Outside the West Bund Art Center in Shanghai, the peerless sky pops handsomely against the iconic red and green façade of Gucci Cosmos. The former aircraft factory has been transformed to hold 102 years of Gucci’s history. There’s excited chatter as I prepare to enter the exhibition, which kicked off in Shanghai until the end of June before it travels the world. Conceived and designed by renowned British contemporary artist Es Devlin and curated by Italian fashion theorist and critic Maria Luisa Frisa, Gucci Cosmos is a spirited voyage encapsulating the brand’s past, present and future. There are eight ‘worlds’ that bring together a treasure trove of items and artefacts—many previously unseen—from the Gucci Archive, which exists as a repository and working hub for the House’s creative teams in Florence.
From founding father Guccio Gucci’s nascent ambitions to the flamboyant dreams of its creative directors Tom Ford, Frida Giannini and Alessandro Michele, the essence of time plays a crucial role in the exhibition. Gucci Cosmos took a year to come to fruition and Devlin likens Gucci’s storied history to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, which took 140 years to build. Cathedral thinking was key, Devlin surmises, defining the term as“an idea that cannot be accomplished in one generation.
“The myth of the House is kept alive in the hands of each individual who stitches the embroidery or cuts out pieces of fabric.”
“The only reason why such a magnificent cathedral could be built is because each generation of architects handed their ideas, blueprints, creativity, architecture, technology and engineering to the next generation,” she says. “The myth of the House is kept alive, not through the creative directors, designers, ambassadors, but also in the hands of each individual who stitches the embroidery or cuts out pieces of fabric. It’s a grand collaboration of regeneration and I hope that’s the story the exhibition tells.”
As I entered the exhibition and my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, I caught a glimpse of the extraordinary replica of the Duomo. Two large-scale reproductions of Filippo Brunelleschi’s 15th-century dome for the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore lie at the far end of the exhibition. One is inverted beneath the other as it bears an ethereal glow and is the befitting last world at GucciCosmos. I was encouraged to traverse all the other worlds before visiting Duomo, which only added to my mounting anticipation.
Fusing innovative audio, visual and kinetic technology into Gucci Cosmos, my journey began at Portals, the first of the eight spectacular worlds. Guccio transports me back to his time as a porter at The Savoy Hotel in London in 1921, where behind those revolving doors was an opportunity to study every bag that fascinated him. It took seven minutes for the lift to travel from the ground floor to the top floor, which allowed Guccio a generous amount of time with the luggage of The Savoy Hotel’s wealthy guests. He went on to create his artisanal luggage atelier, opening the first Gucci boutique in 1921 on Via della Vigna Nuova 7 in Florence. “The Savoy Hotel was the first hotel in London to get an elevator,” says Devlin with a smile. “In my mind, that’s where all the ideas you see in this exhibition germinated. Have you ever spent seven minutes standing in a lift studying luggage?”
Portals is a transportive experience which features three reflective and circular carousels carrying Gucci’s most iconic luggage designs across the decades. From early iterations by Guccio in the 1920s to a GG-print canvas case by Guccio’s son, Aldo Gucci, in the 1960s as a homage to his father, this is undeniably where the House of Gucci’s roots lie.
I’m ushered shortly after into Zoetrope, a dim, circular space fitted with immersive screens showcasing video footage with a rhythmic soundscape of galloping and horse-riding-inspired words. In between the transfixing screens are key archival pieces such as Horsebit and the green-red-green web stripe, inspired by the strap that holds a horse’s saddle in place. “Zoe means life and ‘trope’ means turning, and a zoetrope was invented at the end of the 19th century,” Devlin explains. “It was the first time humans saw the illusion of a moving image.” Eden, the third world, is an exquisite, all-white room filled with sizeable evocations of flowers, plants and garden insects, which brings to life the tale of Flora. One of Guccio’s other sons, Rodolfo, commissioned Italian artist Vittorio Accornero de Testa to illustrate a silk scarf for Princess Grace of Monaco. This became the classy leitmotif for Gucci’s1981 ready-to-wear collection. Lights and mirrors surround Eden, which makes for a playful experience as I waltzed around and got up close and personal with the highly curated selection of silk scarves and fabric bags.
A pair of 10m-tall white statues is showcased in the middle of the West Bund Art Center. Glancing up has a breathtaking effect as celebrated men’s and women’s suits are projected onto the statues’ blank canvases, while a voiceover repeats, “You are a cosmos,” over and over. You’ll want to keep an eye out for Ford’s red velvet suit in 1996 and Giannini’s checked suit with the brilliant cinched waists.
Next was Archivio, a maze-like universe swathed in baby blue and fitted with a mirrored ceiling, which holds within it a feeling of infinity. The fifth world is modelled after the Gucci Archive, replete with cabinets and drawers. There’s an element of mystery and surprise as you explore the room full of historic bags like the Bamboo 1947, Jackie 1961, Horsebit 1955, Gucci Diana and Dionysus. Then, slip inside the Cabinet of Wonders, a rotating red-lacquered cube filled with drawers and compartments which slide in and out. The collection is fun and eclectic as the full breadth of the House’s design range await.
“It’s a grand collaboration of regeneration and I hope that’s the story the exhibition tells.”
The elegant swish of a Giannini-designed chain-embroidered flapper dress held my attention for a while as I entered the seventh world, Carousel, located outside the Duomo. Pick your spot in front of the fashion show and marvel at the parade of 32mannequins, which glide by gently in Gucci outfits from the 1970s to today. Artful drawings by Chinese artists such as Victo Ngai and Vikki Zhang are displayed on a screen outside the conveyor belt.
At last, I climbed up the stairs to the Duomo’s suspended viewing platform, which offers a stunning view of the entire exhibition. A kaleidoscopic spectacle of designs and patterns from the House’s long history is projected onto the dome’s interior—the result is spellbinding and a triumphant finish to Gucci Cosmos.This September, Sabato De Sarno will present his first collection for the House. As Gucci ushers in a new era, we contemplate the idea that a new world in Gucci Cosmos might come to fruition.
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