] mum worked in the film industry as an assistant in a production company. I remember all the stories she told me, and the details and the sparkles, about that dream factory… Everything felt like a fairytale.”

It takes a man of considerable ability and energy to marshal the kind of multi-faceted approach that Gucci exemplifies

A fairytale is the perfect way to describe what Michele has achieved at Gucci since he took over the top creative role there in 2015. Over the past seven years he has brought this famous fashion label to a whole new level of relevance, fame and success. And he has done this entirely by appealing to our imaginations.

The hard data speaks for itself – from 2015 to 2019 the company increased its revenues from €3,898 to €9,628 billion.But the real measure of Michele’s impact is in how familiar the Gucci aesthetic has become. That vision of a decorative, poetic, eclectic mash-up that takes in punk rock and the Medicis, animals and spaceships, Los Angeles gamers and English country houses. No wonder he loves Hollywood, and no wonder he calls it the “dream factory”.

For Michele is not only a dreamer, he is also responsible for delivering commercially successful collections. And, like a film director, he is perfectly in tune with the narrative and visual landscape of his work, and aware of how to elicit emotion from those who engage with it. When conceiving Love Parade, he says: “I thought about Mum and her precious legacy. I thought about the worship of beauty she fed me with. About the indefeasible gift of dreaming and the mythopoetic aura of cinema.”

It is right to consider Alessandro Michele to be a Romantic with a capital R. He is one in the way Beethoven was, or Turner or Keats. Someone who believes in the emotions, in the individual. And in the creative power of the imagination. Indeed, the Romantic poet John Keats wrote: “The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, – he awoke and found it truth.” In other words, the power of the dreamer is to create a new reality. To paraphrase The Rocky Horror Show, don’t merely dream it, be it.

A look from Gucci's Love Parade show 
A look from Gucci's Love Parade show 

And just as Romanticism emerged as a reaction to the rationalism of the Industrial Revolution, Michele’s vision grew out of a sense that fashion was due a new approach. Back in 2015, when the designer first showed his dressing-up box of patterns and bows and fur-lined mules, fashion had found itself in what you could call an ‘industrial’ phase, in that it had truly become an industry. Here the same photographers and models worked on campaigns for many different brands, almost standardising the approach to fashion imagery, while architects created stores for labels that looked the same wherever they were in the world. The gloss of luxury was spreading globally and, aesthetically, much of this manifested itself as a slick modernism.

Gucci, too, was part of this story. Having been reenergised by an injection of sexy glamour by its then creative director, Tom Ford (in the 1990s), it had settled down to become a maker of a chic and sleek wardrobe for the 21stcentury version of the community the brand had been associated with in the 1960s and 70s: the international jet set.

When Alessandro Michele took the reins, however, there was an explosion of activity that re-imagined this famous label, and also had repercussions throughout the world of fashion. Revealingly, Alessandro Michele did say at Gucci Love Parade in Los Angeles that he had originally wanted to be a costume designer. This makes sense, as what he produces, though often eminently wearable, has more to do with the dramatic than the everyday. And, like a costume designer, he views his customers as characters, in this case, characters in search of pieces that will speak of their personalities and their belief in freedom of expression.

The creative method he employs is one of eclectic fusion. And that means not only the mixing of design tropes and ideas, but also of past and present. Michele is fascinated by time, seeing it not so much as a linear route from old to new, but more a toolbox from which he can pick and choose to create the designs of the future. Thus, today’s Gucci is full of reimagined versions of ideas to be found in its archive.

Indeed, as part of the celebration of the house’s centenary – it was 1921 when Guccio Gucci opened his first store in Florence – the company has opened a new archive in its birthplace. Occupying a historic palazzo (with roots in the 15th century), this is home to pieces stretching back over the years. Here you will find the famous Flora print, created for a scarf for Princess Grace (Kelly) in 1966, the bamboo-handled handbag, launched in 1947 (after World War II when there was a shortage of materials, but bamboo was available), and the Jackie bag, so called because Mrs Onassis was photographed so often carrying it. All these, as well as multiple vintage designs and motifs on display here – many comprising flora and fauna – have spawned fresh takes on established ideas and given birth to a rich and burgeoning universe of colour, pattern and materials. “I caress the roots of the past to create unexpected inflorescences, carving the matter through grafting and pruning,” explains Michele, identifying himself as a gardener, creating the new from the old; literally growing the future.

Part of that future, inevitably, exists in the virtual world, and Gucci has certainly pioneered innovative digital projects, regularly partnering with artists to create online imagery, launching retro-style arcade games, and even experimenting with virtual reality in its stores, where you can ‘try on’ a pair of shoes or a watch on your digital device screen.

Perhaps the most marked example of Michele’s confidence, though, is his willingness to join forces with other designers, such as Harlem’s hip-hop creative Dapper Dan and Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga, for special projects. He is also keen to promote new, up-and-coming talent, such as the designers who feature on Gucci Vault, a recently launched bold, experimental online space in which the house promotes the work of these developing brands, functioning like a modern-day Medici, a patron of the art of fashion.

But as with many things Gucci, the Vault initiative effortlessly combines past with present. Again denoting supreme confidence, in a rejection of the given that fashion must always be slave to the new, Vault also offers vintage, pre-owned Gucci. These pieces are handpicked by Michele and the house archivists and are skilfully reconditioned and refreshed. Many are one-of-a-kind, and some special select items have even been customised by the creative director himself.

It takes a man of considerable ability and energy to marshal the kind of multi-faceted approach that Gucci exemplifies. A master blender. Someone not afraid to champion the quirky and eclectic, the surreal and the unexpected. But then Alessandro Michele is so steeped in the lore of Gucci – he worked in the design department for 12 years before being appointed as creative director – and so attuned to the nuances of popular culture, that he is perfectly placed to steer this famous Italian fashion laboratory into its next 100 years.

Gucci, 18 Sloane Street, SW1X 9NE

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