NOTES OF INNOCENCE & EXPERIENCE
As Gucci launches its latest fragrance, Avril Mair talks to its charismatic creative director Alessandro Michele
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