There is a philosophy class on the Harvard curriculum this semester, under associate professor Emanuele Coccia, called The Ego in Things: Fashion As a Moral Laboratory. The syllabus, which examines the role of fashion 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 particular focus is given to Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci. This week Michele, who recently attended the Met Gala twinning with Jared Leto, right down to matching diamante hair barrettes, showed his latest collection, Cosmogonie, at a 13th-century Puglian castle. The influences he cited were not the usual style references – Audrey Hepburn, say, 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, who is Coccia’s co-author on a forthcoming book about fashion and philosophy, is dressed down in a plaid shirt, loose trousers and sandals, long hair in Pippi Longstocking braids under a Harlem baseball cap. As reporters rustle their notebooks, he snaps open a paper fan, Karl Lagerfeld-style. “To be a fashion designer now 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 is heartfelt, although not strictly true. Michele’s job is very much to make dresses for rich women to wear to galas – even if those dresses, like the ones in the show that will be staged later that evening, feature belly button cutouts, or Elizabethan satin ruffs, or are worn with latex thigh-high boots or leopard-print bucket hats. For the Gucci bosses, the motivation behind the extravagantly picturesque setting is in the orders placed by the big spenders in the front row, and the buzz generated around the brand. But for Michele, the setting has a deeper meaning. He is bringing his sequins, lace and pearls to the octagonal towers of the Castel del Monte (which also features on the back of a euro cent coin) – where two stone lions at the entrance face the directions from where the sun rises on the winter and summer solstices – in order to talk about the universe.
“I chose this place because it is a stargate between the earth and the sky,” Michele says in his poetic, lilting English. “Fashion is a magical thing, because the power of what we put on our bodies to go out in the world is what makes it mysterious. Without the life we live in them, clothes are just fabric.” A cape with a train of constellations embroidered in shell beads refers to Walter Benjamin’s 1928 observation that “ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars”. For Michele, constellations represent the ability of fashion “to illuminate connections that would otherwise be invisible … When you look at a person’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 aspire for it to be a platform for philosophy, activism or debate. With identity politics dominant in culture, clothes are a channel on which heavyweight topics are discussed at street level. From a wartime president’s army-green T-shirts to a judge’s choice of spider brooch, what we wear is a cipher for status updates of all kinds, not just for status.
The fashion houses that are setting the pace in the 21st century have each identified themselves with a set of values. Dior, under Maria Grazia Chiuri, its first female designer, has set out to stamp its logo on to feminism. In wardrobing the Kardashian-West divorce and turning a Paris fashion week show into a mirror of the Ukrainian refugee crisis, Balenciaga has laid claim to the provocation and the courting of controversy that, like it or loathe it, looms large.
Before his latest diversification into life, the universe and everything, Michele’s Gucci has been primarily about gender and fluidity of identity. From his very first Gucci catwalk show in 2015, in which men wore pussy-bow blouses and pearls, Michele has been poking fun at toxic masculinity. That red carpets now regularly feature men in lace (Harry Styles) or diamonds (A$AP Rocky) and with evening bags (Billy Porter) is due in no small part to the reinvention of Gucci. It has gone from being the home of the leather loafer to the champion of a new male gaze that is permitted to fall lovingly on colour and decoration and glamour, from Donald Glover’s plush caramel velvet tailoring to Ryan Gosling’s floral prom shirts. Happily for Gucci’s bottom line, Michele’s enthusiasm for fluidity chimes with that of young consumers. In his third year at the brand, sales jumped by 42%, although a higher-than-average exposure to the Chinese market has recently taken its toll, as lockdowns continue there.
Now, it is showtime. On the steps to the castle, the actor Elle Fanning taps a young man in a varsity jacket on the shoulder, holding out her phone with a smile and a request for a photo with two friends. (The man is actor Paul Mescal, but incognito due to a moustache newly sprouted for a role.) The air turns tinsel silver in the sunset as guests take their seats and the show begins. There are crystals strung from a nose ring to an earlobe, and a dozen ropes of pearls coiled around a throat as thick as a woollen scarf. There are panniered gowns and neon opera gloves and then, as if by magic, a vast blood-red moon, which rises from the horizon, drawing every eye upwards from the clothes to the sky. And for a serendipitous moment, it feels like this really is about more than fashion.