ast night, 400 people descended upon the French city of Arles for Gucci’s Cruise 2019 show. Creative Director Alessandro Michele chose the Alyscamps, a famous Roman necropolis located just outside the city walls, as the setting for his latest collection. As guests arrived, they were ushered down a long path lined with stone sarcophagi and flickering candelabras to their seats: glinting silver benches arranged at the back of the burial ground next to the site’s towering Medieval church.
I walked as slowly as possible, taking everything in. It was 9:30 p.m. and the sun was just beginning to set. A slight fog hovered above the grass, which was green and lush, sprouting in untamed tufts between the tombs. A slight breeze was starting to pick up, sprinkling goosebumps across bare forearms clutching cell phones and Gucci purses. An enormous, distorted mirror was perched between the pathway and the makeshift runway, displaying blurred reflections of sequins and floral prints and graves — a Gothic Gucci funhouse, dreamy and nightmarish all at once.
I recalled a passage from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales: “They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their grey visions they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in awakening, to find that they have been upon the verge of the great secret.” As I took my seat and stared into the glowing abyss in the center of the courtyard, a giant, smoke-filled pit lit from within with eerie, pale orange lamps, I wondered what great secret Michele (a dreamer by day if there ever was one) was about to reveal.
The lights dimmed, signaling that the show was about to start. Everyone fell silent as a soundtrack of choral music and screeching owls started to crescendo. The subsequent pause couldn’t have lasted more than a minute, but it seemed to stretch on just long enough to feel deliberate. Our collectively held breath was interrupted by the unmistakable crackle of fire as flames shot down the perimeter of the runway and erupted from the middle of the smoky pit. We were close enough to feel the heat, our hearts racing and our faces rapt with a trance-like attention that is rare at fashion shows in the age of Instagram. And just like that, the show began.
There were 115 looks in total. The models, a mix of men and women, circumnavigated the courtyard in close succession. They traipsed along at what could only be an intentionally fast pace – as if they had somewhere important to be, or somewhere they were eager to escape.
The collection was an artful mix of wearable (tailored blazers, a stunning sea foam-green evening gown inset with lace, two-tone sunglasses, sun hats, large totes with pockets big enough to accommodate a change of shoes), macabre (a dress emblazoned with a red sequin skull, funereal veils, pilot goggles that looked like they were shattered in a crash, a face stocking made of nude pantyhose that The Cut likened to death masks from the Middle Ages) and playful (chunky rubber sandals, neon lace tights, Chateau Marmont-branded apparel, a motorcycle jacket painted with mushrooms).
In Michele’s show notes, he described his inspiration as “widows attending grave sites, kids playing rock ‘n’ roll stars, and ladies who aren’t ladies.” In other words, the outfits were more than just a compilation of clothes and accessories – they were a legion of characters – personas that invited you to climb inside and reimagine yourself in whatever way you’d like. It was the kind of show (thrilling, disturbing, expansive, uncanny) that made me want to press my face against the glass of the creator’s brain in hopes of glimpsing even a fraction of the spectacle that undoubtedly churns within, a mental kaleidoscope shaken just enough each season to produce something distinctively new and distinctively Gucci at the same time.
After the show, I read online that Alyscamps became famous in the 4th Century for being the burial site of Saint Genesius, a martyr who refused to follow orders from the Romans. Who better than Alessandro Michele, a 21st-century virtuoso who distills genius from disorder, to take up the mantle? Perhaps therein lies the great secret: a lesson in letting your freak flag fly, no matter how much it deviates from “the rules.”
What I love most about this sentiment is that you don’t even need to own the clothes or the characters as long as you can surrender to the feelings they elicit. When your face grows hot and your heart races and your lungs fill with the rush of your own inhale, you’ll know they’ve belonged to you all along.
Feature photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images; Runway photos via Vogue Runway.