Gucci's Gucciness Quotient
What happens when a brand resists interpretation?
INTERPRETATION IS THE REVENGE OF THE INTELLECTUAL UPON ART. Writer, public intellectual, and professional hater Susan Sontag was able to intuit our mortal imperative for critique back in 1966 — completely unaware that Against Interpretation would one day be a potent edification, toted around like a Bible by plaid-skirted coeds. Her beliefs were brutal but fair: beauty does not equate to interestingness; stereotypes imprison us; and aesthetic consumption can be violent in its lack of utility.
It’s this kind of thinking that — in more ways than one — can be traced directly to the new Gucci, presented this past Friday at Milan Fashion Week. Trickle-Down Theory isn’t just about cashmere and cowl necks tumbling their way to the bargain bins — it’s also about the tendency for art and philosophical criticism to slither down, however subconsciously, onto the runway. Creative directors are occasionally appraised of this phenomenon. In 2011, Karl Lagerfeld became obsessed with Nietzsche; in 2000, John Galliano’s Fall/Winter show was awfully conspicuous, going so far as to name the collection “Freud or Fetish?”. If a designer is puffing their show notes with philosopher name-drops or references to popular essays, it is a not-so-subtle statement: This collection has been interpreted for you. Read the source material. No need to think too hard. It’s an insecurity that has only escalated with the advent of designers on social media — it is now far too easy to over-explain, argue about your work, or ruin your career before it even starts. Interpretation is intoxicating.
At Alessandro Michele-era Gucci (his tenure lasted from 2015 to 2022), that urge to deflect a misreading was always apparent. Michele revived the house with maximalism and theatrics, supported by quirky, genderfluid garments. From an anniversary collection presented as the bombastic Gucci Love Parade, to a collection cast only with twin models, Michele was quick to embrace artifice and magic — and did so with a sly wink, trying to convince everyone that they, too, were in on the joke. But velvet and Guccissima and fake doll heads cannot belabor criticism. Michele’s departure last year was never properly explained. Still, rumors abounded that his flouncy carnies were going démodé — and the brand’s owner, the Kering Group, was more than ready to pack up the circus tent.
On Friday, Gucci’s new designer, Sabato de Sarno, stripped the brand of all excess. Here was an austere Gucci many people, especially young people, did not remember — because the likes of which hadn’t been resurrected since 1995, when a young Tom Ford hit everyone in the solar plexus with sophisticated, surprising garment construction.
Sabato de Sarno, too, is a young firebrand: a 40-year-old Neapolitan, de Sarno began his career as a pattern-maker at Prada; then, 14 years at Valentino, where he was the head of men’s and womenswear design. Now, plucked as Michele’s successor, he is burdened with the task of “...reinforcing the house’s fashion authority while capitalizing on its rich heritage.” His style is smooth and interior, almost medical, favoring recognizable silhouettes and unencumbered fabrics, all free of detail or blessing. In an interview with the New York Times, de Sarno lays out a prescient life motto: avanti — go ahead.
In that, the Spring/Summer 2024 collection moves with a forward, mechanical motion. Here are white minidresses practically cut out of marble; striped grosgrain ribbons peeking out of coat vents; leather boy shorts, the color of skin; duchesse lace slips that pucker against the hipline; long, artless denim, built to last forever. Shiny burgundy shorts and matching loafers mewl under the comfy banality of an oversized sweatshirt. Even with an exposed nipple or a teasing leg slit, this is Gucci at its most achingly, relentlessly professional.
A collection like this shouldn’t have been surprising — and yet it was. Some accused de Sarno of not understanding Gucci’s brand DNA, now irretrievably mutated by Michele’s influence; some felt that it was an augury, signaling the end of fun and whimsy on the runway; and some felt that there was now no difference between Gucci and competitor brands, like Loewe and Bottega Veneta. But de Sarno prepared for this. In an interview with The Cut, he stated: “I don’t want to impress. I want to do what I like.”
That’s the thing: Sabato de Sarno is not just the Creative Director at Gucci, but he is also its Chief Executive Custodian. Part of the job, thinly veiled in Kering’s hiring announcement, is cleaning up Michele’s mess — a beautiful, often-enjoyable mess, but a mess nonetheless. The disaster was caused by years of Michele’s dial-turning, upping the Gucciness Quotient with every collection. While the world was distracted with the house’s pomp and circumstance — like the Fall/Winter 2020 collection, kinky and Moulin Rouge-y— Michele was slowly glossing Gucci in amber, preserving eccentricity as the cornerstone of the brand. At a certain point, Michele’s work was not about Gucci anymore. It was an exploration of Gucciness, grinding down the house to its divinely aesthetic qualities and seeing what could be stretched and pulled taut into putty. What Michele discarded in his laboratory — simplicity, humility, mystery, modulation — has been acutely picked up by de Sarno. He does not stretch or pull; he merely excavates the necessary.
What de Sarno is doing, per Sontag’s observation, is resisting interpretation in a way Michele could not manage successfully. There are no questions to be asked, here — and even if there were, he is not answering them. This is not to say that de Sarno is demure in his creative leadership, nor is he particularly unable to deliver necessary rejoinders. He simply doesn’t want to. In doing so, he is forcing the Gucci audience — and the fashion world writ large — to think quietly for themselves, internally, without any public interpretation. de Sarno would agree with Sontag’s assessment of modern art criticism: it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, and stifling. Blindly engaging in it for engagement's sake makes us lesser artists and lesser creative thinkers.
In his interview with The Cut, I was particularly struck by a single quote of de Sarno’s, cavernous in its implications: “People will maybe say these things are boring in fashion but not for me. Maybe they don’t see the details on the runway. Honestly, I don’t care.” Regardless of your feelings on the collection — de Sarno isn't listening. 🌀
You can see the whole collection here.