Has it already been two years, give or take, since that historic January morning when a relative unknown rose from the ranks of Gucci and sent out that game-changing menswear Fall/Winter 2015 collection – designed and created in five days, the stuff of legends – and rebooted the Italian house as pure fashion catnip?
Alessandro Michele – he of the Jesus hair, gentle spirit and miracle-working hands – is singular only in being multifarious. The creative director has created collection after collection of consistently eclectic womenswear and menswear; off-kilter, witty and insanely fun, Gucci by Michele is built around an upbeat, maximalist mood. One of my favourite descriptions of his first womenswear collection, which aptly sums up the Gucci look today, comes from The New Yorker: “Michele was offering a startling miscellany in inflected with a high-end vintage sensibility. Although he had invented the clothes, it was as if they had been culled from a thrift store to which centuries of Roman princesses had consigned their most extravagant castoffs.”
Each season subsumes several themes – think Anglophilia this Cruise 2017 or Renaissance-meets-Studio-54 for FW16 – but is a coherent continuation from the season before, layering upon the season before that. While there is never one signature look, several design codes have been established and perpetuated. The recent Gucci 4 Rooms exhibition in Tokyo, which ran from 12 October till 27 November, saw Michele’s motifs and codes for Gucci interpreted in room-sized installations by four unconventional artists: contemporary Japanese artists Chiharu Shiota, Daito Manabe and Mr, and repeat collaborator Trevor Andrew of GucciGhost fame.
Why Japan? Why not Japan? As Michele said about his FW16 show (a Studio 54 take that couldn’t have been more different from Tom Ford’s Gucci collection of the same theme in 1996), “I like to talk in more than one language. Fashion isn’t about going in just one direction; I think it’s very contemporary to have many different inspirations.” As if to prove it, he had the FW16 ad campaign shot in Japan. And Gucci 4 Rooms followed.
The Gucci Garden Room, one of three exhibitions by the Japanese artists in the Gucci Ginza store, was a scene of chaos and destruction – totally incongruous to its name, which is an unmissable Michele theme encompassing the flora and fauna that wildly embellishes Gucci collections today. This room, however, reflects the pessimism of its creator Mr, a manga and anime artist and a protégé of Takashi Murakami, and his distress at how mankind is destroying the beautiful world we live in. “Every hundred years or so, some big catastrophe happens to the city of Tokyo. This installation braces us for that inevitability. The thrust is the anxiety, fatigue that we feel,” Mr explains. “When I was given the name of my room, Gucci Garden, of course I could have created a green field with flowers, but in reality, this was what I could come up with.”
Mr (real name Iwamoto Masakatu) filled a room with props and prints of his signature anime and manga characters and illustrations of Gucci’s insects and plants – and then destroyed them. Amid the doomsday devastation of graffitied broken and crumpled props were Gucci products – a paint- splattered shoe dangling mid-air; bee-embellished totes on the floor; snake-embroidered jeans hanging on a wall.
The self-declared otaku, aka nerd-men who fetishize anime characters, refrained from injecting any of his usual sexual overtones to this work, because he felt Michele wouldn’t want it. For all his pessimism projected in this room, Mr revealed a touching earnestness to please – a Japanese cultural thing, perhaps: “After I created the room, Gucci decided they wanted to put some fashion products in it. The selection of products and how they were displayed was Gucci’s decision. I splattered some products with paint because Gucci asked me to.”
Michele’s love for vintage is strongly vibed via not just the through-the-eras apparel and accessories like the many, many splendiferous finger-dusters that knock o royal jewels or the antiqued metal rings cast in the forms from Gucci Garden. He’s full-on embraced bygone motifs: flocked brocades and floral prints that stepped off grandma’s embroidered tablecloth, tea towel, sofa and/or wallpaper; wonderfully tacky, colourful retro prints; map prints; cheesy typefaces; even the in-your-face logos of knock-off T-shirts. The house’s feminine Herbarium print, a seamless wallpaper-like floral design, was the starting point for Berlin-based Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, whose works evoke emotive streams of consciousness through an intimate, immersive dream state. The Gucci Herbarium Room was a dense web of red string that proliferated around bags and small wallets in the floral print. The closer you got, the more obscured the items were from view. The synaptic web of string, a Shiota signature, represented the brain’s memory system – an apt line of consciousness to Michele’s flashback fab.
Thirdly, the Gucci Words Room – a darkened standing theatre space where a video projection of Matrix-like wall of changing hiragana characters faintly illuminated a handful of Gucci products suspended on display. The room lit up as traditional Japanese-style paintings of mythical figures lapped up the wall in neon-coloured licks of flames, and evolving geometric CGI and wireframes emerged and highlighted a jacket here, a bag there, a rose gold bangle elsewhere. The common thread in these products? They were emblazoned with “L’Aveugle Par Amour” – Love is Blind, or Blinded by Love, a phrase taken from the title of an 18th century French novel, and Michele’s slogan of choice from the time he took the creative helm at Gucci.
“I was given three instructions by Gucci when commissioned to create this room: that it’d be named the Gucci Word Room, to illustrate the mythology behind the products of Gucci, and to use Gucci Products in my installation,” explained Daito Manabe of the project that took six months to materialise. He ran excerpts from old Japanese love stories alongside the French slogan.
The founder of Rhizomatic Research, his bio reads artist, programmer, designer, DJ, VJ, composer; for Gucci 4 Rooms, he credits himself as a programmer rather than artist. “Tetsuya Tatamitani created the illustrations, Taeji Sawai created the soundtrack, and I programmed it.” Two paintings in simple traditional Japanese brushstrokes – of a bee and a tiger – were mounted as scrolls at two ends of the room. “I was inspired by HD movies, where it looks very sharp and clear, but if you go closer, you still see the pixels. In that sense, paper paintings are still superior. Mr Tatamitani painted them for me, as I wanted to contrast the two.”
Manabe, who has collaborated with over 100 personalities from a spectrum of fields including fashion, music and sports, brought together different contributions in clever, thoughtful, interactive and fun installations. The same could be said of Michele, if one thinks about it.
The Gucci 4 Rooms project reflects Michele’s knack for bringing things – in this case, artists as disparate as they could come – together and making them make so much sense as a whole, forging amazing commerciality on top of it all. Just as his collections over the past two years have been lapped up by even the most jaded of fashion lovers and gained Gucci an entirely new customer base, he ensured that fans of this exhibition could also take a piece of the house home with them by offering Japan-only capsule collections based around the four themes as part of the FW16 collection in stores and on gucci4rooms.gucci.com.
This story first appeared in L’Officiel Singapore’s December/January 2017 issue with the title “Deconstructing Gucci 4 Rooms”.