Few recent fashion stories have been as dazzling as that of Alessandro Michele. The 43-year-old Roman was made creative director of Gucci in January 2015, responsible for all womens- and menswear collections – and just five days before his debut show. The appointment came as a shock: Michele was a largely unknown figure in the fashion world with no public profile, own label or experience as head of another fashion house. He was a longstanding member of the Gucci design team who had worked first under Tom Ford and latterly with Frida Giannini, where he was associate to the creative director and head of accessories design until her abrupt departure at the end of 2014.
In person, Michele is more enigmatic still with his long dark hair, beard and Renaissance-era panache. A self-described “fabric junkie” he has deep obsessions, an acquisitive nature and speaks elliptically about the power of beauty. Nor do his observations chime with conventional design wisdom: fashion is all about moving forward, Michele’s vision is all about looking back. “In fashion, people are obsessed with the future, with the modern, but modernity is an old word,” he says.
Michele’s unusual personal style and romantic sensibility seemed a curious fit for the biggest and most important brand within the Kering portfolio (which includes Balenciaga, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen; Gucci generates more than a third of Kering’s profits). But for Marco Bizzarri – the man who stepped up as CEO in the wake of Giannini’s dismissal and that of her chief executive (and now husband) Patrizio di Marco – the appointment was deliberately radical. “As one of the most recognised luxury fashion brands in the world today, with over €3.9bn in annual revenues and more than €1.2bn in profits, Gucci was successful but suffering from stagnant revenues and eroding market share,” he explains. “An abrupt disruption was needed to re-energise and reposition the brand. Hence, my first task was to find and appoint a new creative director. Almost by chance I found that person within Gucci itself. Alessandro knew every corner of Gucci and lived and breathed the DNA of the brand. Our first meeting, over a coffee in Rome, expanded into an exhilarating four-hour conversation about Gucci’s remarkable potential and I knew I had found someone very special to take on the critical role.”
Michele’s first menswear show offered a tantalising appetiser for what was to follow, an extraordinary mélange of tapestries, floral fabrics and feminine details that drew sharp intakes of breath. “I said to him ‘Go for it!’” says Bizzarri. “‘Don’t stay in the middle because if you do, you’re going to be killed. It is better to take a stance.’”
His first womenswear collection, a month later, completely erased the Gucci look of old and introduced an entirely new language at the house. Michele became a critical and commercial success, and in just over 12 months of his being at the creative helm, Gucci has returned to a period of growth: annual results released on February 19 reported a 4.8 per cent increase in the fourth quarter (when Michele’s first collection landed in store). Meanwhile, the industry has adopted his language and embraced his themes: thanks to Michele, “gender fluidity” has entered fashion speak, signalling a louche androgyny in which women wear men’s tailoring and mannish accessories, while men are dared to wear pretty pastel bib-fronted silk blouses with pussy-bow ties. He coined the phrase “attic chic” to describe the collegiate nerd élan of his new muse, a woman who might top off a gold lamé knife-pleat midi skirt with a ragged sweater and a crochet beret. “Fake vintage” is Michele’s interpretation of those handbags and accessories seemingly pulled from the Gucci archives, but drawn, in fact, from his imagination.
Michele’s Gucci vision is transgressive, exciting and highly desirable. “Gucci has revolutionised its identity,” says Justin O’Shea, buying director for e-commerce fashion brand MyTheresa. “It sounds easy saying it, but to actually achieve this is one of the most remarkable fashion moments in history. And the best part about it is that it was done with beauty and innocent, unbridled conviction. It has excited the old Gucci customer and captivated new customers, who loved the ‘idea’ of what the brand represents but never clicked with the previous aesthetic. The Dionysus bag [example pictured, £2,660] sold out on our site; the fur‑lined loafers [from £1,200] and classic shoe adaptations [example pictured, £680] are gone in 60 seconds; and the ready-to-wear is the choice of cool women around the world.”
