History has taught us that sampling, layering, collaging and piling could be interpreted as fine arts that need to be perfectly tuned before being put into practice. The best sampled tracks in the history of music were indeed produced by visionary artists with a vast musical knowledge and an ample music collection.
Alessandro Michele at Gucci has so far proved that the more you know, the more you can mess around with, the more you can use to confuse consumers, detractors and the very few fashion critics and commentators left out there.
Gucci’s S/S 17 collection, showcased on Wednesday in Milan in an all pink environment (walls, curtains, velvet banquettes...was that because pink is "the only true rock'n'roll colour" or was this a Lucille Ball moment at the Ziegfeld Follies? The doubt remains...) was another extenuating journey into Michele's mind and through all the "buone cose di pessimo gusto" (good things of awful taste) he surrounds himself with.
Michele sprinkled millions of coloured sequins on evening gowns worthy of Madame Satan, carved zebra intarsia on an orange fur mink coat, decorated another coat with colourful jellyfish sprouting organza tentacles.
He mixed '80s power looks such as one shouldered ruffled dresses that Joan Collins would have favoured in 1983, and also came up with tiered tinsel coats, and wacky silk pyjama sets followed by studded suede trouser suits.
Michele's tigers, snakes and dragons - a bestiary of animals that seems to be recurring in his collections - were printed, embroidered and embellished on evening gowns and in one case a snake was embossed on a bustier.
At times the animal illustrations were bejeweled versions of drawings by Jayde Fish (who is also very much inspired by hallucinating visions like the ones in Alejandro Jodorowsky's "Holy Mountain").
The Far East was channeled via fans, kimono-like coats and cheong sam-like gowns, dragons, and lucky cats; here and there the Asian references were filtered through a Hollywood light.
Slogans such as "loved", "modern future", "l'aveugle pour amour" (blind for love) and "Hollywood Forever Cemetery", embellished some of the garments and accessories.
Accessories included gigantic glasses and earrings, aviator hats, jewel-toned turbans, floral headscarves, printed fans with slogans in Gothic fonts and intricately decorated handbags and brocade backpacks.
Current Gucci collections are a bit like following Rainbow Brite dressed up as La Casati in a journey through different eras and places, from the Renaissance to a '70s nightclub to a plastic Fiorucci-land from the '80s and a rave in a Baroque Church in the '90s.
The show notes at Gucci were as fractured and rambling as the collection: they opened with a quote from Vladimir Nabokov about the birth of literature, and highlighted how "the narrative principle is non-linear; it is made of ruptures, digs, leaps, cross-references and unpredictable connections", it mentioned "an archipelagic and metamorphic approach in which the thought overflows undisciplined and doesn't follow in the wake of tradition" (whatever that means...).
In the meantime Florence Welch read the poems of William Blake on the soundtrack (Michele posted on his Instagram account a picture of the cover of Songs of Innocence and Experience as a clue).
It is easy to be mesmerized by the hemorrhaging richness of Michele's imagination, and most critics seem to be baffled by it.
Yet there are very logical explanations behind all this rich phantasmagoria that is convicing most critics that Italy is entering a new phase of maxi-maximalism.
Michele had a different formation from that of other relatively young designers out there at the moment: he spent years working behind the scenes (with nobody calling him a genius/the next big thing or a fashion savior when he was 25), developing his own vision and an obsession for (kitsch) antiquities (in a way it's as if he were more interested in the present and the past rather than the future...), filling his eyes with historical and art references while maybe trying to control his instinct for costumy looks (Michele originally wanted to be a costume designer).
In a nutshell he had more time to develop and grow up, piling up experiences, images and ideas. Besides, there is another thing that plays in his favour: he remixes obscure things from the past that are not strictly copyrighted and openly collaborates with contemporary artists, avoiding in this way making the same mistakes that some of his colleagues are committing, that is randomly copying and pasting images found on the internet.
But if you sit and carefully analyse details from his collections, you will definitely spot the references: the red embroidered heart pierced with a jeweled dagger points towards statues of saints; the numerals "XXV" indicate Michele's lucky number (also featured in his Instagram account - @lallo25); hooded looks and shining evening gowns call to mind Adrian; glamour elements redirect to Elton John's flamboyant style and pictures of David Bowie photographed in 1973 by Masayoshi Sukita, while the infamous "Cemetery" sash and a print of cenotaphs and effigies was a remix of historical Italian graveyards and Michele's recent trip to L.A. where he took part in a celebration party for Johnny Ramone at a local cemetery.
This collection also included gigantic platform shoes that echoed French chopines or Venetian calcagnini, footwear favoured by prostitutes, of the kind you may see in illustrations, engravings or paintings from Vittore Carpaccio's "Due dame Veneziane" (ca. 1490-95) to Cesare Vecellio's "Habiti antiqui et moderni di tutto il mondo" (1590), Gerolamo Forabosco's "Donna Venetiana" (1600), Cigoli's "Joseph and Potiphar's Wife" (1610) or the anonymous "Portrait of a Woman as Cleopatra", with a wealthy Venetian woman portrayed as the Queen of Egypt with a poisonous asp in her right hand.
The calcagnini are the ancestors of modern dangerous, unstable and fetishistic footwear that restrain or physically impair women, but here they were reinvented in a modern version: Michele's calcagnini featured inside a flat slipper that allows the wearer to detach the sole and walk on a flat ballerina shoe.
In a way Michele's "more is more" vision can be summarized by a panting such as a Pamigianino's portrait of a young woman also known as Antea (dated from around 1535).
In this work Antea is magnificently dressed in a luxurious gown in the French fashion, a marten is draped over her right shoulder that looks disproportionately magnified; she wears one glove on her right hand, and a ring on the other one. Her necklace reaches out to her high waist, she sports egg shaped pearl earrings dangling from her pierced ears on gold chains, and a black thread decorated in gold is knotted through her hair characterized by an elaborate hairstyle. So the final look is a result of a perennial addition of details, elements, rich motifs and accessories, not to mention a distortion in proportions and volumes.
It would be possible to describe Michele as a Renaissance man: during this period of time, people looked at the past in search of guidance, insights and inspiration. Michele does the same, and so far his sampling style has been working pretty well judging from the 11.5 per cent increase in sales registered last year at Gucci. At the same time, this intense journey through the past has its problems: first and foremost there doesn't seem to be any distinction between Michele's collections, but the story he has been spinning is a whirling undefined continuum of remixed time with no real and clear landmarks.
He remains a decorateur extraordinaire capable of combining in the same look antiquities, reliquaries, the Latin and Greek classics, paintings and tombstones, the dusty and musty archives of museums (Gucci S/S17 fashion show invite was a three-dimensional theatre with animals and flowers that seemed borrowed from the V&A collection of paper peepshows...) with glam.
If he keeps on going like this, Michele may end up leaving fashion for costume/set design and permanently move to Hollywood to work in the film industry. In his future collections Michele will therefore have to strip away one or two excessive layers of his richly historical exuberance or we will soon be seeing Renaissance ladies vomiting rainbows on Gucci's next runway.
For the immediate present he should instead release an affordable series of Gucci colouring book for fashionistas with all his crazy drawings and prints. It may not bring sales to extraordinary levels, but it would quench the thirst of all those Michele fans who will never be able to afford Gucci's S/S 17 calcagnini.