How Gucci's Creative Director Changed the Face Of Modern Menswear
Alessandro Michele’s office at the Gucci Hub in Milan is a stylish retreat decorated in the tastemaker’s signature neo-Romantic style, with tapestry-seated Napoleon III chairs and lacquered furniture, dotted over flowering rugs and terracotta tomette tiles, all of it embowered in a Chinese paper of flowers and the exotic birds that the designer – in an echo of his hippie, shamanesque father – calls his spirit animals.
“For me, it’s quite empty,” he notes drily. “Milan is more of a working place.”
The idiosyncratic sitting room nestles in a LEED Gold–certified complex carved from the workshops of the 1915 Caproni aeronautical factory into a 35,000-square-metre behemoth that is a testament not only to the brand’s strength and ambitions – Gucci enjoyed 45 percent sales growth in 2017, with $7.1 billion in annual sales, and has doubled its revenue during the past four years – but to its creative director’s singularly potent aesthetic.
The staff canteen looks like a Belle Epoque café, with its ebonised mahogany bar, crimson sofas, and tall damask- and toile-covered screens, just as Gucci fragrance counters around the world resemble nineteenth-century apothecary shops.
The Hub’s cavernous reception areas, meanwhile, are decorated with tufted velvet bornes and more of Michele’s beloved antique Aubusson rugs, which also manage to lend the brand’s international outposts the quirky look of the Roman antiquarian shops that the designer likes to scour for jewels and objects of curiosity to fill his ever-expanding portfolio of properties.
Although Michele and his 90-something-strong design team are based in the designer’s native Rome in the splendid Palazzo Alberini (its design said to have been conceived by Raphael), many of them decamp to Milan in the weeks leading up to the collection. “I would love to stay in one place,” Michele says, “but the studio is in your brain, it’s in your suitcase, because we are always travelling.”
In his days as a designer at Fendi and Gucci, Michele used to sketch so much that he says he now has pains in his back and neck from crouching over and drawing. Today he keeps endless lists in notebooks and works “on the body, draping and taking pictures. I don’t have the time to sketch accurately,” he explains, “because after four years I understood that I needed to be more concentrated on the creativity and the process: the stories that I’m telling, the experience of the clients in the store, the collection, the show – the music, the atmosphere. I spend a lot of time working on it all. I’m trying to be less obsessive,” he adds, “but that is really hard for a designer – there are a million pieces. In the beginning I was checking everything, but we are a huge company, and after two years I was dying and thinking I wanted to stop this job. It’s a beautiful job, but it’s dangerous because it’s something that can take everything from you. You can’t be just an image – you really need to be here to fight every day. I was reflecting that if your job becomes your prosthetic to make your life better, when you take it off, you will die. I don’t want that prosthetic. I want my life.
“Sometimes people think that fashion is just a good dress,” he continues, “but it’s not. It’s a bigger reflection of history and social change and very powerful things. If you want to produce something new, especially now, you need more languages. I don’t want to die in the marketing. In the end you need to sell, but it’s like a big fresco – and the fresco speaks to everybody.”
Soon the demands of the looming show draw us from this cosy eyrie to the fitting room, where some 60 Gucci design assistants – poster children for Michele’s eclectic-looking assemblages of pan-decade garments – have been waiting. The cavernous space is filled with sunglasses boasting frames like twin 1950s TV screens (to gladden the heart of Michele’s pal Elton John); visored 1960s felt helmet hats; flocked-velvet carnival masks, gilded raptor’s-head masks, and other menacingly spiked iterations (symbolic of Michele’s thesis that “fashion is a mask”) – and, of course, dozens and dozens of the bags that might not look out of place nestled in the crook of Queen Elizabeth II’s arm, were it not for the steampunk hardware and eye-popping colours: the bags that keep those eye-popping sales figures buoyant.
We’re surrounded by racks and racks of prototypes, and in the 78 hours between now and the show, more will be added. “Nothing is forgotten or rejected or not used,” says Michele, who notes that even this embarrassment of riches is not enough for the needs of Gucci’s global empire. “Actually, all the things we create for the shows are not sufficient to cover all the activities we do.” Michele pulled his debut fall 2015 Gucci menswear collection together in five days flat, a testament not only to his steely focus but to the powerful resources at his disposal at Gucci. Though he had been but an unknown assistant to former creative director Frida Giannini, in that single collection he reset the dial at the house, introducing a quirky runway cast wearing gender-neutral clothes that drew on his passion for eclectic vintage references and antique accoutrements – notably the fistfuls of rings that he delights in himself – not to mention a fur-lined slide shoe that became an instant must-have item. Michele’s sustained ability to both create desire and change the conversation proved the prescience of Marco Bizzarri, Gucci’s president and CEO – who dropped by the fitting to salute the designer he addresses as “maestro”.
