LABEL ON FIRE
Lighting up the runway with irreverent sensuality and a bold sense of wonder, designer Alessandro Michele has Gucci burning through the fashion firmament.
And to many of its fans, the brand’s amazing popularity— marked by waiting lists for its most buzzed-about items, with velvet-roped lines of shoppers snaking outside its flagship US boutiques, as well as a global sales spike of more than 40 percent through the first half of 2017—--can be attributed to one man: Creative Director Alessandro Michele.
Michele, a 44-year-old native of Rome, has infused the Gucci line with a theatrical sense of confidence that’s hard to resist, from clothing featuring brash, colorful prints to shoes and bags accentuated with unexpected flourishes like fur or embroidery. A key element of its current success has been the familiarity of certain details, like horse-bit toggles and thick red and green piping, that come straight from the brand’s archives—although their current versions have been spunkily updated for the day’s zeitgeist. As Michele told Vogue in 2015, soon after his appointment to his current role, “I am trying to cause a little revolution inside the company—to push another language, a different way to talk about beauty and sexiness.”
The house was founded in Florence nearly a century ago, in 1921, with an initial focus—like Prada, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and other now-iconic high-end brands—on luggage and leather goods. After several successful decades, Gucci’s popularity was amplified in the 1950s and ’60s when celebrities began to embrace new items like rigid top-handled purses and golden belt buckles in the shape of large capital G’s, oriented, like the faces of Janus, back to back. In that era, the brand became virtually synonymous with a glitzy, glamorous, international lifestyle. “It was very identifiable,” says Cameron Silver, a fashion historian and founder of the vintage retailer Decades. “It identified that aesthetic of a very jet-set traveler. The bamboo handle and the double-g motif are iconic.”
A few decades later, Gucci redefined itself as more than
FOR THE LAST COUPLE OF YEARS, GUCCI HAS SET THE FASHION WORLD ABLAZE.
just a source of luxury accessories. Under designer Tom Ford—who joined the company as creative director in 1990, initially overseeing women’s clothing design and gradually transitioning into a larger, more unisex design role—the brand began to focus as much on clothing for women and men as on accessories. Ford’s pieces were distinguished by an overt, ultraconfident sexiness. “He gets there and injects an almost American, Halston-like DNA into Gucci, and there’s this spectacular revival,” says Silver. The brand became highly fashionable again, with memorable pieces like extra-trim women’s tuxedos, cut in velvet and designed to be worn without a shirt underneath, a look still emblematic of the period.
Ford stayed at the house (ultimately also overseeing design at Yves Saint Laurent, which shares ownership with Gucci) until 2004, when he left, along with Gucci Group CEO Domenico De Sole, a key champion of both Ford and the brand. The designs of his successor, Frida Giannini, lacked the assertive oomph that had become a component of Gucci’s appeal. “The clothes lost a bit of their sensuality,” says Ken Downing, fashion director at Neiman Marcus. “That Gucci guy and girl want to be noticed. They’re attentiongetting—they are not wallflowers, and they want clothes that have a real sexiness to them.”
And so early 2015 saw the installation of a new creative director, Alessandro Michele, who had quietly worked on the Gucci design team since being hired by Ford in 2002. His take on Gucci’s sexiness is empowered and modern, exemplified by the fluid cut of a boldly printed dress, or the transparent fabric on an otherwise straightforward, high-neck blouse. But the real power of Michele’s designs comes from being rooted in the brand’s most identifiable motifs, reworked in a quirky and confident way that makes them modern but still indelible; often the designs’ over-the-top impact anoints them with true statement-piece status.
“There’s the great love of tradition in a very audacious way, where he has taken the sensibility of heritage and love of things that feel very recognizable and he’s twisted them in a way that makes them feel übercool and of-themoment,” says Downing. Case in point: Michele’s reinterpretations of Gucci’s popular loafers, embellished with embroidered designs or giant faux pearls and updated with a clunky high heel and—in what might well be the most copied shoe of the last few years—lined with fur and turned into a leather backless slide.
“The chord that Alessandro’s really struck is that there’s an enormous love for the idea of Gucci,” Downing adds. “That’s a love that began when Tom Ford took over that fêted house decades ago, and as the house began to fall from favor, it left behind many loyalists to the Gucci brand who were truly yearning for something exceptional.”
The timing of Michele’s promotion couldn’t have been better. As Lisa Aiken, retail fashion director at Neta-porter, explains, “Alessandro’s first collection came at a point when actually everything was a little more stripped back. We were coming off the back of what was termed ‘normcore,’ so it brought back this quite romantic vision of what fashion could be. It inspired a much more emotional reaction.” In early 2015, the first presentations of Michele’s creations—a group of men’s pieces that he famously whipped up in just a few days, followed by womenswear a month later—garnered raves from both the
“ALESSANDROCREATE FASHION DOESN’TFOR THE SAKE OF A TREND; HE CREATES COLLECTIBLES. THAT PUTS A LOT OF JOY IN THE CUSTOMER’S HEART.”— KEN DOWNING
press and shoppers, who responded viscerally to his spunky retro-inspired prints, his elegant draping, and a broad color palette that included brights, neutrals, and muted shades of mustard, olive, and maroon.
Unlike some fine fashion pieces that evoke an emotional reaction in their buyers, Michele’s items are of-the-moment but don’t feel as if they’ll go out of style next season, plus they sell for a price that’s admit- tedly high but less astronomical than other brands. “Alessandro doesn’t create fashion for the sake of a trend; he creates collectibles,” says Downing. “In general terms, of all of the brands that hang in the luxury spectrum, it is a lot of look for the money you’re spending. That puts a lot of joy in the customer’s heart.”
In his handful of seasons as creative director, Michele has offered new iterations of some of the designs that have most resonated with Gucci’s fans, from boldly printed dresses and separates to white leather sneakers covered with serpents or bright crimson flowers. “I love the fact that he is evolving and developing rather than starting fresh every season,” says Net-a-porter’s Aiken. “That gives women the sense of ‘Actually, I’m going to purchase this; it is an investment, it has longevity, it’s going to feel relevant for seasons to come because he isn’t radicalizing every season with something new.’”
She adds, “I think he’s being very smart.”
“I am trying to cause a little revolution, a different way to talk about beauty and sexiness,” Alessandro Michele said upon his appointment as Gucci’s creative director in 2015, a sensibility seen throughout the house’s recent Fall/ Winter collections (ƭh
In good company (Ɵrom ƚƛoưe): Actor Alessandro Borghi, photographer Ryan Mcginley, artist Trevor Andrew (who collaborated on last year’s Guccighost capsule collection), musician Olly Alexander, actor Jared Leto, and Gucci President and CEO Marco Bizzarri attend the house’s Spring/summer 2017 show during Milan’s Men’s Fashion Week; Michele accompanied (and dressed) actress Dakota Johnson, one of the faces of the Gucci Bloom campaign, to this year’s Met Gala in New York City.