NOTES OF IN­NO­CENCE & EX­PE­RI­ENCE

As Gucci launches its lat­est fra­grance, Avril Mair talks to its charis­matic cre­ative di­rec­tor Alessan­dro Michele

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy by AGATA POSPIESZYNSKA

Since burst­ing onto the scene as Gucci’s cre­ative di­rec­tor in 2015, Alessan­dro Michele has cel­e­brated the power of in­di­vid­u­al­ity in his col­lec­tions, with a dizzy­ing mélange of in­spi­ra­tions, from El­ton John to Wil­liam Blake, the Medi­cis to the Queen. As he launches his de­but fra­grance, Avril Mair meets the icon­o­clast who has rev­o­lu­tionised a hal­lowed brand

At the age of 44, Alessan­dro Michele is a man who knows what he likes. This in­cludes, but is by no means lim­ited to, clash­ing prints, bold colours, elab­o­rate em­bel­lish­ments, over­loaded de­tail­ing, gen­der flu­id­ity, Re­nais­sance paint­ings, em­broi­dered an­i­mals, Old Hol­ly­wood, Cather­ine de Medici, flora and fauna, English aris­to­crats, 1970s sports­wear and dusty old arte­facts found in Ital­ian an­tique stores. As cre­ative di­rec­tor at Gucci since the start of 2015, his ec­cen­tric, idio­syn­cratic work has come to be de­fined by a play on these seem­ingly in­dis­crim­i­nate themes. The New Yorker calls his style a ‘visual mi­graine’; US Bazaar de­scribes it as ‘a flea mar­ket of the imag­i­na­tion’. (These are com­pli­ments, by the way.) It’s both fab­u­lous and ridicu­lous at the same time – an ex­ces­sive, ex­trav­a­gant, wildly in­ven­tive pile-up that unashamedly pil­lages from past cen­turies without any sin­gle point of view – and is ut­terly con­vinc­ing while also mak­ing next to no sense. ‘I love to mix things to­gether – it’s my way to see beauty,’ he says. ‘My aes­thetic is not just a con­fu­sion; it is a lan­guage.’

It’s also a rev­o­lu­tion: ‘I’m try­ing to fol­low my rules,’ he rea­sons. ‘Not fash­ion rules.’ The im­por­tant thing about all this ap­par­ently ran­dom stuff that Michele throws to­gether is that you will in­evitably like some of it too, even though it’s the kind of thing you had no idea you would ever like. There’s just so much to choose from! An av­er­age show con­sists of well over 100 ex­traor­di­nar­ily com­plex looks – a red Lurex pleated skirt and a pink pussy-bow blouse, say, with a navy sweat­shirt read­ing ‘GUCCIFICATION’ un­der a silk bomber jacket printed with

King Charles Cava­lier spaniels, worn with a leop­ard-spot turban, rhine­stone-framed glasses, fur-lined me­tal­lic loafers, glit­tery logo knee-socks and a striped bag dec­o­rated with se­quined snakes. Mod­elled by awk­ward, sex­u­ally am­bigu­ous girls and boys – who bring an uneasy edge to what could oth­er­wise be sac­cha­rine, some­times even silly – it’s bril­liantly styled by Michele him­self but, when pulled apart, piece by piece, as he prefers it to be, there’s pretty much some­thing for ev­ery­one. ‘The idea that we all have to be the same is very sad,’ he says. ‘I base my fash­ion round the idea of in­di­vid­u­al­ity.’

