BROTHERS IN BAROQUE

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For his fi­nal tour, El­ton John will wow the crowds in elab­o­rate looks com­mis­sioned from his “cre­ative twin”, Gucci’s Alessan­dro Michele. The ad­mi­ra­tion, it so hap­pens, is mu­tual.

For his fi­nal tour, El­ton John will wow the crowds in elab­o­rate looks com­mis­sioned from his “cre­ative twin”, Gucci’s Alessan­dro Michele. And, as An­ders Chris­tian Mad­sen dis­cov­ers, the ad­mi­ra­tion is mu­tual. Pho­tographed by Nick Knight.

Apsychedelic spin paint­ing by Damien Hirst cuts through the ro­man­tic 18th-cen­tury mas­ter por­traits and pala­tial fur­ni­ture in the or­angery at Wood­side, the Wind­sor home of El­ton John and hus­band David Fur­nish, where the past cross-pol­li­nates with the fu­ture. “I love the Re­nais­sance,” Alessan­dro Michele re­flects, sparkling in a Gucci rhine­stone bomber and a royal-pur­ple vel­vet NY Yan­kees base­ball cap, among hun­dreds of an­tique leather-bound vol­umes in John’s li­brary. “Can you imag­ine if it were pos­si­ble to meet Raphael or Michelangelo? For a lit­tle guy who’s worked in fashion for a long time, to be in touch with El­ton is some­thing like this.” Be­decked in an em­broi­dered dia­manté tail­coat cre­ated by Michele for his ‘Farewell Yel­low Brick Road’ tour this month, John has opened the gilded gates of his sprawl­ing es­tate to the Gucci de­signer he con­sid­ers a cre­ative soul mate. “Alessan­dro and I are like twin brothers. I’m much older, but I’ve found some­one who is ex­actly the same as I am: who loves beauty, col­lects things, has a mag­pie eye. And I’m so glad that he came into my life. His clothes fill my house with hap­pi­ness.”

Un­der the trompe-l’oeil ceil­ing of John’s or­angery, where cherubs fit for Frag­o­nard linger in a ro­coco blue sky, the princely singer and his court dresser look a match made in heaven. Like a rock’n’roll mas­ter and his ap­pren­tice, their mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion for one an­other’s work has come full cir­cle in a Gucci-fi­ca­tion of the sig­na­ture look trade­marked by John through four decades on stage: the over­sized glasses, the ring­mas­ter suits and all that glit­ters.

“In some of the cos­tumes I wore, I prob­a­bly did make a fool of my­self. Not to me, but other peo­ple thought: ‘That looks ridicu­lous.’ It’s what your idea of ridicu­lous is,” John says. “I’ve al­ways been fear­less, and that’s why I love Alessan­dro. He doesn’t give a fuck what peo­ple think. He doesn’t give a fuck at all.” The kin­dred spir­its first con­joined when Jared Leto in­tro­duced them at the Van­ity Fair Os­car party in 2016. To the 46-year-old de­signer, then a year into the Gucci job that would rev­o­lu­tionise fashion, it was des­tiny.

Michele grew up lis­ten­ing to John’s mu­sic and ad­mir­ing his au­da­cious cos­tumes. At Gucci, the singer had long fea­tured on the mood boards. “When you’re work­ing in fashion, there’s al­ways a pic­ture of him or David Bowie from the 1970s: the most flam­boy­ant guys on Earth. He changed my work a lot, be­cause I’m such a big fan of that era. It’s a dream come true.”

For his part, the su­per­star, now 71, first heard of Michele from the late In­grid Sis­chy fol­low­ing his de­but show for Gucci in Jan­uary 2015. “I thought, God almighty, it’s so out there! It’s like he’s from Mars or some­thing. Gucci was kind of dead for a long time af­ter Tom Ford and sud­denly this man …” John pauses. “It was like, yes!” Michele sensed an im­me­di­ate friend­ship. “El­ton was like a teenager chat­ting to me with this beau­ti­ful, happy face,” he re­calls. In­deed, later that year, Michele told me about the meet­ing, ef­fus­ing: “He’s like fire­works! He’s in­cred­i­ble! He’s a guard of mu­sic, of bling-bling, of ev­ery­thing!” A year on, John at­tended the cruise show in Florence and Gucci soon launched an on­go­ing cap­sule col­lec­tion in­spired by his leg­endary tour looks.