Matchesfashion.com senior buyer Natalie Kingham agrees. “The first time I saw a collection by Alessandro, I was totally enamoured. One of the key things I recall was the pearl buttons with the little gold GGs that were used on dresses, jackets and blouses; to have the double G felt like you were going back to vintage designs. I was also reminded that it’s a beautiful heritage leather firm with the bags all handmade and lined in taupe suede, with gorgeous hardware.” As for identifying the Gucci signatures, Kingham names the blouses (from £645), in silk crepe de Chine with ruffled georgette trims or pretty satin plackets, the neat metallic brocade jackets (£1,900) and blazers (from £1,140) and the 1970s-style silk-chiffon dresses (from £2,870) as “being among the new core staples”.
In November, Michele picked up the British Fashion Award for best international designer, an incredible achievement for a man who had then been responsible for only seven collections. But asked to elucidate his swift success, Michele is bashful. “I’m still incredulous about it all,” he tells me over tea at the Grand Hotel et de Milan. He does seem to inhabit a fugue-like optimism, a state further emphasised by his patchouli fragranced aura and doe-eyed expression that recalls Dylan, the peace lovin’ rabbit in 1970s children’s TV animation The Magic Roundabout. Was he confident about his first collection for Gucci? Did he anticipate the reaction? “No!” he insists. “It was just an experiment. I thought the day after that I was going to be fired… I’m working because I’m really in love with this job, not with my position. I don’t care about my position. The only position I have is that I can make some dreams come true. This is the only power I feel.”
But to consider Michele some beatnik bohemian who accidentally found himself at the creative helm of such a vast corporation is to underestimate his obsessional fascination with the brand. “The change of direction would not have been possible if he had not been at Gucci for 12 years,” says Bizzarri. “He was able to galvanise his team and Gucci’s amazing artisans to do the impossible.”
“Everything came naturally because it’s completely my world,” says Michele. “I love Gucci. I knew everything about the brand and what really fascinated me. So the aesthetic was something I had in my mind – my hands. I didn’t have to push or invent. It’s was just there.”
Michele’s Gucci is flamboyant, flirty and fully realised; as a former accessories designer he has a genius for product and merchandising. For subsequent collections, he has built on many of the tropes of his first; trompe-l’oeil embroidery, rich embellishment, pretty blouses and fitted jackets. The cult fur-lined loafer of autumn/winter 2015 has been reimagined in tapestry weaves (£380) or in a backless design with a block heel (£680; see “Foot to the Flora”, page 68). He plays with the house codes with insouciant ease. In his 2015 cruise collection, he introduced vividly patterned shoulder bags (from £1,230), floral sweatshirts (£600), metallic bomber jackets (£1,900) and collegiate-style skirt suits (£2,035) trimmed with distinctive green and red Gucci webbing. And he has ushered in new signature accents: cocktail gowns (£1,900) with embroidered detailing, sumptuous suits (£4,825) in metallic brocade, and jewellery (from £6,830) that reflects the gothic rings on his own fingers.
Yet despite his commercial successes and eye for an “it” item, Michele is wary of cultivating a Gucci tribe. “People don’t want to be soldier-like, everybody wearing the same,” he says. “There is something of the tribe in fashion, but in the end customers get a bit annoyed if you push a particular bag. I’m a designer but also a customer. I’m not inside a glass case. I go outside, I shop. So I’m trying to make beautiful things for me or for people I love.”
This deeply personal engagement is perhaps key. In a world where the creative endeavours of a house are often the product of a sprawling and amorphous team, Michele is one of the new breed of creatives – like Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent or Christopher Bailey at Burberry – who has been given unprecedented autonomy at the brand. Michele oversees every element of Gucci’s visual representation, from the store fittings (which he is overhauling across the world) to the advertising campaigns, film content and show production. He even styles the shows, where his taste for ostentation and maximal impact is seen in every look. “Styling is one of my favourite things; I’m obsessive,” he says. Moments before the spring/summer 2016 show in September, he decided to paint snakes on a pair of heels – one green, one red – with nail polish. “The shoes were not enough for me,” he says. The same rationale also saw him creating another 15 looks to swell the final collection to 65.
