I was never exactly an unadulterated fan of Alessandro Michele, the recently-no-longer Gucci designer. I often found his collections overwrought and self-indulgent; unedited, like the rambling monologues he would conduct after shows in the guise of a news conference, throwing himself into a thronelike chair in exhaustion. Yet for the last week, ever since the announcement that he was leaving the brand after nearly eight years, I haven’t been able to stop thinking that we will miss him more than we have yet imagined.
And that his departure is yet another example of the bind fashion has created for itself, with the constant churn of designers, constant reinvention of brands, constant production of new stuff. With the addiction to the immediate high that is the new! And different! And next!
Whether you liked what Mr. Michele did or not, there was no denying he had a point of view, and it changed not just how people dressed but the whole trajectory of fashion. That’s a rare achievement, and one that has a value all its own.
Coco Chanel did it, when she tossed the corset and started making little bouclé suits that fit like sweaters. Christian Dior did it, with the New Look. Yves Saint Laurent, with the subversive chic of Le Smoking. Cristóbal Balenciaga, with his purist architecture. More recently, Giorgio Armani did it with his deconstructed power suiting, and Martin Margiela, with his deconstructed ideas of beauty. They created their own vernacular that was then absorbed into fashion writ large, and from there into closets everywhere.
But those are just a few names in the grand sweep of fashion, and the truth is most designers — even the ones who are very successful — never have even one idea that rises to that level. They just make good clothes that people want to buy because they seem relevant. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it also doesn’t change our sense of self, which is what the design that looks nothing like what you thought you wanted but that seems suddenly exactly like who you think you want to be can do.
And even the ones who did change fashion didn’t really do it more than once. Having figured out their special thing, they pretty much stuck to it, season after season. (Hello, Armani jacket. How are you, Birkin bag?) That’s part of what convinced consumers that such items are worth investing in: their sheer longevity.
It’s not that Mr. Michele’s designs themselves were so revolutionary; they often looked notably vintage. It was the way he defined fashion in the first place, and who it was for, that made it resonant and seemed to crystallize the contemporary cultural moment.
He arrived at a brand known for its jaded, nouveau riche mix of python, late-night panting and Jackie O aspiration and transformed it into a big-tent world of fashion geeks and freaks, romping through gender, time periods and fantasy. He made loafers into bedroom slippers and lined them in fur; put horn-rimmed glasses on silver screen sirens; and sent models down the runway carrying replicas of their own heads. He made deals with Major League Baseball, Disney and Dapper Dan.
Everyone was welcome in his Gucciland. (Also, he made so much stuff, there was pretty much something for everyone.) He saw inclusivity as broadly as possible and made it fabulous. He put unironic emotion back into fashion. Even if his work sometimes veered into the maudlin, it reverberated through fashion to Hollywood and beyond. It was a big idea.
But now, it seems, that’s no longer enough. It’s not that Mr. Michele was making bad stuff; he was just making the same stuff, and that was no longer exciting stuff. When consumers get bored, and they always do — in this case, there is only so much kookiness any wardrobe can take unless it belongs to Jared Leto — things are bound to plateau. And Gucci had been so explosively successful for so long (eight years is an eon in current fashion time) that when it wasn’t anymore, it seemed stalled by comparison. And stalled, these days, equals failure.
When Mr. Michele either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, switch gears — it’s not clear who instigated the breakup — he and Gucci’s owner, Kering, agreed to disagree.
Perhaps it was inevitable. The chances of any designer producing two major fashion-changing ideas in one career are very small. Hedi Slimane, for one, has been doing Hedi Slimane no matter what brand’s name (Dior Homme, Saint Laurent, Celine) is over the door. Tom Ford’s Tom Ford isn’t very different from Tom Ford’s Gucci. John Galliano has switched gears at Maison Margiela from his Dior and Galliano days, true, trading his high romance and historicism for eclectic haute recycling, but as of yet, and good as it is, it hasn’t had the same impact.
Breaths are bated for Phoebe Philo’s long-anticipated debut, and the question of whether she will do another version of the elegantly adult and interior clothes she made at Céline before Mr. Slimane changed its course, or something entirely new.
But whether change should be demanded in the first place is a different question. Maybe refining the big idea, owning the big idea for posterity, rather than ceding it entirely, should be enough. At a certain point, endless disruption and reinvention becomes as tiresome as the same old, same old. And continual growth on a finite planet is a chimera that should be sent back to the fantasyland from which it arose.
Indeed, coming in the wake of the COP27 climate conference, and yet more public commitments to sustainability from all sides of the fashion industry, the Gucci switcheroo seems particularly ironic. After all, what usually happens when a brand opts for change at the top? Out with the old! If no longer to the dumpster or the incinerator, at least to the sale racks. More stuff, flooding the stores. Sustainability implies commitment to an idea of a brand, not just to biodegradable materials. It implies a long-term relationship, which has its own implicit value.
Sometimes change is good, no question. Sometimes it is necessary. (See Burberry, which is about to get a makeover under the new designer Daniel Lee after Riccardo Tisci failed to give the British brand any discernible identity.) But when it’s change for change’s sake, or change for shopping’s sake, or change for analysts’ sake, which is change for investors’ sake, it simply reinforces the bad habits we’ve gotten into. Both as consumers and as companies. And that’s … well, that’s just another word for waste.