The New Messiah
With his tousled shoulder-length hair, salt-and-pepper beard and kind, gentle eyes, Alessandro Michele looks like every schoolchild’s idea of Jesus. Add to this the chatter from fashion’s front row — of how, within just five collections, Michele has overseen the ‘Resurrection’ of Gucci, the Italian megabrand of which he is now creative director; and of how his surprise appointment is a ‘Godsend’ — and you can understand why the 42-year-old Roman is being hailed as a ‘Saviour’ of contemporary luxury.
As for the non-believers out there, well, the fact that Michele was presented with the International Fashion Designer of the Year gong at the 2015 British Fashion Awards last November might just have convinced them otherwise.
“Fashion is a religion in one sense,” Michele told Harper’s BAZAAR magazine recently. “Once upon a time, our brand was considered the sanctum sanctorum [the “Holy of Holies”] of fashion. I want to produce things that people really want to buy.”
And what Gucci’s newly-enthused clientele all want to buy is Michele’s postmodern pastiche of unashamedly retro looks; an aesthetic that Florence Welch, the flame-haired siren of Florence & The Machine and a long-time Gucci fan, describes as, ‘Jimi Hendrix mixed with an old lady’.
Cue pea green-coloured lace, zip-fronted dresses, their waists encircled in Gucci’s hallmark green-red-green striped webbing (originally inspired by the strap that runs under a horse’s belly to secure the saddle); Technicolour 1970s ruffled hostess dresses (fans of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, eat your heart out), and trouser suits of primrose-yellow silk jacquard, their cropped pants finished with a deep frill at the calf (the new flare?), all from his Spring/Summer 2016 collection.
“She’s an intellectual who has taste,” explains Michele of his radically different vision for Gucci. “She’s a woman with great freedom of expression.”
Michele, who until 12 months ago was Gucci’s head accessories designer, also knows a thing or two about creating those lust-have details: oversized 1970s shades and boho-hippy jewels — jingly-jangly necklaces, beaded bracelets and fistfuls of rings — of the kind that Michele himself wears. “The only problem is in the airport where it takes 10 minutes to take off every single piece from my hands,” the designer told The New York Times; admitting that he even wears the baby teeth of his necklace charms.
As entry-level products these trinkets are the all-important cash cows for any luxury brand, and for Gucci, a luxury behemoth with an annual turnover of US$5.4billion, the financial pressure is on. In 2014, when the brand had experienced three consecutive quarters of declining sales, Gucci revenues fell by almost 2% to €3.4billion (approximately £2.5billion) while operating profit fell by 6.7%; not an insignificant amount when you consider that Gucci is the jewel in parent-company Kering’s crown (Kering’s other brands include Bottega Veneta, Alexander McQueen and Saint Laurent) and makes up for about half of Kering’s business.
The slowing down of Boom Time world economies, most notably that of China’s and its subsequent lack of appetite for European luxury goods, was a major factor in Gucci’s financial performance (as it continues to be for most luxury goods conglomerates today) but it was obvious that Gucci’s problems didn’t stop there.
What was needed was a new vision; something different to Gucci’s stock-in-trade ‘Tits ‘n’ Glitz’ aesthetic that had made it so popular with Wags the world over.
“The idea for the [first] two shows was: don’t think about being commercially viable. Make a statement that’s going to the extreme. Then, you can fine-tune it afterwards,” said Marco Bizzarri, president and chief executive officer of Gucci in discussion with The Business of Fashion website. “We cannot please everybody: I mean, in fashion today, you’re going to please someone and they’re going to love you and someone else is going to hate you. That’s fine.”
And so for Michele’s debut as Gucci’s creative director at the AW15-16 Menswear Collections, Michele decided to redefine androgyny for the 21st Century and, like his contemporary JW Anderson, put ‘gender-neutrality’ firmly at the core of his new vision for Gucci. Silk chiffon pussy-bow shirt/blouses, long-sleeved lace T-shirts and bracelet-length sleeved astrakhan jackets all looked as if they had been borrowed from a hipster girlfriend’s wardrobe of vintage clobber. (If that wasn’t shocking enough, the fact the he had crafted the entire range in just five days has guaranteed the collection’s legendary status in fashion folklore.) As Tim Blanks, reporting for what was style.com, wrote: ‘The very deliberate sissiness seemed a glaringly obvious way to distance this collection from its immediate past’.
Michele had his own reasoning: “The idea that a man should be wearing something different and more eccentric is obviously the oldest idea on earth. Men nowadays really don’t dress up anymore. But men wore bows before women.”
“Of course it was going to be a big risk,” said Bizzarri, who joined Gucci from having overseen Kering’s couture and leather goods division, and previous to that had increased Bottega Veneta’s annual revenues from €400million to €1billion during his tenure there as CEO. “Everybody was going to ask: ‘Why him? He’s been in the company for 12 years, why didn’t he change it before?’ But the reality was that he was not the one driving. He was following the vision of someone else that did an amazing job in terms of sales, but we needed a change. Alessandro knows Gucci inside out. He knows the clothes, he knows the people, he knows the processes.”
Perhaps, more importantly, Michele also knows that he needed to kill off the ghost of Tom Ford’s sexually-charged glamazon who always loomed large in the background irregardless of what Ford’s successors — Alessandra Facchinetti (who succeeded Ford in 2004 but only lasted two seasons, and who is now Creative Director of Tod’s) and Frida Giannini (who left last January taking Gucci CEO Patrizio di Marco, now her husband, with her) — did to try and exorcise her.
“Why should I try redoing something that [Tom Ford] did perfectly? That would be like trying to repaint the Sistine Chapel,” said Michele, who has worked with all three creative directors during his 13 years at the brand. “This is my own language, and I cannot do anything else.”
The fact that Michele’s Gucci man/woman has more in common with the nerdy Jarvis Cocker/Margot Tenenbaum seems to amuse him. “I really don’t consider Kim Kardashian [to be] sexy. Some women are forced by men to look a certain way, to be accepted by the general public, and I find that terrible.”