Going Guccy: fashioning theological transgression

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“Transgression reveals what Christianity attempts to conceal, namely that “the sacred and the forbidden are one, and that the sacred can be reached through the violence of a broken taboo.”

Dominic PettmanI am interested in fashion. I always have been. I used to get in trouble at school for uniform violations all the time; a checked shirt instead of white or grey, the occasional coloured socks, the wrong shoes, hair too long, then too short. One of my earliest jobs was after school and at weekends working in the stockroom of one of the only men’s clothiers in the town I grew up in. I buy fashion magazines all the time, even when I’m broke, and there is nothing I like more than visiting clothing stores and checking things out.

The past few years have seen some interesting developments in the fashion world. The latest perhaps being the appointment of Virgil Abloh, former Kanye West collaborator and creator of the Off-White streetwear label, as creative director of Louis Vuitton. Not only is he the first African-American to head up a major french fashion house, he’s also comes from the world of streetwear and is a DJ. He is part of a re-defining of the fashion industry that is underway right now.

But it’s Gucci and its creative director Alessandro Michele that has really captured my attention the past couple of years. If there are any lessons to be learned from the world of fashion as it negotiates the current times, I think Gucci might be the place to be looking. As someone recently wrote, “while other brands are developing apps, Gucci is busy writing a new OS.”

It all began with Michele. Appointed to the position seemingly out of nowhere (he was not widely know although he had worked at Gucci for a number of years in different positions) he almost immediately set about re-positioning the company. A decision was made from the beginning to give Michele complete creative control and the business side of things was set-up to serve that end. This has allowed for a complete and quite radical overhaul of the entire brand in a few short years.

What the brand has managed to so is reach millennials whose relationship to consumerism is very different than the focus of traditional luxury brands. Luxury goods focus on high quality craftsmanship and exclusivity, two values that millennials and under 35s in general have little interest in responding to. Rather than buy things for status they tend to buy to please themselves and are much more interested in things like passion and authenticity (a troubling word, I think it’s a bit of a misnomer, believability might be better but I will save that for later). Things like sustainability, company transparency, ethical manufacturing matter, which again, luxury brands have been slow to respond to. Fashion is fundamentally wasteful which hasn’t helped in gaining environmentally minded consumers in the past.

So Gucci put creativity at the centre of the brand, created a new set of values built around sustainability, respect, empowerment and inclusivity and then took a whole new approach to the market. They have also brought answered the demands of the digital economy in a way no other company has and become the best-performing digital luxury fashion brand. They have done that by choosing a strategy that honours the brand integrity and focuses on the channel second, or to put it another way, they are not driven by the tyranny of digital platforms but by the vision of the company.

You may be aware of the huge market in counterfeit luxury goods-fake clothing and bags that bear company logos but are really cheap knock-offs. Well, Gucci decided to absorb those fake things into the brand. Canada’s GucciGhost created a capsule line with Michele. Dapper Dan the Brooklyn tailor who created memorable outfits at the height of hip-hop out of fake luxury brand fabrics became a partner in another venture with the company. The company even produced a series of t-shirts with the misspelt Guccy name that is often found adorning knock-off products. The energy of the transgressive was absorbed into the ethos of the real company. All of this transformation essentially came out of nowhere and took everyone in fashion by surprise.

I have been giving all of this a lot of thought with regard to the worlds that I inhabit in my working life, the world of theological innovation and practice for instance. Without pushing the analogy too far, Christianity, the Church, is a bit like a stagnant fashion brand, constantly trying to find the latest trend to capture the imagination of the public. But it always feels tired and repetitious, a bit like lipstick on a pig, the same thing underneath but hopefully we are drawn away by some surface glitz.

Gucci was caught up in a cycle just like that. Fashion has traditionally run on seasons: fall, summer, winter, cruise, spring, each new season bringing a new collection. Michele has abandoned that approach and created a more integrated, holistic model, blending seasons, shows and markets into a new permutation. If you like he has abandoned the petit recits of the postmodern in favour of a new type of meta-narrative, a post-postmodern story that is broad, inclusive, and beholden to none of the old ideas that have driven fashion for a long time. It is not a static, authoritative modern meta-narrative, but rather an evolving, open-ended space where a story is built upon season after season in order to create a changing space where ideas can live, be amended, adjusted, and added to. Each time there is a new Gucci collection, it builds on what has come before. It is not that the clothes don’t change in terms of look etc., it is deeper than that, the message isn’t just in the clothes, it is in the space that Michele is creating through the company. In a recent article in Tank magazine Michele is quoted as saying, “The revolutionary thing is that you can be Gucci even if you don’t buy one part of the collection,” in other words, it’s about a way of looking at life as much as it is about what clothes you wear.

What does it mean to be Gucci? Well, there is no single answer to that, it is many things, but ultimately it means that it is to engage in a process of self-realization, not necessarily through the clothes and accessories but through the very ideas the company is offering up. Gucci sees the conventional wisdom of the fashion industry and goes in the opposite direction, abandoning all attempts to reclaim the past as a future model.

It’s not so much a revolution of fashion as an insurrection. Michele and Gucci president Marco Bizzarri, are not engaged in a power struggle with other brands, they are crafting their own market space by radically reconfiguring how they do fashion. The heart of this insurrection is built around transgression, whether it be embracing the transgressive world of fake luxury or by transgressing fashion’s concrete rules in favour of new approaches which liberate the company from the tyranny of a world that no longer works. Foucault wrote that transgression is an “affirmative gesture that must be liberated from the scandalous or subversive,” something Gucci has managed to do with great success.

Christianity would seem to be committed to the opposite of the transgressive, but I think that what has been missing or lost in the shuffle somewhere is the very transgressive nature of the Christian story. “The transgressive rejects stable codes in order to clear an ideological space; a space for action, experimentation, chance, freedom, mobility. it seeks to explode orthodox notions of coherence and consistency,” so says the cultural theorist Dominic Pettman. In a transgressive environment contradictions might be reconciled and if not they are fused together in a sort of wild clash of celebration (one look at the clashes that come together in Gucci’s fashion demonstrates a fabricated version of this—it shouldn’t work, but it does).

The take-away for me is that there is a need for an insurrectionist, transgressive take on Christianity that relieves itself from the tyranny, from the hostage, of business as usual, or the tendency to look backwards in order to find a way forward, and instead creates a space for a different experiential encounter and the possibility of re-formulation. What does that look like? Like everything you’ve ever seen and nothing you’ve ever seen before. How is it done? Well we have to start where we are and build out from there, or as Picasso says, “Go and do the things you can’t, that is how you get to do them.” We’ll talk more about this soon.

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