MILAN — Almost five years to the week since the lightning strike that was Alessandro Michele’s debut at Gucci — an event that business schools will study for a long time to come — the designer found himself reflecting on his own inevitable obsolescence.
“Maybe one day I will not be relevant,’’ Mr. Michele said on a bright Saturday afternoon at the Gucci Hub, located in a former aeronautics factory. “Maybe one day I will not be in fashion.’’
If the idea — and the vague rumors that inevitably attach to it — distressed the designer, it failed to show on his face. Dressed in faded jeans and Gucci sneakers, an 18th-century jeweled necklace tossed over his vintage cabled Aran sweater, he seemed bemused by all that had transpired since he, a one-time accessories designer for the brand, was elevated after news broke in 2014 that Frida Giannini, Gucci’s creative director, was being ousted.
Few could have predicted from that first show of femme male models dressed in pussy bows and fur lined slip-ons that Mr. Michele would so successfully capture the zeitgeist that a creative vision he is the first to characterize as eccentric would drive a sluggish label to cultural centrality and its parent global brand (Gucci is owned by the multinational Kering) to high double-digit growth.
“In the beginning, when Marco had confidence in me,’’ Mr. Michele said, referring to Gucci’s president and chief executive officer, Marco Bizzarri, “I thought, maybe one day after the show I will be fired. But at the time, I had nothing to lose.’’
Gucci: Fall 2015 Menswear
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Mr. Michele has continued to operate on that principle, the designer said before his return to the Milan men’s wear schedule — after several seasons of the mixed-sex presentations he was among the first to innovate. “I still think that in one month I will be fired,’’ he added. From the perspective of this observer, that seems like a stretch.
Sure, Gucci sales are not at the stratospheric levels that made it the highest-selling Italian fashion brand. And the anti-sexist, anti-racist, gender-various, anti-ageist plurality platform, which Mr. Michele was among the first in fashion to embrace, has become an industry bandwagon (well, maybe not the anti-ageist part.)
Yet, not only because Mr. Michele now employs Mickey Mouse motifs on Gucci products, does he resemble Walt Disney in his gift for fusing high culture to the vulgar delirium of pop. Gucci was founded in 1921 by Guccio Gucci, a Florentine, to make leather goods for the carriage trade. Few such customers now exist. There is a minute number of very rich people, yes, and there are the legions who imagine that a double-G buckle slipped through their belt loops means they have arrived. What was the destination, again?
“I started in this business 25 years ago and I’m lucky because I’m still working by my stomach,’’ Mr. Michele said, meaning he is driven less by marketing than by instinct. “At a certain point in the business, it was ‘Sell the bag, sell the bag, sell the bag’.’’ That, he said, was the point at which he found himself bored and depressed and looking for the exit.
Then, as it happened, he sold the bag. “I don’t know what is next,’’ Mr. Michele said. “I’m not a bitch, but the relationship is open.’’
More of the same?
Is it an action meeting for PETA, as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is better known? Or a Redstockings consciousness-raising group, a revolutionary cell speaking bitterness? No, it is Milan Fashion Week.
Was it only a decade ago that runway shows here were orgies of luxury glut? More was not only more, it was not enough. Concerns with the dire state of the earth were a joke to some. The fall men’s wear shows often featured not only immense amounts of clothes that few people could afford but things made from the hides of crocodile, alligator, pony, mink, coyote and just about anything that moved on four legs — two, if you count the ostrich. One Vogue editor used to joke that, if there were a species of endangered creature yet unexploited by Italian designers, it was probably an oversight.
Now sustainability is an inescapable mantra and designers talk less about silhouette and volume than recycling, upcycling, creative reuse, chain of supply. Fabric waste at the five weaving companies owned by Ermenegildo Zegna runs to 50 percent, a figure the company has committed to reducing by recycling milling scrap. “Zero waste may be is impossible, but we have to aim for it,’’ the Zegna creative director Alessandro Sartori told Vogue.com last week, adding that the goal is 10 percent. This is to be admired.
Likewise, at Giorgio Armani’s Emporio Armani show, the message was recycling in the form of a slick new R-EA-MIX (recycled Emporio Armani) capsule collection of navy streetwear made of renewed or recycled fabrics.
Still, a larger and nagging issue presents itself.
This was noted by a forlorn group outside of the Ferragamo show on Sunday morning. “There is no fashion on a dead planet,’’ read a placard carried by one of a handful of protesters whose reason for targeting the Ferragamo show was unclear. The collection itself was precise, thoughtful, economical — just the sort of thing you expect from Paul Andrew, a designer who, it is always noted, is the son of an upholsterer to Queen Elizabeth II. It also happened to be environmentally friendly in an old-fashioned way: You would want to keep the stuff in your closet forever.
Fashion, Italy’s second-largest industry, generated almost $ 100 billion last year, according to Raffaello Napoleone, chief executive of Pitti Immagine, a company that promotes Italian fashion. Roughly 67,000 businesses here employ 620,000 people to crank out almost incalculable quantities of goods, he added.
The scale of consumption at that level is daunting and so is that of disposal and waste. Think Topshop and Zara. Think DSquared2, whose maximalist designers, the Canadian twins Dean and Dan Caten, celebrated a quarter century in the business with a greatest hits collection of their well-worn motifs (ponchos, biker gear, north country fleeces, denims) layered in a way they have made a brand signature. You could have easily reduced the whole show to a fraction of its size with no net loss to viewers or consumers or, for that matter, creativity.
Apply a similar formula of subtraction — let’s call it the Zegna 10 — to so many of the shows here and you would not only bank a huge carbon offset but reduce the sheer volume of pretension polluting the world.
I am thinking here of Marni.
After entering the show space through a series of color-coded aluminum storm drains, guests stood at the perimeter of a semidark concrete rectangle where dancers from a collective directed by the Italian choreographer Michele Rizzo writhed on the floor in trance states or lurched around like leftover zombies from “The Dead Don’t Die.’’
Although the Marni designer Francesco Risso made claims to have been inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s doomful plague allegory “The Masque of the Red Death,’’ the literary reference that came to this viewer’s mind instead was that moment in Renata Adler’s brilliant 1976 novel “Speedboat’’ when the narrator, Jen Fain, remarks that boredom implies duration.
Fortunately, at times when fashion becomes too cockamamie to hold one’s attention, there is Instagram to save you.
Distracted from both the lugubrious scenario and a collection assembled, in part, from scraps of fabrics and 1950s deadstock, I began scrolling through my feed. There I fell upon a modest and moving fragment of choreography by the theatrical designer Seth Tillett (@sethtillett).
Outfitting some dancer friends in hospital gowns not all that unlike some of Mr. Risso’s designs, Mr. Tillett instructed them, as he later wrote in a direct message, to “surrender to gravity, surrender consciousness,’’ while a child’s music box played a tinny version of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “If I Only Had a Brain.’’ What they looked like were junkies nodding out.
The piece, Mr. Tillett wrote, was “dedicated” to the Sackler family and was one artist’s response to a further catastrophe facing humanity: the global OxyContin epidemic.
If Mr. Risso and the industry he serves stopped treating profound problems with superficial fixes, they might make truly beneficial use of their powerful platform. There is no fashion on a dead planet. Bear it in mind.