At the entrance to a disused Milanese train depot repurposed for the afternoon as a fairytale boudoir (plush seating cubes in buttoned pink velvet, strip-bar glitter curtains, a throaty undertone of dry ice), each guest arriving for the Gucci catwalk show was handed a pink piece of paper. On it was printed a quote by Vladimir Nabokov: “Literature was not born the day a boy crying ‘wolf, wolf’ came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big grey wolf at his heels; literature was born on the day when a boy came crying ‘wolf, wolf’ and there was no wolf behind him.”
Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s creative director, likes to layer several characters into an outfit – he himself was dressed for the show in a distinctive Renaissance-biker style that the New Yorker said in a recent profile suggested “a dandy who had run off to join the Hell’s Angels”. And he chose this quote to convey several points.
First, that imagination is essential. (“All of my fashion is an illusion,” he said after the show.)
Second, that Gucci is as much about fairytale as it is about reality. (Many of Michele’s dresses, with their pineapple-top fronds of organza and elaborate embroidery, look as if they might have been conjured into life by Cinderella’s fairy godmother, or stitched by the bluebirds in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.)
Third, that stars can be born from unlikely places: the boy who cried wolf, the villain of the tale, becomes a hero from Nabokov’s point of view.
This is Michele’s fourth season as the golden boy of Milan fashion week, having been plucked from the relative obscurity of the design room. The success he has brought to Gucci – sales of womenswear have risen 66% this year – is particularly notable, being in stark contrast to the ailing fortunes of Prada and Armani.
Fashion tires of its new discoveries fast. But Michele remains compelling partly because although his manner is warm and engaging – the virtual free-for-all backstage is unusual in strictly controlled Milan – he remains an intriguingly unknowable figure. He segues from dense cultural theorising (he mentioned French intellectual Roger Caillois in discussions about this show, as well as German author Elias Canetti) into raptures about his latest best friend, Elton John (“I love Elton! He is amazing! Like a … firework!”).
The stage set for this show had the scent and colour of a seedy nightclub, but a soundtrack of William Blake’s poetry recited over a choral backdrop. Channels of white light beaming down as if from high windows gave it an alternate identity as a sacred space. Michele, who in June staged the first ever show to take place in Westminster Abbey, has said he is not religious, but is drawn to places of worship because “you can feel the power of the people who were inside to express themselves, or to ask for something”.
What makes Michele’s commercial revival of Gucci all the more extraordinary is that, in contrast to the straightforwardly glamorous clothes of the Tom Ford era, the aesthetic is a long way from the mainstream. An endless lineup of clashing sugary pastels, crammed together like the ice-cream trays in a Milanese gelateria, were whipped into a frenzy on the catwalk with the help of disco lurex, cricket-jumper trims, embroidered animals and cryptic legends in gothic fonts. Accessories – the cash cows of any luxury brand – were no less eccentric, with pearl-studded platform sandals and regal handbags hoisted into backpacks by wide satin ribbons.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010