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How Gucci confirmed that Old Masters are back in fashion

With an ad campaign for its Spring 2018 collection that represents a ‘love letter’ to Old Master paintings, the fashion house is tapping into a trend evident across many areas of contemporary culture. Bart Boehlert reports

For Gucci’s Spring/Summer 2018 season, creative director Alessandro Michele presented an imaginative runway collection featuring his signature delirious mix of colourful, vintage-inspired, mismatched pieces trimmed with sequins, ribbons, pearls and brocade — all shown on a huge darkened set decorated with Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Aztec props.

To convey the magic and mystery of the collection in the Spring advertising campaign, Michele eschewed fashion photography and instead mixed his cutting-edge styles with Old Master paintings. Long overshadowed by Modern and Contemporary art, Old Masters are now inspiring fashion, culture and art, as well as attracting new collectors.

Alessandro Michele was a relatively unknown Gucci accessories designer when in 2015 he was promoted to Creative Director of the brand. Since then, his whimsical, eclectic, completely fearless reinvention of Tom Ford’s sexy, sleek, 70s-style version of Gucci has been an explosive success, resulting in phenomenal global sales growth of the brand.

Jan van Eyck (1390-1441),The Arnolfini Marriage, 1434. Photo National Gallery, London, UK  Bridgeman Images

Jan van Eyck (1390-1441),The Arnolfini Marriage, 1434. Photo: National Gallery, London, UK / Bridgeman Images

Looking to art history and Old Masters for the Spring advertising campaign, Michele hired 27-year-old Spanish artist Ignasi Monreal, who produced the dreamy digital paintings on his computer and tablet. ‘I wanted to use the opportunity to create kind of a love letter to painting itself, to the big masters and the works that we love,’ Monreal told W  magazine.

Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1500. Photo Prado, Madrid, Spain  Bridgeman Images

Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1500. Photo: Prado, Madrid, Spain / Bridgeman Images

The Garden of Earthly Delights  by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), which hangs in the Museo del Prado in Madrid where Monreal once lived, offered the basis for one ad. In the modern, digital version, figures wearing Gucci clothes and accessories populate a verdant landscape filled with birds and animals. Into the centre Monreal has inserted a fantastically-clad couple inspired by a second Old Master painting, The Arnolfini Marriage, by Dutch artist Jan van Eyck (1390-1441).

‘Old Master portraits were narratives of taste. They speak to the decorative aspects of fashion right now’ — Laird Borrelli-Persson, Vogue

Monreal borrowed from Ophelia  by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896) for another ad. Illustrating a story from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Pre-Raphaelite painting depicts Ophelia floating in a stream before being drowned by the weight of her heavy dress. The new Gucci version has a happy ending however — in a short video on the Gucci website, the gold-sequinned heroine is lifted from the water by Monreal, who wears a Gucci suit.

Gucci’s SpringSummer 2018 campaign, inspired by Ophelia by John Everett Millais. Artwork by Ignasi Monreal

Gucci’s Spring/Summer 2018 campaign, inspired by Ophelia by John Everett Millais. Artwork by Ignasi Monreal

‘What Alessandro is doing at Gucci is brilliant because of the mix,’ says Laird Borrelli-Persson, Archive Editor at Vogue.com. ‘He is leading this joyful, magpie-like, cut-and–paste approach, pulling from all different things and putting them together. History and modernity are equally important to him, and his work is deeply layered.’

Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Ophelia, 1851-52. Tate Britain. Photo © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Ophelia, 1851-52. Tate Britain. Photo: © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

Classic paintings are a mine of inspiration for such a creator. ‘Old Master portraits were narratives of taste,’ observes Borrelli-Persson. ‘They speak to the more decorative aspects of fashion right now. They’re very ornate and make sense in this universe of beauty.’

A poetic ad based on a historic painting also stands out in a magazine full of photography. ‘It introduces an element of romanticism and surprise,’ says Jonquil O’Reilly, Vice President, Head of Sale, Old Master Paintings at Christie’s. ‘It also elevates fashion to a high-art status. You’re engaging with it more than if it was a sexy image of a model in the clothes.’ 

Glenn Brown, Drawing 16 (after Van DyckVan Dyck), 2017. Indian ink and acrylic on drafting film over panel in frame. 21 x 14¾ in (53.3 x 37.5 cm). © Glenn Brown. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Photo Mike Bruce

Glenn Brown, Drawing 16 (after Van Dyck/Van Dyck), 2017. Indian ink and acrylic on drafting film over panel in frame. 21 x 14¾ in (53.3 x 37.5 cm). © Glenn Brown. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Photo: Mike Bruce

Glenn Brown, Drawing 17 (after Rembrandt), 2017. Indian ink and acrylic on drafting film in frame. 24¾ x 20⅝ in (62.8 x 52.4 cm). © Glenn Brown. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Photo Mike Bruce

Glenn Brown, Drawing 17 (after Rembrandt), 2017. Indian ink and acrylic on drafting film in frame. 24¾ x 20⅝ in (62.8 x 52.4 cm). © Glenn Brown. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Photo: Mike Bruce

Further evidence of Old Masters stepping into the spotlight can be found across the world and the cultural spectrum. In Paris, Nicholas Ghesquière showed silk-embroidered frock coats comparable to those seen in 18th-century portraiture for his women’s Spring 2018 Louis Vuitton collection; in New York, the Metropolitan Museum’s recent Michelangelo show was the tenth most visited exhibition in its history, outstripping even the Alexander McQueen blockbuster in 2011; in London, renowned contemporary British artist Glenn Brown is presenting his reinterpretation of the Old Masters at the Gagosian Gallery (until 17 March), while at Victoria Miro (until 7 April), Mark Wallinger’s Italian Lessons  exhibition takes inspiration from the Italian masters and masterpieces in Italian collections.

Other leading contemporary artists to have built upon the historic and the classical to create something wholly new include Jeff Koons at Almine Rech Gallery, and, more recently, Mat Collishaw at Robiland + Voenna, with four mirror works that engage with paintings by Caravaggio in the Galleria Borghesa’s permanent collection in Rome.

There is a new audience for Old Masters as well. ‘There are buyers who are looking for more craft, more rarity, more layers, more depth,’ says Karl Hermanns, Global Managing Director of the Old Masters Group at Christie’s. ‘They are also looking at financial value, and the relative value of very rare historical art.’

The Asian market has become significant for Old Masters, too. ‘Asian culture encompasses an appreciation for historical things,’ notes Hermanns. ‘Old Masters have by definition stood the test of time. Their quality and value are established.’

A new take on an Old Master like the Gucci Spring ad campaign only helps to broaden the appeal. ‘Things like this are more accessible and open the field of Old Masters to more people,’ agrees Jonquil O’Reilly. ‘Whenever you can get people to engage with paintings, I’m all for it.’