Statis­tics back it up: Gucci’s first-quar­ter global sales this year jumped by 51 per cent, a star­tling re­sult built on to­tal brand turn­around. Who now can re­mem­ber the Sev­en­ties soft porn of the Tom Ford era, with an au­da­cious ad cam­paign fea­tur­ing the dou­ble-G logo shaved into a model’s pu­bic hair? Who ever thinks about the nine-year ten­ure of Frida Gian­nini, whose sleek, straight­for­ward glam­our had seemed an ob­vi­ous choice at the time? ‘I de­stroyed ev­ery­thing,’ Michele has said. To­day, Gucci is not just hot in in­dus­try terms but also achingly hip – the Ro­man de­signer’s play­fully artsy tastes are shared by celebri­ties from Felic­ity Jones and Gigi Ha­did to Ken­dall Jen­ner, Dakota John­son, Reese Wither­spoon, Cé­line Dion, Lupita Ny­ong’o, Gwyneth Pal­trow and Jared Leto (who shifts be­tween mens- and wom­enswear, which are shown on the same run­way and fairly in­ter­change­able). Brie Lar­son wore a cus­tom-made cobalt blue gown to pick up her 2016 Best Ac­tress Os­car.

You wouldn’t re­ally have bet on any of this when Michele – who stud­ied at Rome’s Ac­cademia di Cos­tume e di Moda and hoped to be­come a cos­tume de­signer, but had worked at Gucci for 14 years, lat­terly as head of leather goods and shoes – was given just five days to sal­vage the menswear col­lec­tion af­ter Gian­nini’s dis­missal two years ago. He had a fur­ther four weeks

to de­sign wom­enswear. In the time be­tween those shows, he was of­fi­cially ap­pointed cre­ative di­rec­tor. ‘I started by think­ing not in terms of fash­ion but about an at­ti­tude,’ he says. ‘It might be a sur­prise but we never worked with a lot of vin­tage. In­stead, it’s the idea of it – the mem­ory of things you have seen or loved. What we call vin­tage are just clothes that have a soul, you know.’ An­other im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion was the idea that his cre­ations shouldn’t change much from sea­son to sea­son, chal­leng­ing the in­dus­try’s ideas about in­built ob­so­les­cence. ‘We need to change the way we think,’ he says. ‘We have to take care to pro­duce beau­ti­ful pieces for peo­ple – and if you have a beau­ti­ful piece, it’s beau­ti­ful now and still beau­ti­ful af­ter two months or two years. I have a su­per-huge wardrobe full of beau­ti­ful things bought over the course of many years that I care about. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to buy new things too.’

He sounds more like a ro­man­tic artist than some­one re­spon­si­ble for €4 bil­lion of turnover in 2016, and one of the most copied and com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful de­sign­ers of our time; he also looks like a Re­nais­sance saint, al­beit one wear­ing fist­fuls of jew­elled mourn­ing rings and a rain­bow-coloured silk jacket. We meet in Florence, where he has just pre­sented the Gucci re­sort 2018 show in the Pala­tine Gallery of Palazzo Pitti, a trea­sure-trove once owned by the Medici fam­ily and in­hab­ited by Napoleon. ‘I don’t want to be nos­tal­gic,’ he says. ‘I love the past just be­cause it is some­thing that’s al­ways with us. Florence was un­be­liev­able then: the art, ev­ery sin­gle cat­e­gory of cul­ture, science. The power of big money. It’s like Sil­i­con Val­ley now. That’s the point I wanted to make.’ Michele is hunched in the cor­ner of a sofa in his mod­ern ho­tel room, doeeyed and tired, though an en­chant­ing and in­trigu­ing pres­ence. He speaks a cu­ri­ously quirky English, roller­coas­t­er­ing from in­tense in­tel­lec­tual the­o­ris­ing (Gucci’s show notes are famed for their opac­ity) to a re­flec­tion on ‘mod­ern god­desses’ such as Madonna, and the im­por­tance of see­ing clothes ac­tu­ally worn on the street (‘It’s not a mo­ment to keep fash­ion in­side a box’). His cul­tural in­flu­ences are wide-rang­ing: he put on a show in the 13th-cen­tury clois­ters of West­min­ster Abbey, his sound­tracks have in­cluded Wil­liam Blake’s po­etry re­cited by Florence Welch, and an A/W 17 plaid jacket is in­scribed with the word ‘BIDDENDEN’, the ad­dress of the writer Vita Sackville-West’s cel­e­brated gar­den, Siss­inghurst (he’s never vis­ited and doesn’t in­tend to – fantasy is al­ways bet­ter than re­al­ity). The actor and singer Jared Leto, mean­while, has be­come a muse, and he has a whole­hearted and un­cyn­i­cal ad­mi­ra­tion for the ‘fire­work’ that is El­ton John. Michele is noth­ing if not eclec­tic in his tastes. ‘Your Queen is the most ec­cen­tric per­son on Earth,’ he says, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally. ‘The world changes, yet she al­ways stays the same in her bold colours. English ladies are fab­u­lous; it’s in the DNA. They can put the cra­zi­est things to­gether – they don’t care about their age, or shape, or even look­ing per­fect. It’s such a beau­ti­ful thing.’

