09.27.11

Night at the Gucci Museum

The legendary fashion house opened the doors of its own museum in Florence, honoring 90 years of handbags, gowns—and one very decadent Cadillac. Robin Givhan reports from the debut.

The black-carpeted pathway was lit by ivory candles as guests mounted the uneven stone steps leading to the Palazzo della Mercanzia, where Gucci was celebrating the opening of its first public museum in Florence—the city of its birth.

Marking the denouement of the house's 90th-anniversary celebration, the opening of Gucci Museo—a monument to the company’s products and history—was years in the making, the idea seeded when designer Frida Giannini took the creative reins in 2005. Her first order of business was to explore the company's archives—and then wonder whether there was a way to bring attention to them while also acknowledging the company's connection to the Florentine artisans who developed so many of its iconic products.

The museum opened with celebrities, cocktails, dinner, Blondie, and throngs of gawking tourists taking a break from Titians and Botticellis.

On the final day of Fashion Week in Milan, some three hours by car to the north, the company loaded editors from around the world onto a Gucci express, a fast train that shuttled them to Florence to preview the museum, which opens to the public on Sept. 28. (The museum will be open almost daily, and half the €6 admission, about $8, will be donated to a fund to help Florence preserve its historical treasures.)

Gallery: Gucci Museo Red Carpet

Housed near the Uffizi Gallery, in one of the most culturally rich cities in the world, the museum has some highfalutin neighbors. But the grand location, in the Piazza della Signoria, is meant to be both a statement on the importance Gucci places on its Florentine roots, as well as an opportunity for the house to swagger—as all fashion companies love to do. 
 
"This is so important for the brand because it’s not just about bags and shoes but history and Italy," said François-Henri Pinault, head of the luxury conglomerate PPR, which owns Gucci. “What makes a luxury brand is a combination of history and craftsmanship, design, and materials. Gucci is a part of Italian history. It was important to make a real statement.” 
 
The exhibitions will rotate as fresh artifacts are pulled from the company's archives, which are housed in the three-story museum’s subterranean chambers. Those artifacts were collected by reaching out to customers, such as Monaco's Princess Charlotte Casiraghi, whose 2011 Gucci riding costume is on display. But the company also sought help from the anonymous public, turning to eBay and Christie’s auction house for help in locating older objects.

Patricia Frost, the director of the textile department at Christie’s in London, worked closely with the design house to dig up lost pieces. The numbers of handbags with signature bamboo handles was startling, she said during dinner, noting that many people had received them from mothers and grandmothers and had held onto them both for sentimental and fashion reasons. Gucci bought them back. 
 
The museum is organized thematically: Gucci’s early travel valises, its Flora print, its sporting legacy—which includes Gucci snorkeling goggles and flippers, as well as surfboards—and the logo-drenched period in the late 1970s and 1980s that nearly led to its demise. 
 
It’s that era that produced one of the most dazzling pieces on display: a 1979 Cadillac Seville tricked out with Gucci upholstery on the interior and the exterior of the roof. It even has GG buttons decorating the banquette-size seats. Found in Florida some 12 years ago, the car is an homage to the extreme excess and status-seeking that the company helped to nurture during that period. One could also argue that the car is an example of branding run amok.

It’s always difficult for fashion to hold its own in museums. By its nature, the best fashion comes to life only when it is worn—a woman makes the dress, not the other way around.

Still, it speaks to a moment in contemporary culture—something that the surrounding museums, with their tapestries, oils, and marble sculptures do not. The car—as big as a studio apartment, a voracious guzzler of gas, so desperate in its arriviste display of relatively modest wealth—tells us a lot about who we are and how we came to this point of world economic crisis, high fuel prices, and consumer avarice.

The inaugural exhibition includes red carpet gowns from 2010 and 2011, worn by such critically acclaimed actresses as Naomi Watts and Hilary Swank, as well as such mysteriously high-profile starlets as Camilla Belle. The dresses, all quite pretty, are less interesting than the indiscriminate cult of celebrity they highlight, the random obsessions that brought these women to the attention of Gucci.

Gallery: Gucci Through the Years
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Because the exhibition does not follow a timeline, the impact of Tom Ford—who along with Domenico de Sole pulled the house from the brink of bankruptcy in the late 1990s—mostly goes missing. There’s no evidence of his game-changing mod collection of velvet djellabas and candy-colored Gucci loafers or his slinky white jersey gowns that restored the house’s reputation for sex appeal. Perhaps some of those pieces will be rotated in at a later date.

Museum space is also given over to cinema, with film clips of works that Gucci has helped to restore. And another gallery is dedicated to installations of contemporary art.

It’s always difficult for fashion to hold its own in museums. By its nature, the best fashion comes to life only when it is worn—a woman makes the dress, not the other way around. Even the best mannequins can’t quite give viewers a true sense of the artistry in a gown whose ostrich feathers will flutter only with the help of a woman’s swaying hips. And room after room of display cases of handbags begins to look a bit like the ground floor of a very fancy department store—no matter how painstakingly crafted or how historical they are.

Still, the museum has promise. Gucci has a rich history upon which to draw—from the way in which it wove itself into the Italian psyche in the 1960s to its ability to define wealth for a generation of people who came of age in the 1980s. Giannini, the current designer, continues to link the company to everything from film to her beloved rock music. Indeed, the entertainment for the evening, whom Giannini introduced as one of her icons, was Debbie Harry performing with Blondie.

After an elegant dinner for 250 in the Palazzo del Vecchio, with its soaring ceilings and walls painted with lush murals, guests retreated to an intimate salon where Blondie took the stage—each member decked out in Gucci, of course. Harry, with her platinum locks shimmering under the lights, wore a black V-neck halter top and black skirt with a turquoise fur stole that she periodically swung over her head like it was some sweaty bandanna, and she was presiding over a mosh pit. She showed off her glittering heels—by holding them up in her hands. She performed wearing a pair of black flat slides.

Harry jumped from hit to hit—“Heart of Glass,” “The Tide Is High”—with her nasal alto periodically soaring into the rafters, while the crowd jerked and head-bobbed with enthusiasm. This year, Blondie released Panic of Girls, an album of new material. But the band will be forever attached to the 1980s, serving as a kind of cultural ambassador between then and now.

With its museum—and its accompanying celebration—Gucci hopes to connect the dots between its history and its future, its roots and its global reach. But in some ways, the company will forever be linked to a raucous time in our culture—that period when anyone could claim a certain status with the right logo, the right bag. Status isn’t that simple anymore. But when peering through the window of that Gucci-bedecked Cadillac—with its silly, over-the-top, innocent ostentation—one almost wishes that it were.