Sit­ting on a ma­jes­tic sofa with his Je­sus Christ Su­per­star beard and Bronzino bob, one of his hosts’ young sons ad­mir­ing his many rings, Michele looks ev­ery bit at home in the John/Fur­nish house­hold. Af­fec­tion­ate and tac­tile, he has a warm­ing ef­fect on the slightly sterner su­per­star, who turns heart­felt in Michele’s pres­ence. When John changes into his Gucci tour look, he adds only his own jewels. “I’ve al­ways loved that Louis XIV over-the-top kind of shit. If you saw Liam or Chris Hemsworth in it – two beau­ti­ful men – it wouldn’t suit them at all. But it suits me,” he says. “The more the mer­rier. I would wear a tiara if I could.” “When I look at what I’ve worn through­out the years, I’ve fol­lowed my own rules and I’ve had a lot of help along the way,” John rem­i­nisces.

Off-stage he was de­voted to Yves Saint Lau­rent, Tommy Nut­ter, Richard James and, most fa­mously, Gianni Ver­sace, while Bob Mackie made many of his elab­o­rate stage cos­tumes. Michele’s favourite is the white suit with the an­gelic plume epaulettes, cap­tured by Terry O’Neill in 1973.

“I wasn’t David Bowie. I wasn’t ul­tra-skinny. I was sit­ting at a pi­ano. I had to have hu­mour in my cos­tume,” John ex­plains.

“There’s one thing about El­ton, which I al­ways re­peat: with all his flam­boy­ant looks in the 1970s, he was so mas­cu­line. He was al­ways so nat­u­ral and he didn’t lose any of him­self,” Michele says.

“Also, I never wore any make-up,” John adds. “I wasn’t glam rock. I was me be­ing a blokey guy wear­ing these clothes.”

In a new age of self-ex­pres­sion, Gucci is dress­ing the defiant men for whom John’s early courage paved the way – from Harry Styles to Jared Leto and A$AP Rocky. “I’m al­most like him,” Michele says, re­fer­ring to John. “There is noth­ing that is for­bid­den for me. I was like this since I was eight years old. I bleached my hair at 10.

Roam­ing Wood­side, it’s as if one artist’s imag­i­na­tion has ma­te­ri­alised in the house of the other. Like the hy­per-his­toric, cross-cul­tural sen­sory over­load Michele dreams up in his Gucci col­lec­tions, John’s pri­vate world is a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween eras and art. In his drive­way stands one of the old­est oak trees in Eng­land, dat­ing back to the 16th cen­tury. The big house, built on the spot where Henry VIII’s physi­cian once lived, is or­na­mented with mas­ter­pieces and arte­facts ev­ery­where you look. Be­hind it is a mod­ern art gallery erected to house his con­tem­po­rary col­lec­tion.

“I have ev­ery­thing, but I al­ways find some­thing I don’t have. It’s ec­cen­tric, I sup­pose …” John shrugs.

“The first time I met him I thought I was in front of a mir­ror, be­cause I have the same at­ti­tude with ob­jects,” Michele says. “He col­lects ev­ery­thing.”

Back in the or­angery, the singer quizzes the de­signer about the sim­i­lar­i­ties in their pro­fes­sions: the idea process, the in­som­nia, suc­cesses and re­grets, and the in­evitable envy of peers. “I can think of one or two peo­ple who’d be jeal­ous of you,” John says mis­chie­vously.

Michele looks at me. “He’s so sin­cere,” he says with a laugh, avoid­ing a di­rect re­sponse. “When you’re in­spired by an­other per­son, you don’t want to de­stroy their ca­reer. Fashion and cre­ativ­ity are not a place for jeal­ousy.”

The or­angery is decked out like John’s own Pe­tit Tri­anon in hon­our of his beloved grand­mother, who once lived there. A small room has be­come his own pri­vate chapel where plaques memo­ri­alise those who in­flu­enced him, from Diana, Princess of Wales to Elizabeth Tay­lor and Gianni Ver­sace. “Gianni told me there’s beauty all around you. He would take me to a church in Mi­lan and look at the mo­saic floor. He’d say: ‘Look, beauty is ev­ery­where.’ And I think Alessan­dro is that sort of per­son,” John says.

“I’m ob­sessed with him, I’m ob­sessed with his clothes, I’m ob­sessed with what he does. For me, the only per­son who was like that in my life be­fore was Gianni, and when Gianni died, a part of me died. Alessan­dro is the first thing that’s hap­pened in my life since Gianni died that I can re­ally iden­tify with.” Last year, when Donatella Ver­sace re­launched her brother’s El­ton John print from the early 1990s to com­mem­o­rate the 20th an­niver­sary of his death, Michele was watch­ing from the front row. It was a sort of spir­i­tual pass­ing of the ba­ton from one El­ton John de­signer to an­other. “When I wore Gianni, I wore noth­ing but Gianni,” John says. “My life is now Gucci.”

“I thought, God almighty, it’s so out there! It’s like he’s from Mars or some­thing. It was like, yes!”

Alessan­dro Michele, in a Gucci bomber anda El­ton John in a Gucci tail­coat cus­tom-de­signed by Michele, inside the singer’s home in Wind­sor, west of Lon­don.

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