A DIVINE ORDER
The poetic beauty of Provence and its gothic past provided the ultimate inspiration, and setting, for Alessandro Michele’s Gucci resort ’19 show in Arles.
The poetic beauty of Provence and its gothic past provided the ultimate inspiration, and setting, for Alessandro Michele’s Gucci resort ’19 show.
Upon mentioning a visit to Provence, images spring sprite-like to mind. Fields of lavender spilling oily perfume into the hot air, poppy-burnished fields encircling farmhouses while clotted-white clouds like an impressionist’s impasto hang over the scene. Not so for Gucci’s Alessandro Michele. Should one be turning ancient battlements and the remains of a faded Roman empire over in their mind – burial grounds included – it would be nearer Michele’s jump point for the collection he is about to show in the small town of Arles, one hour’s drive northwest of the city of Marseille.
So it is that the prolific helmsmen of the Gucci monolith has spirited the fashion caravan to the bucolic and all-too-small village for the Italian house’s resort ’19 outing. Small, because the 400-strong contingent of editors and VIPs don’t exactly fit into the entire town’s accommodation reserves and so are stationed at picturesque Provençal outposts. All the better for us, as days nearing the show are filled with artistic and gastronomic get-to-knows, including lunch at the Tadao Ando-designed and art-studded Chateau La Coste, a ramble through the vegetable garden of La Chassagnette, which provides the peas, cherries and rhubarb for the restaurant’s southern French fare, and a tour of the Vincent van Gogh Foundation, the artist who set up his ‘studio in the south’ which he and contemporary Paul Gauguin spent eight fraught, but creatively yielding, weeks in. We emerge with a newfound appreciation of all this and the Camargue; marshlands where it’s possible to spot flamingos en masse and wild white horses, or carmaguais, emerge apparition-like from the reeds – motifs that feel very Gucci.
As the day nears, and the dainty beflowered show material appears, it seems the Roman creative is agitating for an overtly pretty collection. To take anything at face value, and anyone faintly familiar with Michele’s work is not fool enough to do so, is a trap at Gucci. “All the places I travel to for cruise also belong to my personal story,” he tells WWD in a pre-show statement. “They are heartfelt places, which have a lot of meaning to me. Nothing is accidental.”
This being the second in a three-part homage to France, (the first, a pre-fall campaign based on the Parisian protests of 1968, the second, a decampment last month to Paris fashion week), Michele has selected Les Alyscamps, a 4th-century Roman necropolis built, as was tradition, on the outskirts of the town. As show day arrives, the weather is high drama. Rain smatters the verdant fields as cars track inwards to Arles’s centre. As dusk sets aglow the miraculously clearing clouds – it almost seems feasible that the Kering-owned multi-billion dollar Gucci orchestrated that – cryptic words filter in from Michele about the location, once the capital of the Western Roman Empire, and one of many UNESCO World Heritage sites of Roman ruins nearby. It is emblematic, it is a hybrid, it is gothic and, we are told, “with a rock’n’roll soul”, guided to look beyond appearances.
Guests including Elton John, A$AP Rocky, Saoirse Ronan and Gia Coppola file past sarcophagi, tops missing, down a path lit by gothic candelabras to a crypt obscured by smoke. With a showman’s knack for timing, flames flare on the runway at the tick of nightfall. To the soundtrack of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers for the Blessed Virgin, Michele paraded motifs typically rich and varied in an abundant 114 looks.
It has been clear for a long time that Michele isn’t setting out collections in clearly thematically divisible chapters – all is made to meld with the next and the past – but the mystic overtures this time were a graspable thread. Religious ritual shone through in crucifix brooches and decorative flounces in tassels and embroidery. Brides in tiered white cotton and Sunday-best grandma bags and skirt suits joined rock’n’roll wayfarers in velvet robe coats that veered clerical. At play was a duality: saints and sinners, life and death as opposing forces that seethed below the surface in a typically decadent mix. Mourning widows, bouquets or rosary beads in hand, read as death and love combined.
Beginning in ancient cultures and continuing in some churches of the Christian faith, loved ones’ bones were disinterred several years after their death and lovingly decorated by hand. Michele spoke later of “death as fascination”, and his high points were spectral displays of femininity and the macabre. Hats, with single long feathers – inspired by Frank Olive, milliner to Diana Ross – topped dipped-in-sequins evening looks emblazoned with skulls and one black velvet dress with skeletal ribs overlaid. “This idea is that everything that is linked to the afterlife is accompanied by something of maximum beauty,” he wrote on social media.
At the other end were raver sneakers, vinyl buckle pants and leather party dresses (remember 55 per cent of Gucci customers are millennials), more S&M than RIP. As ever with Gucci, the joining of two disparate elements creates an inimitable frisson. Chateau Marmont motifs – an official collaboration – might not seem to have anything to do with memento mori woven on pants, for example, but consider the phrase was a reminder of the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures and just clock one of the bacchanalian nights that have occurred at the Los Angeles stalwart.
When Dante Alighieri visited the former Roman stronghold of Les Baux, half an hour away, he was enthralled by the dwellings built cavelike into the rock. In the geology, stretched and streaked in black and white, he saw ghoulish stricken faces. They were to inspire his Inferno, going on to write Alyscamps into history in his complete Divine Comedy. Where some saw ruins, Michele saw intrigue. In his world a motif beams out the metaphysical, and an opportunity to show it’s worth going beyond what we see on the surface.
In this vein he unveiled his final illusion: a show guest becomes a star. After attendees were ushered into a garden party, replete with ice-cold vodka shots on silver trays, Michele took to the stage. “Just a few words to introduce one of my best friends now, and one of the sweetest persons on Earth. A really, really huge and unbelievable artist. It’s Sir Elton John.” The icon and friend of the house performed five songs as some editors and models shed a tear at the intimate display. “I was supposed to be Lana Del Rey,” the performer joked. In Gucci’s world at least, nothing is ever what it seems.
A gown from Gucci resort ’19 on the flame-lined runway at the promenade des Alyscamps, Arles, France.
Single-feather hats inspired by milliner Frank Olive.