“There are very few creative directors in the world today with the scope of responsibility that Alessandro has,” says Bizzarri. “It makes even greater sense given the fluidity between the men’s and women’s collections. Beyond that, however, consistency and clarity across all the brand’s touchpoints is fundamental to the creation of a powerful image. Alessandro has done this brilliantly in a very short time, so that wherever you may be engaging with Gucci – in-store, online, through social media – the brand narrative is 100 per cent consistent.”
The chief executive and his creative director are highly sympathetic. “He loves fashion,” says Michele of Bizzarri. “And he’s one of the most enthusiastic men I have ever met.” Of Michele, Bizzarri says: “First and foremost he is a normal person, which in the industry is not always the case. Someone very well-educated. Someone who listens. Not somebody who changes the creative direction just because he feels like it. Someone who empowers people. Someone you want to exchange perspectives with.”
Michele’s Gucci woman is a very different creature from Giannini’s 1970s-era glamazon – or the deeply sexual being who informed Tom Ford’s Gucci in its early 1990s heyday. Michele’s femininity is kookier and more romantic. But while he has negotiated a radical change in creative direction, he still credits his early career, working with Silvia Fendi at Fendi and then Ford at Gucci, as essential learning experiences. “I learnt from Fendi that everything is possible – as well as my quirky attitude,” he says. “From Tom, I learnt that you have to fight for beauty. Because he lives for beauty and nothing is by chance. With Tom, everything was perfect; the office had an almost clinical quality, it was so immaculate. He was powerful because he had a vision, so people believed in him.
“Tom had an idea of glamour and sleekness and a kind of hedonism that I love. But I’m not that kind of person,” concedes Michele. “My office is a little bit crazy and full of things; it’s more like a studio. My idea of beauty is a little bit wrong. It’s something hidden that you understand as something to be discovered. If you aren’t perfect you are much more beautiful.”
Michele finds his anti-perfection in the awkward details, such as the oversized spectacles and the woolly hats. “A woman can wear a pair of big-frame glasses with an evening dress and be sexy,” he argues. “Because when you wear something unexpected, you become glamorous.”
Not everyone could be persuaded to wear Duchamp-style furry shoes or Wes Anderson-esque glasses, but Michele’s anti-perfect, gender-fluid design has become a vital conversation in fashion. “It’s my aesthetic,” he shrugs, tapping a painted nail against his cup. “I see the world as a whole. Not as things for men or for women. If I love something in the men’s collections, I’m happy to put it in the women’s. I’m open to it.”
Which is not to say Michele doesn’t have a deep appreciation of women. His muses are eclectic and often feminist. “One of my references is the 1970s woman, but also Jane Austen; for me she was one of the first feminists because she really understood what happens between a woman and a man. And Janis Joplin. And Cher. One of my favourite women is Elizabeth I, who reinvented herself to convince the world of her power. She was my biggest inspiration for the spring/summer 2016 collection.”
Michele is a man of many passions. Although for now, most of them must be directed towards the workplace and a schedule that takes him away for long hours from the gorgeous Rome-based home he shares with his partner, Giovanni Attili, an urban-planning professor, and their two Boston terriers, Bosco and Orso. “I miss them a lot,” he says, “and my nephews.” The long absences are part of the reason he’s just redecorated his office, now filled with personal treasures and his salvaged fabrics. “It’s another chapter of my life,” he says. “I have to sacrifice a lot of my time – in a beautiful way. It’s full immersion. That’s why I’m trying to put something from my house into my job. To let this job become real.”
The reality of being Gucci creative director is finally sinking in. Which is just as well because the year ahead promises to be no less exhausting. “Last year was the year of reinvention. A sort of reset,” explains Bizzarri, who underlines the fact that Michele’s full collections were only significantly delivered in store in the last quarter of 2015 and that the Michele effect is still in its infancy. “This year, the increased interest in the brand and the conversation around it has to fully translate into growing market share and, as a consequence, improved performance and results. Our growth will come not from opening new stores, but from engaging new customers in Alessandro’s exciting vision.”
Gucci’s new magus is reluctant to elaborate. For now, the element of mystery has been an excellent strategy. “I don’t make plans – if I did I wouldn’t give my all,” he says. “But I hope to have fun, just like last year.”