Jhere’s a philosophy course on the Harvard program this semester, led by Associate Professor Emanuele Coccia, titled The Ego in Things: Fashion As a Moral Laboratory. The programme, which examines fashion’s role in shaping identity and illustrating culture, includes an essay by the late designer Virgil Abloh and an episode of The Simpsons made in collaboration with Balenciaga, but special attention is given to Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci. This week, Michele, who recently attended the Met Gala pairing with Jared Leto, down to the matching rhinestone hair clips, showed off her latest collection, Cosmogony, at a 13th-century castle in Puglia. The influences he cited weren’t the usual style references – say Audrey Hepburn, or Cristóbal Balenciaga – but Hannah Arendt, the Holocaust survivor and political theorist who coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” , and critical theorist Walter Benjamin.
Eight hours before showtime, Michele, Coccia’s co-author of a forthcoming book on fashion and philosophy, is dressed in a plaid shirt, baggy pants and sandals, her hair long in Pippi Longstocking braids under a Harlem baseball cap. As the journalists rustle their notebooks, he opens a paper fan, à la Karl Lagerfeld. “To be a fashion designer today is not to be a couturier,” he says. “My job is not to make a rich woman a dress for a gala. My job is to open the door to different points of view, to be in conversation with the moment.
It’s sincere, even if it’s not strictly true. Michele’s job is basically to make dresses for wealthy women to wear to galas – although these dresses, like those in the show which will be staged later in the evening, feature navel cutouts or satin collars. Elizabethan, or are worn with latex thigh high boots or leopard print bucket hats. For Gucci bosses, the motivation behind the extravagant and picturesque setting lies in the orders placed by the big spenders in the front row, and the buzz generated around the brand. But for Michele, the decor has a deeper meaning. He brings his sequins, lace and pearls to the octagonal towers of Castel del Monte (which also features on the back of a one euro cent coin) – where two stone lions at the entrance face the directions from which the sun rises in winter and the summer solstices – to speak of the universe.
“I chose this location because it’s a stargate between earth and heaven,” Michele says in his poetic, singsong English. “Fashion is a magical thing, because the power of what we put on our bodies to go out into the world is what makes it mysterious. Without the life we live in it, clothes are just fabric. A cape with a train of constellations embroidered with shell beads refers to Walter Benjamin’s observation in 1928 that “ideas are to objects what constellations are to stars”. For Michele, the constellations represent fashion’s ability “to illuminate connections that would otherwise be invisible… When you look at someone’s clothes, you see a connection to their story.”
Michele’s delightfully esoteric take on fashion is, as Paris Hilton used to say, so hot right now. Fashion once wanted to be taken seriously as an art. But these days, those who are serious about fashion yearn for it to be a platform for philosophy, activism, or debate. With identity politics dominating the culture, clothing is a channel over which heavy topics are discussed at the street level. From a wartime president’s military green T-shirts to a judge’s choice of a spider pin, what we wear is a number for status updates of all kinds, not just status .
The fashion houses that set the tone for the 21st century have each identified with a set of values. Dior, under the direction of Maria Grazia Chiuri, its first female designer, undertook to affix its logo to feminism. By protecting the Kardashian-West divorce and turning a Paris fashion week show into a mirror of the Ukrainian refugee crisis, Balenciaga claimed provocation and courting of the controversy who, whether she loved him or that she hates her, occupies an important place.
Prior to its latest diversification into life, universe and all, Michele’s Gucci was mostly about gender and the fluidity of identity. Since her very first Gucci show in 2015, in which the men wore pussy-bow blouses and pearls, Michele has poked fun at toxic masculinity. That red carpets now regularly feature men in lace (Harry Styles) or diamonds (A$AP Rocky) and evening bags (Billy Porter) is largely due to the reinvention of Gucci. He’s gone from being the home of leather loafers to championing a new masculine look that’s allowed to fall lovingly on color, embellishment and glamour, from Donald Glover’s plush caramel velvet to Donald Glover’s floral prom shirts. Ryan Gosling. Fortunately for Gucci’s results, Michele’s enthusiasm for fluidity matches that of younger consumers. In his third year with the brand, sales jumped 42%, although above-average exposure to the Chinese market has taken its toll recently, as shutdowns continue there.
Now it’s show time. On the castle steps, actress Elle Fanning taps a young man in a varsity jacket on the shoulder, handing him his phone with a smile and a request for a photo with two friends. (The man is actor Paul Mescal, but incognito due to a mustache that has just grown for a role.) The air turns to shimmering silver as the sun sets as guests take their seats and the show begin. There are crystals strung from a nose ring to an earlobe, and a dozen strings of pearls wrapped around a throat as thick as a woolen scarf. There are pannier dresses and neon opera gloves and then, as if by magic, a vast, blood-red moon, rising from the horizon, drawing all eyes up the garments to the sky. And for a serendipitous moment, it feels like it’s not just about fashion.