As guests touched down in staggered bunches into a springtime Rome on the occasion of Gucci’s resort ’20 show, there was extra pressure. For his fifth resort collection for the house, Alessandro Michele had to play that gruelling task of hometown host to guests, showing off the city where he grew up, where he lives and where he has his creative sanctum. With leading tastemakers, editors and extended Gucci famiglia among arrivals, they came, expectant and numbering more than 400.
But Michele was prepared. Granted, this is easier with the formidable tailwind of the Kering conglomerate behind you, but, as if to remind us that his relationship with the Eternal City is complex (Michele has commented before he has a love-hate relationship with the ancient dame), Rome itself was being temperamental. Raining in fits and starts, it sloshed unsuspecting sandal-shod tourists with water pooling between the ancient cobbles while they willed the sun out to complete their Instagrammable Roman Holiday.
For Gucci guests, all was centred around that part of the old city that draws such crowds, the ruins and the musei, and here the trail to show night began with distinctly Roman fare. Carciofi (artichokes) and cacio e pepe, the famously minimalist pasta dish, fuelled showgoers who found their way to lesser-known enclaves of the Italian capital. First was the overwhelming scrolls and furls of Palazzo Colonna, home to more than 20 generations of the Colonna family, which gave Rome a pope. The walls, tiled with works by Bronzino and Guido Reni, and the ceilings, flourishing under Pinturicchio brushstrokes (the same that colour the Sistine Chapel), make up one of the largest private art collections in the world.
Then to a more discreet building, but only by comparison: the monastic silence of the 16th-century Biblioteca Angelica belies its treasures of explosive worth. Among the time-ravaged leather spines and puckered parchments standing sentinel in Europe’s first public library, rumour has it a first edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy convalesces, fragile, in a locked room. Meanwhile on full display is the world’s first street-level map that purportedly gave Google whizzes inspiration for Street View.
So began Michele’s hide-and-seek of tantalising touchpoints, ending at Antica Libreria Cascianelli, a favourite store of the Gucci creative director that’s crammed with curios and taxidermy. Here, guests were given invitations in the form of a stack of antique books, each wrapped, with show details and a quote from historian Paul Veyne stamped inside: “Because only pagan antiquity could arouse my desire. Because it was the world of the past, because it was a world that no longer exists.”
Which led to dusk, inside the Michelangelo-designed Musei Capitolini, not far from an elbow bend of the Tiber river, where guests converged under a slate sky. “Rome is a place that’s difficult to define, even if you’re born here,” Michele said of his city to journalists. The sentiment continued, literally writ large, with a repeat of the Veyne quote on a stretch of fabric strung across the show entrance.
When the clothes came out, the punch hit right in the stomach. A Bob Mackie-inspired phantasm in midnight black and glittering feathered headdress as high as a holy mitre was a visual command to attention, the iris purple blazer with the 70s slogan ‘My body, my choice’ was the message to heed. It was in the company of a besequined uterus embroidered onto the front of a plissé gown, and a date – 22/05/1978 – when the Italian law for protecting the social value of motherhood and legal abortion came into effect.
The references then were stratified in degrees of directness. It came in the 70s cut of pants and slightly flared blazers in herringbones and earthy checks, chunky bouclé trims and A-line tunics, as well as ‘Gucci Band’ branded guitar cases, all nodding to the era that was a boon to gender equality and freewheeling troubadours. But these were supporting acts to the above missive, being the most direct political message from the creative director so far. Those who have absorbed by osmosis his new world order through clothes – inclusivity (notwithstanding a recent cultural misstep), beauty in everything, freedom of expression, equality – might have wondered: why now?
Michele called it a “hymn to freedom” and told press afterwards: “It was really important to organise this show in Rome in a time when it’s important to glorify this place that is a place of freedom. All the beautiful things surrounding us from the pagan world are connected to a freedom that has sometimes been threatened.”
Indeed, there are many unseen forces acting on the city that was home base for one of Western culture’s most spectacular empires, none perhaps as omniscient as the Catholic Church. An eight-minute drive away from the show is the nation-within-a-city that still wields incredible power. With the 1973 Roe versus Wade abortion law decision in the US under threat that same month (and abortion laws up for revision here in Australia at the time of writing), Michele told press he felt an urgency to engage and show that this historic centre of tradition can also be free and freeing: he wanted us to see it the way he can.
And so, he reworked the ancient tropes, clerical or otherwise, in luxurious flesh-toned togas, blood red capes dripping with flamboyant crystals, and primly subversive headwear like nun’s habits paired with a sparkling vestment and choker. Tattoo-like transfers on models’ mouths read ‘Amore’ and ‘Roma’, one containing all the letters of the other. Details were particularly decadent, seen in the golden ear coverings with a mini Hercules, the Greco-Roman demi-god, which signalled that those we deem deities have human flaws, too.
It was a meshing of myths and mythologies, megaliths mingling with Mickey Mouse motifs and an idea of Rome, refreshed, released and renewed, if you take a second look. As if to emphasise this, Michele held the show under flashlights, forcing smartphones from hands and onlookers to seek out and direct their spotlights toward what they wanted to see.
Finally, it was on to another palazzo, Brancaccio, for the after party, where Stevie Nicks called upon Harry Styles for a special performance. The duo, who enjoy a mentor-like relationship and would no doubt put to use those guitar cases, sang Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide together. As guests in thrall, including Zumi Rosow, Harris Reed and A$AP Rocky, dispersed into the various smoke-filled rooms to dance with other eclectic, eccentric young things, Michele looked over it all. In his fifth year at the label’s helm, there was a sense that the city might have a new éminence grise, casting his inclusive magic over the places that traditional power structures, Roman or otherwise, fail to embrace. After all, when you have guests over, everyone wants to show off just a little.
This article originally appeared in Vogue Australia’s October 2019 issue.