Let’s get one thing straight: the Gucci collection shown Thursday morning, the one peppered with Balenciaga creative honcho’s Demna Gvasalia’s silhouettes, power shoulders, and logo? It was not a collaboration. Instead, the house said it was a product of creative director Alessandro Michele’s “hack lab”—a theoretical place Michele has frolicked in before, where he pulls together wild references from different places and times and refashions them into contemporary cultural statements. This isn’t just a buzzy term: he used his obsession with Renaissance painting to kickstart the gender fluid fashion phenomenon. The “homage” or “reference” is perhaps the leading fashion trick of our time, but only Michele bundles them together to lasso the Gucci bubble to much bigger cultural changes.
The “hack lab” is the kind of classic Michele-ism that raises more questions than it answers—but it also resulted in probably the weirdest, most magically nonsensical thing we’ve seen in fashion since Gvasalia and Michele first came on the scene and changed the way nearly everyone in the entire world dresses.
To back up a bit: all this week, the fashion world has been chattering about the rumor that the Gucci show scheduled for Thursday, titled Aria, would be a collaboration between the Italian mega-brand and its sibling under the Kering conglomerate, Balenciaga. This was a real head-scratcher, seemingly without precedent and difficult even to imagine—like siblings dating or twins switching clothes. It’s not quite like Supreme collaborating with Louis Vuitton back in 2017, in which a super street brand and a super fashion brand had a kind of royal wedding (and which marked the official anointment of streetwear into the high-fashion fold). Nor would it be like Dries Van Noten dipping into the Christian Lacroix archives for his Spring 2020 women’s collection. Balenciaga creative honcho Demna Gvasalia is known for his bizarre collaborations—at Vetements, he once collaborated with 11 brands in one show, and he has put “Kering” logos all over a Balenciaga collection—but in those instances, Gvasalia always had the upper hand, as the high-fashion disruptive force putting mall brands and dad brands alike into new context. Would this be like Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons co-designing Prada? Or something else entirely?
Of course, the hack looked like none of the above. “Aria” began with a model in a red velvet suit (a nod to Tom Ford’s Gucci tenure) entering a club called Savoy, named after the hotel where founder Guccio Gucci first fell in love with leather (luggage, you pervs!). Suddenly he appeared on a camera-lined runway—the aforementioned “hack lab.” A few looks later, the glorious chaos began: a model in a pair of those Balenciaga legging-boots, with the stretchy ruched ice skater top just as we first saw them in Balenciaga Spring 2017…but with the green and red Gucci stripe, and the boots covered with Gucci logos. A few looks later, there was that unmistakable lurching Balenciaga shoulder, but in a horsey Gucci color palette. Then some Balenciaga florals, but carrying the name “Gucci.” The classic Gucci Jackie bag—printed with “Balenciaga.” Gvasalia’s masterful hourglass suit jacket—in the Gucci rhombus design. Balenciaga’s asymmetrically-fastened coat from Fall 2017, in a racing-stripe colorway.
These were the greatest hits of Gvasalia’s Balenciaga—but Gucci-fied. It was indeed less a collaboration than a mindfuck, in the best possible way. As Michele put it in a video that was shared to Instagram a few hours before the show, “In any great saga, no one knows what is real and what is not.” (His good friend Jared Leto said, in another video, “People are going to lose their minds!” He was right!) They were like fashion deepfakes: some mad scientist has made my Gucci behave like Balenciaga!!!
A text exchange between Gvasalia and Michele shared on Instagram stories suggested this was all Michele’s mad science, with Gvasalia simply opening the door to his house (and presumably Kering taking care of any necessary legalese): “What a perfect occasion to play with your creativity for Balenciaga in the show!” he wrote. He continued, “I’m obsessed, as you may know, with bringing the past back and transform it [sic] into a living vibrant present.” “Totally!” Gvasalia texted back. “For me this is pretty much the magic of fashion—out of nowhere something no longer relevant or forgotten becomes super relevant and ‘new,’ it’s giving a new life and transforming one idea into another that is so exciting and creatively motivating!’” Towards the end of their exchange, Gvasalia said that “I’ve seen some of the renderings and it looks really cool how you translated those pieces into your universe.”
Michele’s last collection reminded us of the way Gucci defined the zeitgeist of the past five years. The brandishing of layers of references to create meaning (sooo millennial) was epitomized at Gucci, and the reconfiguration of gender fluid clothing started there, too. Michele’s best looks have been like living Instagram photos. (Balenciaga under Gvasalia, for what it’s worth, has always channeled the global mood, and its clothing, I think, explores the state of the world as it is rather than the idealized one Gucci inches us towards.) But there have also been calls of late for Gucci to change it up, borne of a feeling that its geek-chic androgyny had become a little too familiar. This collection almost satirized the idea of “changing direction,” the constant demands for novelty, for designers to reinvent themselves. And it was just fun.
All this hullabaloo actually cleared the way for the most important radical act of all: the clothes were fantastic. They were much more direct than they’ve been in several seasons. Michele seems to have taken the retro-tinged Gucci formula and classed it up. In part, he’s pulled back on the merchandising, but he’s also scaled back his retro-nerdiness. This made the garments themselves stand out, rather than turning the looks into a scavenger hunt for references, which was once so essential to Michele’s Gucci that one show gave Diet Prada their first big break. It’s the first time I can recall watching a Michele show and feeling bowled over by the tailoring—neat, slightly billowing trousers with fitted double-breasted blazers. (The women’s suits were AWESOME.) It was at times tasteful! Michele said in his text messages to Gvasalia that he’d looked a lot at Ford’s Gucci for this collection, and that was evident (to me) most not in the direct references (that red velvet suit!) but in the cool, straightforward styling. Ford has always been a direct communicator. He used to put his models under a spotlight, for example, and rarely put handbags on his models’ arms, even though the bags basically wrote his checks. Without all the maximalist stuff that made Michele’s Gucci first sing, the clothing simply looked more confident. It felt declarative.
Probably we will talk about this show for years to come. Maybe some fashion naysayers will claim it’s time to leave logomania behind, or that it was exhaustively peak collab. (Whatever! It’s “a hacking”!!!) But it really did remind me that behind these billion-dollar brands are two very creative humans, making clothes and having ideas.