To­mor­row, Michele will travel back to Rome, where he shares an at­tic flat stuffed full of flea-mar­ket finds and charm­ing an­tiques with his sim­i­larly long-haired and bearded part­ner Giovanni At­tili, an ur­ban-plan­ning pro­fes­sor. He of­ten re­veals de­tails of their home on his In­sta­gram page (@lallo25), along­side im­ages of art­works, for­mal gar­dens, old jew­ellery and other ob­ses­sions, plus the odd selfie in some Gucci cat­walk ex­trav­a­ganza. The cou­ple also owns a crum­bling stone week­end house north of Rome in Civita di Bag­nore­gio, a small pho­to­genic vil­lage perched on top of a hill, slowly fall­ing away into the val­ley be­neath. ‘My dogs are wait­ing for me,’ says Michele, who is ea­ger to re­turn. He has two Bos­ton ter­ri­ers, Bosco and Orso, whose rose-printed bed of­fered in­spi­ra­tion for a fab­ric used to line Gucci bags and boxes. He also col­lects 19th-cen­tury Stafford­shire-spaniel fig­urines. ‘I want more dogs but I can’t with my job,’ he says. ‘My fa­ther was Fran­cis of As­sisi – he spoke with the an­i­mals. He was like a shaman. He didn’t have a watch; he tried to un­der­stand the hours through the light of the sun. I mean, I’m not con­nected be­cause I try to be, it is some­thing that be­longs to my na­ture. An­i­mals make me feel very spe­cial.’

And so to the thing that de­lays Michele in Florence: a new fra­grance, Gucci Bloom, his first for the house. ‘I gave Gucci a smell,’ he says, smil­ing. The idea be­gan with the fantasy of an English gar­den, owned by an el­derly lady but ex­plored by a young girl. ‘We started with the idea of flow­ers. It’s an old way to in­ter­pret the scent of the per­fume but I didn’t want to have some­thing re­ally syn­thetic,’ he says. Work­ing to his brief, the per­fumer Al­berto Mo­ril­las blended a ‘fem­i­nine and happy’ scent us­ing tuberose, jas­mine and musk, with an edge of Ran­goon creeper, also known as Chi­nese hon­ey­suckle. ‘You recog­nise the flow­ers,’ Mo­ril­las says, ‘but be­cause of how they were ex­tracted, what could have seemed old-fash­ioned is to­tally dif­fer­ent.’ Re­in­forc­ing the moder­nity of the fra­grance, it is pack­aged in a matte pink bot­tle that could only have come from the imag­i­na­tion of Michele. ‘I’m a gar­dener – and I’m good,’ he says. ‘I grow roses. I love top­i­ary. I have to be hon­est, I don’t cook and I’m not good with a lot of things but I am a re­ally good gar­den boy. I love the way plants grow and change ev­ery sea­son, in the same way I love the idea that peo­ple trans­form them­selves with clothes into some­thing else.’

There’s some­thing in the air thanks to Alessan­dro Michele. It’s the sweet smell of suc­cess.

‘I love to mix things to­gether – it’s my way to see beauty. My aes­thetic is not just a con­fu­sion; it is a lan­guage’

Por­trait by ALEXI LUBOMIRSKI

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