Gucci’s Flawed Gender Revolution
In a short time, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele has become an industry iconoclast. Fashion loves a good story and this particular one—where a talented behind-the-scenes figure is thrust into the public domain after his predecessor, Frida Giannini, prematurely left the Italian house—was too juicy to resist. Michele’s first collection in 2015 received excessive media attention thanks to the alleged company drama that led to Giannini’s ousting, but also because he entirely redesigned her completed menswear collection, right down to the last stitch, in five days.
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What kept Gucci’s narrative afloat was the unusual angle from which Michele approached the behemoth brand: Swept away was the overt sexuality of Tom Ford’s legendary run in the late 90s and Giannini’s ‘glamorous, but where do you wear that?’ aesthetic. The opening look—a red silk shirt with a pussybow necktie and louche black trousers with sandals—set the tone for the 35 looks that followed. Aggressive polish was replaced with a nerdy ease that critic Tim Blanks dubbed ‘androgynous languor’. There was a sense among the press that, in Michele’s ring-bedecked hands, established notions of gender were evaporating—a monumental achievement for such a corporate label. It is a notion that has persisted, but one that has since bore little tangible fruit.
Within the parameters of contemporary fashion’s relatively short history, there are few titans bold enough to tamper with the intimate connotations of clothing as it relates to gender and sexuality. Chanel set out to make a uniform for women to go about their day with the same sophistication as men in well-tailored suits. Similarly, Yves Saint Laurent revolutionized evening attire for women with his famous tuxedo-like ‘Le Smoking’ suit, which, like Chanel’s, butted up against the mores of its time. Famous New York City socialite and admitted clotheshorse Nan Kempner once attempted to enter La Côte Basque, but was denied entry due to her YSL pantsuit as only women wearing skirts or dresses were permitted. Annoyed but unfazed, she removed her pants and jacket at the door strutting in wearing only the tunic she had on beneath as a minidress. Both Chanel and Saint Laurent are indicative of a larger modern trend rarely interrupted where the sartorial flow of garments from one traditional gender to another has almost always gone in on direction: from men to women.
Michele’s employ of a handful of ‘feminine’ trappings (blousy silhouettes, pastel colors, floral motifs) across the Gucci brand not only fails to challenge ideas of masculinity but also imposes a particular kind of overt girlishness on women without subverting that concept in any meaningful way. He places his Gucci women in frothy confections splashed with sequins, sheer tops and flowing skirts along with nerdy glasses for an artsy feel that ultimately rings hollow. His imposed vision of womanhood is an overstyled one reliant on garments that don’t act as an extension his wearer’s ethos so much as they serve to decorate her.
A little over three years in, Michele has thoroughly established his “Gucci look,” from the artfully embroidered handbags to the magpie majesty of his models outfitted in layers of brocade, tulle and dramatic velvet. His relentless production of unchanging, practically seasonless styles is commendable for its sheer endurance—one would think only so many iterations of tiered ruffle dresses and floral print trousers are possible, but they show no signs of ceasing. Michele has expressed his interest in the new sartorial freedom with which men and women can now play, but perhaps the issues surrounding Gucci’s gender dynamics stem not so much from Michele’s work itself (which is simply extreme dandyism dressed up to look like something more noble), but rather a fashion industry at large hoping to involve itself in a profound conversation that it, with a few exceptions, only pretends to understand.
There is no doubt that many in the business care deeply about the gender politics at hand and fashion is surely capable of commenting on modern-day events, but transparent grabs at relevancy often do more harm than good. Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik’s shared August, 2017 Vogue cover story hailed them as champions of gender fluidity for Hadid’s occasional borrowing of Malik’s clothes, something so deeply misguided that the magazine had to issue an apology. The real reason for having the pair on the cover was to generate clicks, headlines and social media buzz, yet Vogue felt the need to disguise its intentions with a shroud of legitimacy offered by a raging issue whose impact is felt most by marginalized people. By minimizing the issues in order to drive eternally ravenous marketing machines, these companies not only demonstrate extreme cowardice but also reinforce the popular idea that the fashion pack is filled with out of touch professionals. There are designers who intelligently grapple with the confines of gender, like Shayne Oliver of the now-hibernating Hood By Air. Oliver created looks that disregarded sartorial norms—they celebrated men in heels, women in rugged streetwear, and made viewers question whether or not distinguishing between the two was even necessary. Even Britain’s Molly Goddard and her hyper-feminine dresses seem to be poking fun at the doll-like manner in which fashion has treated women while embracing the magical, awkward power that girlhood can imbue.
It seems strange that fashion should praise the changes that have occurred at Gucci when they have only helped reinforce gendered ideas. Michele’s Gucci makeover has proven a profitable one with sales surging by 49 percent in the third quarter of the last fiscal year, something any business executive would be thrilled by. But make no mistake, had the figures been different, Gucci’s apparent commitment to dismantling the gender binary would be the first thing to go in its search for greater profit. Like the lavish embellishment spidering across so many Gucci baubles, the brand’s pseudo-dedication to gender fluidity remains solely on the surface.