Gucci designer Alessandro Michele is a tireless creator of fantasy worlds. He’s staged shows at the Le Palace theatre in Paris, at ancient ruins and romantic graveyards. His collections are always jam-packed with disparate references, all strung together with a sense of magic and whimsy. But for Gucci’s fall 2019 show during Milan Fashion Week, he seemed more interested in the harsh realities of the present.
It was a disorienting shift, particularly for those in the audience. The show took place in a cavernous space lined from floor to ceiling with mirrors. Blinding lights flashed to the beat of a drum. This is what you see before you die, I thought.
Suddenly, a model wearing a studded, Hannibal Lecter–like face mask appeared. Yikes! Instead of cradling replicas of their own heads, as they did last winter, the models wore dismembered ears and other loose appendages, which appeared to be stapled back on to their bodies, Frankenstein-style. Some cried prosthetic tears.
It was a horror show, but of the Rocky Picture sort. (With a dash of Game of Thrones.) Unlike last season, when some models wore nothing but underwear, there was almost no skin on display. Models weren’t just covered in clothing, but also layers of protective gear: visor hats, volleyball kneepads, gilded shin guards, eye patches, and chest plates. Some carried hair brushes in their hands like bludgeons. If S&M was the theme, then each look was a different safe word.
What do we need protecting from? Our poisoned environment is an obvious answer — a topic many designers are wrestling with. (Craig Green, for example, showed Moncler puffer jackets that could function as life rafts on Wednesday night.) Maybe Michele is protecting us from selfie culture, maybe from ourselves. In his notes, he quoted philosopher Hannah Arendt, suggesting that politics, specifically totalitarianism, was on his mind. “Arendt reminds us that we are [people] when we choose the mask through which we appear on the world’s stage,” he wrote. “We define our subjectivity and our ethical and political placement through this shared appearance scene.”
This is classic highfalutin Gucci-speak, but it comes at an appropriate moment. Last week, the brand announced a longterm effort to change both its outward image and internal culture after allegations of blackface. To continue to play with facial coverings this season may seem like a risky choice, but this idea was likely underway well before February.
It’s impossible to say what, exactly, Michele intended with this collection. (That’s the point of wearing a mask, is it not?) Looking at myself and the crowd in the mirror, though, I had to wonder if he was also highlighting our own increasing cultural sensitivity, which can both improve a brand like Gucci and dampen its desire to take risks. It was hard not to think about the death of Karl Lagerfeld, who in his larger-than-life persona represented an era before the fashion industry walked on eggshells — for better and for worse.
In all, the show called to mind those crash-test dummy car commercials that used to air when I was a kid. While being sold a sense of safety, we’re reminded just how much we need saving from. Can fashion protect us?