The London show, set in the brutalist basement of 180 The Strand, offers quite a unique proposition where playful sets, giant sculptures and multimedia artworks, imagined by set designer extraordinaire Es Devlin, propel the visitor into a dizzy labyrinth filled with luggage and garments drawn from Gucci's archive.
The brief for Es Devlin and Maria Luisa Frisa, the Italian fashion critic who curated the show, was to tell the story of the Maison Gucci and 'bring those garments and luggage to life'. 'Fashion is complex, as clothes convey a way of thinking that is hard to channel when they are not worn,' explained Frisa during the exhibition press conference. 'I believe in a conversation between the objects. Fashion produces objects that belong to their time and respond to the sensibility and creative imagination marked in that time.'
So, the choice of a set designer to build the show was both bold and clever. 'My theatre practice has taught me that objects can speak,' said Devlin.
The Savoy Lobby. Photo: Gucci
Indeed, the exhibition feels like a succession of Es Devlin theatre sets, with each room – 10 in total – brandishing a different installation.
It all starts in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel, where 19-year-old Guccio Gucci worked in the late 1890s, on to the Ascending Room which reproduces the Savoy's famous red lift, the first electric elevator in London. We learn that the young Gucci, who would later launch the Maison, spent most of his days there escorting guests, observing the wealthy of this world coming and going with their well-crafted luggage, learning from their behaviour and sense of luxury. The room is a special nod to London and didn't feature in the Shanghai version of the exhibition.
From there, the visitor is led through revolving doors to a series of white rooms displaying cases and accessories on a carousel, the movement giving a sense of travel through space and time, the texture and colour of the luggage contrasting with white props and white background.
Zoetrope room, Photo: Gucci
Some rooms stand out, others feel more like an Instagram backdrop for stunning selfies. The Zoetrope room is dizzily magical, Es Devlin uses an old magic trick that gives the impression of movement when, in fact, nothing is moving. It is hard not to be distracted by the set, and one might miss the outfit, created by Sabato de Sarno (Gucci's new artistic director) for his SS24 very first show and shipped the day before the exhibition's opening, displayed in one of the vitrines.
The Archivio blue space, with its mirrored ceiling lined with many cabinets and drawers, each revealing an archive, a poem, or an ancient design that inspired a collection, displays Gucci's iconic bags (an earlier version of the Jackie bag) and has an undeniable wow factor.
Archivio room, Photo: Gucci
Perhaps it is the Cabinet of Wonders that steals the show. A three-metre-high monolithic cube covered in deep red lacquer is filled with drawers and compartments that mechanically slide in and out to reveal a collection of garments and accessories. It showcases the works of the different artistic designers of the Maison. A black leather bustier designed by Tom Ford in 2001, a punk-inspired spherical leather bag created by Alessandro Michele in 2019 and a crystal-embellished Jackie Notte bag from the 2023 Sabato De Sarno collection. Regular London theatre-goers will recognise Devlin's typical box-spaced style there. But one can't help wondering whether her work is best served filled with actors rather than objects.
Indeed, one of the final rooms displaying full looks from the past 50 years of the Maison is underwhelming. One can barely pay attention to the clothes in a cacophony of sounds and movement. The closing space, Gucci Ancora, is created to convey Sabato de Sarno's new brand philosophy. It is filled with words and messages telling of love, difference and hope and feels at best naive, at worst naff and at odds with the current news hitting our timeline.
Ultimately, the exhibition is fun and will please an audience looking for a wow social media impact. But unlike the Chanel exhibition, it doesn't quite convey the simple magic of crafting luxury, and strangely, the beauty of the Gucci creations gets lost in Es Devlin mise en scene.
|What||Gucci Cosmos, exhibition 180 Strand review|
|Where||180 Studios, 180, The Strand, Temple, London, WC2R 1EA | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Temple (underground)|
11 Oct 23 – 31 Dec 23, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM