While they used to be a series of small, mid-season fashion drops, the cruise, or resort, collections have since morphed into huge-scale spectacles.
Cruise collections are where designers are given free rein to produce whatever they feel, and then unveil those creations in increasingly lavish presentations. We have witnessed cruise shows at the Oscar Niemeyer library in Brazil, courtesy of Louis Vuitton; in a replica of a ship, by Chanel; and as an ode to horsemanship, from Dior. However, for sheer creepy, atmospheric brilliance, nothing tops Alessandro Michele's Gucci cruise 2019 show, which was set in the ancient graveyard of Alyscamps.
Located in the southern French town of Arles (famously immortalised in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, and known as the birthplace of designer Christian Lacroix), Promenade Des Alyscamps is a Roman-era necropolis – the final resting place of the rulers who once presided over this land. Derived from the Latin Elisii Campi (which became Champs-Élysées in French and Elysian Fields in English), the graveyard is situated outside the walls of the old city. It was this arena into which Gucci ushered 400 guests to witness the unveiling of its cruise offering.
As darkness fell, I walked – alongside Saoirse Ronan, A$AP Rocky, Salma Hayek and, fittingly, Lacroix himself – through the burial ground, which was illuminated by candles, against the haunting choral strains of Vespers of the Blessed Virgin by Claudio Monteverdi. We took our seats on mirrored boxes, casting nervous glances at the stone sarcophagi behind us, as smoke crept up from the sunken churchyard, lit a Dante-esque orange.
Amid an ominous clanging of bells, flames raced along the length of the runway, as models emerged from the mist. Normally, they are spaced well apart on a runway – to better see the clothes – but here, all 114 looks (for both men and women) were packed tightly together, as if for protection.
Through the mist, a simple padded coat and skirt in pink – fastened at the neck by a crucifix – were quickly followed by a black gown that spilled off the shoulders. Fittingly for the setting, another black velvet dress swept past with a skeletal torso lavishly stitched across it, while a male model wore a bell-bottomed velvet suit, cut slim and worn with a pussy-bow blouse, carrying a funereal bouquet.
House signatures – including checks, florals and embroidered tigers – were abundant, seen on suits under smoking jackets, sequin jumpers over zebra- print trousers and skilfully clashing florals on both genders. One boy stepped out in head-to-toe sequins as sportswear, while a girl wore a shimmering crystal-strewn dress, amid a cacophony of brightly clashing tops and skirts.
Scattered throughout were tightly clasped belts, neon backpacks, headscarves, headdresses and eyewear. One model was Harris Reed, a rising young star from Central Saint Martins who dressed Harry Styles on tour, and here wore a full-length brocade coat. So secure in his talent is Michele that he even handed Reed control of the Gucci social media platforms for the duration of the cruise event.
As a self-described fashion magpie, Michele drew from myriad influences, such as 1980s shell suits with thick-soled trainers, the murky past of the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles, and the Pan logo, which was splashed over sweat tops and bags. Set in a churchyard, there were inevitable Catholic references, such as rich velvets rendered into floor-sweeping capes, multiple riffs on vestment purple and endless crosses seen clasped at throats, stitched as bodices or carried reverently with two hands.
Amid all the ecclesiastical guilt underpinning the show, thankfully Michele also chose to nod to his free- spirited Roman forebears, seen in lighter moments as a plissé goddess gown and one-shouldered dresses.
But the creative director's main draw is his adept handling of patterns and colours that, in the real world, have no place being seen together. Tiered green dresses, long trailing feather headdresses and double-breasted great coats – each came with its own twist. Lace appeared as dresses, tights and opera gloves, in lurid greens, pinks and Madonna Like a Virgin white. Seen as a whole, the effect is almost overwhelming but, broken down, the collection was filled with covetable pieces that will make millennials drool.
Neatly bow-fronted patent shoes gleamed, while midi-skirts swung sluggishly under the weight of beaded flowers. Even punk raised its head – as a Billy Idol leather jacket – placed next to a gossamer silver embroidered lace shift and cape. Elsewhere, snakeskin ankle boots sat with a brocade skirt, church embroidery and Indian phulkari silk-floss stitching – a combination I defy anyone but Michele to pull off.
To close the show, a boy wore an oversized jacket and little else, and as the closing bride (that all-white look that signals the finale of a collection) swept past – the crinolined skirts perilously close to the flames – her presence seemed to chase away the religious demons. Young, fresh and resolutely defiant, this sensory overload is what Gucci has made its own. There are many, many talented fashion designers in this world, yet none seem to conjure a moment like Michele. His ability to create an atmosphere that lingers long after the clothes have gone is remarkable, not least in this gone-in-an-instant Instagram age.
I have been fortunate to attend many fashion shows over the years, but for sheer hellfire and pestilence, for hairs-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck transportation into the realm of Hieronymus Bosch and Dante, nothing has ever come close to Gucci's cruise 2019 show. The most touching part of the entire evening came during the after-party, as Elton John played a mini concert for us all, and Michele – the darling of the fashion universe, the man with the world at his feet – sat on stage watching him play, as spellbound and awestruck as the rest of us.