Michele, though, is focussed on the fittings for the 87 looks as Kate Bush wails from the speakers. “I don’t need silence,” he says. “I work with a big confusion.”
Michele originally studied costume design, inspired by the legendary Visconti collaborator Piero Tosi, a friend of some of his professors, before deciding that fashion might be a more pragmatic career choice, and his runway shows and image-making still have a theatrical, cinematic quality. The designer asks his long-time collaborator, the hairdresser Paul Hanlon, to twist the long hair of one of the male models into a messy chignon “like Virginia Woolf,” while one girl gets a sculptural victory roll and another a Bowie mullet and eyebrows dyed lemon yellow to match. Makeup artist Thomas de Kluyver, meanwhile, proffers trays of silicon teardrops and disturbing contact lenses that he discovered in Japan to enhance the dystopian mood of those masks and spiked leather collars, which were inspired by fearsome eighteenth-century mastiff collars.
In the nearby show space later that day, we listen to the eerie soundtrack of baying wolves and religious chants, beside a seizure-inducing wall of 120,000 LED lights that Michele has conceived himself. “I try always to put something wrong in there – some contamination,” he says of these touches. “Perfection doesn’t exist, so let’s celebrate the things that are wrong in a good way.”
As a gilded ear is added or subtracted from a look, assistants enter new information in their laptops while others look on intently. Michele’s design team includes young people from places as far-flung as New Zealand, China, Japan, Scotland, and South Korea. “It’s beautiful because when we are working all together on the project of the show, it’s like a nice party,” he says. “People are looking at the same thing with different eyes. It’s fascinating.
“I feel young, but I’m getting old,” adds Michele, who turned 46 last November, with amused resignation. “But I’m learning a lot about music and artists and things that are very far from me. Maybe I’m like Peter Pan – the kind of person that wants to still feel themselves young.”
As the models walk up and down in sharp-shouldered, 1940s-inspired zoot-suit tailoring, Michele admits that there is something of his powerful mother and grandmother in these clothes. “My granny was very chic,” he says. “She was always in black – shirtdresses, a black trench, or pied de poule and Prince of Wales check. I think I learned from her the love for jewels.”
His glamour-hungry grandmother encouraged her daughters to pursue careers in the movies at Rome’s Cinecittà. “My mom was really obsessed with American movies and cinema,” Michele says. “For her it was like a religion.” As the first assistant to a film executive, she regaled her son with the gossip of the period and with stories of brushing shoulders with Elizabeth Taylor at the local coffee shop.
Michele’s cinematic approach extends to his casting of pan-generational actresses, including Vanessa Redgrave and Faye Dunaway – along with such figures of Cinecittà glamour as the legendarily chic Italian socialite Marina Cicogna – in his campaigns. And he evoked a passion for the glory years of Tinseltown’s kinetic, Technicolor musicals in Gucci’s spring 2019 campaign, shot by Glen Luchford at Universal Studios over ten long days. Afterwards, Michele says, “I understood why people lived for showbiz, because when the machine is moving – when the dancer is doing the tap dance – it’s so powerful. I’m very attracted to mythology, and I think that Hollywood is the second chapter of Greek mythology.
“I love contemporary,” he continues, “but I want to always look to the past. You can’t ignore it. Look at Lady Gaga – she changed a million times, she’s worn everything, but in the end she wanted to be Lana Turner because those old movie stars are the divas, the goddesses of beauty and power. It’s always been the same – if you think about a seventeenth-century queen, they wanted to look like the goddess Diana.”
As Michele’s own brand of nostalgia continues to resonate, he delights in the idea of Gucci being used as an adjective to describe the world he has created. “It’s much better than selling a lot of pieces,” he says, “because fashion is like pop music in the eighties – something that is alive, not just in the boutique for rich people.”
In the four years since Michele took over the reins at Gucci, “a lot of things changed,” he says. “You can’t be closed inside your studio – you have to be connected to the world. I’m learning a lot. Being in charge of a brand like Gucci is really an unbelievable position in terms of responsibility – so many people and expectations are invested in it.”
