Every artist who’s collaborated with the jubilant kingdom of present-day Gucci must either be a skilled actor, or everything said of the Italian fashion dynasty’s crown prince Alessandro Michele must be true. The man rules because he gives his creative comrades freedom.
It was the refrain I got from Trevor Andrew – aka Gucci Ghost, possibly the most well-known of these collaborators with his now-distinct graffiti scrawls of the brand’s monogram – when I interviewed him in May last year. Three months ago, I got the chance to speak with another. This time, it was the ethereal-looking feminist photographer Petra Collins when she was in Hong Kong during Art Basel. In her dreamy drawl, she sang the same tune.
“The awesome part about collaborating with someone (is when) they let you wild and loose, and you come back to them and you combine both visions,” she said. “That’s what so special about working with (Michele and Gucci)… They don’t try to tailor someone to a brand. They take that person and have them interpret the brand on their own.”
Once a rarefied novelty, “artist x fashion label” partnerships have become ubiquitous, the intersection between the worlds of art and fashion now as wide and colourful as the Andes. Within this vast land, Gucci’s long planted its flag. As far back as 2006, it was supporting initiatives like Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, which restores iconic motion pictures. In the early 2010s, it started sponsoring A-list events like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s annual Art + Film Gala, lending both funding and gloss. But the crowning of Michele as creative director two years ago has led its exploration of the art sphere into seldom-charted territories for a brand with its heft and reach.
Take the 24-year-old Collins, for example. She had launched her career as a teenager, capturing hazy, pastel-tinged images of young women that would make her one of the It girls of the millennial feminist movement. Her creative romance with Michele, interestingly enough, started with her as a model, walking in his F/W ’16 show like some medieval disco goddess with her halo of naturally frizzy blonde curls, lazy eyes, and willowy frame dressed in a cropped brocade suit. She went on to star in the season’s campaign, a stint that would propel her into the mainstream fashion consciousness.
That’s the thing about the artist collaborations Michele’s embarked on so far as he helms Gucci. While most big brands – luxury or high street – tend to team up with established, blue chip or cult names who guarantee at least publicity and eyeballs (at press time, the Internet was going crazy over news that Louis Vuitton would launch a Jeff Koons collection in April), Michele goes for the young, the up-and-comers, even the unknown.
He had most famously plucked the low-key San Francisco illustrator Jayde Fish off Instagram to design prints in her signature quirky gothic style for Gucci’s S/S ’17 collection. Pre-Gucci, Collins was at best niche. Ditto the 23-year-old Coco Capitan, whose raw, off-kilter photographs have made her an insider favourite, and whose scratchy, poetic typography appears on tank tops and parasols in F/W ’17. What this fundamentally means is that instead of riding on their cachet, the collaborations in fact fuel the artists’ careers, with Gucci’s widespread influence taking them and their works global.
Collins had been flown to Hong Kong for her segment of an exhibition trilogy co-created by the label and the Paris-based independent publication A Magazine Curated By. Held at the creative hub PMQ, it showcased photographs of her loved ones in Hungary, her family’s homeland, decked out in a surprisingly seamless mix of traditional costumes, and Gucci clothes and accessories. The images, which look right out of a charming old memory binder, had originally appeared in the edition of A Mag that Michele worked on last year.
A month before her trip, the brand had launched her short film featuring her young cousins in the Budapest countryside for its S/S ’17 eyewear collection, done in the same personal, nostalgic vein. She says of her relationship with Gucci: “It’s cool because I’ve had this evolution with it from subject to creator… It’s exciting for me to live in Alessandro’s world, and then take that and mix it with mine to create something new.”
These days, it’s hard not to talk about Collins without mentioning Gucci. Like the benevolent leader of a hippie commune, Michele doesn’t just team up with an artist. He makes him or her part of the Gucci family and together they adventure, concocting projects that can take any form, aren’t limited to a particular collection, and might or might not directly translate to sales for the label.
One of the earliest names he thrust into prominence was London-based self-taught painter Helen Downie aka Unskilled Worker. Discovering her hauntingly romantic cartoon portraits also via Instagram, he invited her to attend his F/W ’15 women’s debut, then commissioned four works.
These eventually turned up in Gucci’s art exhibition No Longer/Not Yet in Shanghai eight months later, alongside that of industry heavyweights like Rachel Feinstein and Jenny Holzer. More recently, she contributed to the issue of A Mag curated by Michele, including one heart-warming depiction of him as a child, which was also on show in Hong Kong.
On the designer’s affection and support for his artist collaborators, Collins says: “He’s fascinated by things and people who are different from him and have a very strong sense of self. I think that’s why he loves each of us and picked the artists whom he’s worked with.”
Perhaps Michele’s open-hearted, democratic approach towards artist-fashion tie-ups is best reflected in Gucci’s slew of guerrilla, social media-driven marketing campaigns so unexpected of a multi-billion-dollar luxury fashion behemoth. The first, launched in October 2015, was #GucciGram, which invited talents from all over the world, from the known (the late photographer Ren Hang) to fledglings, to interpret the brand’s Caleido and Blooms motifs. So all embracing is it that there’s even a section on “Uncommissioned Works” on the project’s website.
The latest, unveiled in March: #TFWGucci, which stands for “That Feeling When”, and involves getting meme creators to conjure up playful visuals that feature the brand’s timepieces. The laugh-out-loud results include Milan-based Ege Islekel’s image of a forlorn-looking, neoclassicist maiden with a watch and the Buzzfeed-worthy caption, “When you get a new watch but you don’t have any friends to show it to.” Fun, far from serious, hard not to “Like”.
Ultimately, Michele’s greatest contribution to the art world is little different from what he’s done for Gucci with his joyfully eccentric designs: break down its elitist walls. Collins sums it up best: “It’s his whole ethos of collaboration, working with others and making something inclusive, not exclusive, which fashion is a lot of the time… With Alessandro, (it’s always about) wanting everyone to feel like they can share in the experience.”
All images from the A Magazine Curated By Alessandro Michele exhibition, unless otherwise stated
This story first appeared in Female’s June 2017 issue.