As Michele has discovered, though, those responsibilities extend beyond the livelihoods of the company’s 18,000 employees. When he sent out his fall 2018 collection, one of the layered looks featured a wool balaclava that disquietingly echoed historically racist blackface stereotypes. The ire of the all-seeing internet was quickly ignited, and Gucci collaborator Dapper Dan, the iconic Harlem tailor, called the company out for “getting it outrageously wrong.” And though Michele explained at the time that his specific influence for the mask was the work of the anarchic eighties club guru, designer, and walking piece of art Leigh Bowery, he quickly began to take ownership of the wider issue of the lack of diversity in his immediate design team – and in the luxury-fashion industry as a whole.
In a 25-year career working in design studios in Italy and France, Michele says with dismay, he can “count on my fingers” the designers of colour that he worked with or who were sent to him for job interviews. “At the end I see everything more clearly, but I ignored something that needed visibility. I don’t want to say again that it was not conscious – although it was not – but I was more shocked by the fact that we were so ignorant in terms of history.”
In the wake of the furore, Marco Bizzarri travelled to New York to meet with Dan and fellow community leaders in Harlem, and as a result, Gucci has initiated a comprehensive diversity initiative in hiring, along with company-wide education programmes and international design-school scholarships. “At the end,” Michele says, “you can just do better.”
His rapport with Bizzarri is palpable. Last fall, Michele called the Gucci chief – a strong advocate for sustainability in fashion in his previous role as CEO of Bottega Veneta as well as earlier at Gucci – to discuss a no-fur policy. A week later, it was implemented. Michele credits the relentless advocacy of his young team – and his friend Jared Leto – with inspiring him to act.
“I love craftsmanship,” says Michele, who earlier in his career absorbed the sophisticated techniques of the Fendi furriers. “I’m crazy for the beautiful things you can do with your hands, so I try to put all these things into other materials – nothing is just lost.”
For this collection, for instance, he used those skills on fake furs and with other fabrics to suggest the volume of real furs, inspired by the Italian craftspeople who had to be inventive with their home-grown resources when Mussolini closed Italy to some foreign imports. “The absence of something for a creative person is really interesting,” says Michele. “When you look at 1940s Italian jewels, you see a lot of great solutions in terms of design – they’re very modern and contemporary pieces, even without stones.”
Michele himself has an evident passion for intriguing jewels. Today he is garlanded with early nineteenth-century necklaces and bracelets incorporating cameos or carved lava-stone portraits of Greek philosophers or exotic animals, and rings on every finger. Almost hidden by his shirt collar, meanwhile, is a Georgian cameo necklace, an element in an elaborate parure. “My aesthetic philosophy is an uninterrupted flow. There is no distinction between old and new things, but there are only beautiful things,” says Michele, who has been known to reuse beloved prints in several collections, challenging fashion’s built-in redundancy.
His acquisitive streak, though, extends far beyond personal adornments: he once maintained a second apartment simply to contain the spoils of his passion for antique pictures and bibelots – “those funny chic things, like toys,” as he once described them to me – including a remarkable collection of historic shoes. And he’ll be maintaining his current apartment – a cabinet of curiosities under the eaves of an eighteenth-century town house on a romantic Roman square – for much the same purpose when he finally moves into his new house in the city following an extensive restoration programme. This magnificent place – carved from a storied Baroque palazzo literally built for a pope – will feature a dedicated room for Michele’s clothes that is just about the size of his present home. (To Michele’s delight, the sensitive renovation has already unveiled historic frescoes hidden under centuries of subsequent paint jobs.)
He has been on something of a real estate spree lately in a manner that evokes the glory days of such design taste-meisters as Saint Laurent, Valentino, and Lagerfeld. In Civita, the impossibly picturesque Renaissance hilltop village in Viterbo that Michele describes as “a very eccentric place for very eccentric people,” he maintains the charming, Lilliputian village house precariously perched atop a vertiginous cliff face where he mapped out his debut Gucci collections – but he’s since acquired a second property there so that he can finally have friends to stay nearby.
Perhaps it is here that Michele will retreat to seek his muse. Later, after the show, he waxes philosophical. “It’s something that’s alive for 20 days,” he says of the intensity of working on a collection. “After that, it’s on to the next. But the process of creativity is a very mysterious voice – and it’s something that you can’t stop.”
Words: Hamish Bowles
Photography: Tierney Gearon
Styling: Lawren Howell
Additional Photography: Supplied