How Alessandro Michele made Gucci relevant again

Alessandro Michele, Lana Del Rey and Jared Leto at a New York show: “It was a revolutionary act to come in and do what Alessandro Michele did with this company,” Leto says.Credit:Getty Images

On a bright May day, Alessandro Michele and I stand side by side at the same picture window gazing at the same patch of Lower Manhattan, but we don't have the same view. Where I see a riot of buildings born of utility and bereft of any unifying aesthetic, he sees a story, a timeline, a testament. While I want to tidy it up somehow, he wants to let it be and breathe. To me, it's a mess – an exciting one, but still. To him, it's a mosaic.

"There is a mix-and-match of the Victorian and 1930 and everything," he marvels, and if the rapture in his voice is put on, then he's as much an actor as his friend, Jared Leto. "It's beautiful. It's natural. It's the result of life, of trying to find the right way to live in New York." This vantage point, about 10 storeys up, is why he stays in this suite in this hotel whenever he's in New York. It's his home away from his real home in Rome.

Michele, 46, has been the creative director of Gucci since January 2015, and he's here now on two main pieces of business. The day before our meeting, Gucci officially opened its new SoHo store, less a display of wares than a fashion habitat in which to wander and linger, a warm bath in the merry bedlam of Michele's imagination. Unwind on a circular sofa over here, watch a film in the cinema over there, leaf through a 1985 reprint issue of Interview magazine with Madonna on the cover, maybe try on a $2900 pair of leather boots (or maybe not). Gucci is renovating its stores around the world in this mould. They're for shopping, of course. But they're also for being, breathing, dreaming.

The second piece of business is the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute benefit. It's tonight. Michele has invited two special guests to accompany him: Leto, also the face of the fragrance Gucci Guilty, and the singer Lana Del Rey. Michele sparks when he mentions them. They're both originals, he says, embodying "the idea that you can be who you want to be". You just have to give yourself permission. You just have to decide. "Jared is a kind of shaman, like a new Jesus of pop culture – long hair, beautiful face, a crazy way to show himself. He's a way to live."

"A way to live." That phrase, that concept, keeps coming up with Michele, and it's a key to his transformation of Gucci from a label that had drifted far from the conversation to one at the centre of it. He isn't just selling robes, slippers, handbags, things, though he certainly wants customers to buy those, which they've done in numbers that have returned Gucci to peak cultural relevance and extraordinary financial success. He's selling a sensibility: eccentric, eclectic, inclusive. And he's doing it with every mode of communication at his disposal.

The Gucci bomber jacket inspired by Harlem designer Dapper Dan. Credit:Getty Images

There are, for example, the collaborators he chooses and the celebrities he pulls into his orbit. His reaction to the graffiti artist Trevor Andrew, aka Gucci Ghost, who in late 2013 and 2014 scrawled the label's signatures all over Brooklyn and Manhattan, wasn't a copyright infringement suit or a cease-and-desist order. It was a formal invitation – accepted – to make clothes together (for Gucci's autumn 2016 collection).

Michele's response to an outcry last year that he had copied from the legendary 1980s Harlem designer Dapper Dan a famous bomber jacket – panelled in dark brown mink fur, with voluminous monogram-printed balloon sleeves – was to say yes, he did, proudly and in tribute. Then, to prove his respect, Michele teamed with Dap for a joint line of apparel and set him up to work on it in an impeccably restored corner brownstone in Harlem whose lowest level, just beyond an ornate gate, is an atelier with a wall of blood-red drapes facing the street.

"I didn't believe it, you know, until Cinderella saw the carriage – the carriage with all the horses," Dap tells me when I drop by. "I thought, 'Wow, I guess I'm going to the ball.'

When Michele introduced Gucci Bloom, the first new fragrance under his watch, he assembled unconventional ambassadors: Dakota Johnson, best known for being trussed and teased in the Fifty Shades of Grey movies; the young Canadian photographer and video director Petra Collins; and Hari Nef, a transgender actress and model. The Michele message, which never falters, is that the world of luxury is infinitely elastic, that Gucci is a palazzo with room for everybody and that the way to live is together, in harmony, in all of its overstuffed rooms.

What to wear? Michele has on a pair of white leather sandals studded with dozens of crystals, sweat socks, frayed jeans and a bulky plaid shirt in baffling tension with the silk scarf above it. He's a fop. He's a lumberjack. He's a hipster. He's also a Christmas tree, ornamented to a fare-thee-well. He loves jewels, typically wears multiple bracelets and necklaces and has bulbous rings – one shaped like a fox, another like a wolf – on all his fingers except for his thumbs. He's his own Manhattan, his own mosaic. He's messy and mesmerising.

Just like his ready-to-wear designs, which jumble elements, patterns, time periods and allusions that were seldom if ever jumbled before: pussy bows on men's shirts, babushkas atop power suits, sneakers under gowns, stripes with plaids, the old-fashioned meeting the space age. He's unrestrained with colour, promiscuous with layers and gaga for floral patterns, animal imagery and corporate logos. Where Tom Ford's Gucci – spanning a decade, beginning in 1994 – was minimalist, emphasising glamour, Michele's is hectic, emphasising irreverence. I sometimes wonder if he was put on this earth to liberate fashion writers from the adjective "sleek" and acquaint them with "magpie".

"Beauty doesn't have limits," he tells me. "It doesn't have rules." When he took over at Gucci, he says, "fashion was talking about something that didn't exist anymore, this kind of posh world of beautiful legs and beautiful hair. I was just talking about humanity. I was trying to find a new energy in the street, not in the jet set." You still need a certain budget for Gucci. But you don't need a certain bearing or taste.

"It was a revolutionary act to come in and do what he did with this company," Leto tells me, calling Michele "the Steve Jobs of fashion". Elton John, who was the muse for Michele's Spring 2018 women's and men's collection and his collaborator for a capsule collection in September last year, likens his exuberance to Gianni Versace's. After Versace's death, John thought he'd never gravitate to a famous designer's apparel again. "I didn't think there would be anyone out there worth it," he says.

But when he began his farewell tour in September, he did so with a wardrobe by Michele, who creates "clothes with humour", John tells me, adding: "He's making clothes for basketball stars, for US National Football League stars, for people who feel they're not being judged for what size they are. That's important. Most designers make clothes for anorexic stickpins. He's making clothes that everybody can enjoy." John socialises with Michele, knows him well and says Michele's personality also distinguishes him from others in his industry. "Fashion is known for people being divas and being grand," John says, "and I can think of a lot of fashion designers I wouldn't want to spend five minutes with, probably 90 per cent of them. And he's just very down-to-earth."

Michele with Elton John and John’s partner David Furnish at a Gucci launch in London. “He’s just very down-to-earth,” John says of the designer.Credit:Getty Images

Jared Leto, Elton John: this wasn't Michele's crowd before 2015, because for most of his career – first at the Italian knitwear brand Les Copains, then at Fendi, then at Gucci, where he designed bags for Tom Ford before rising to become an associate designer to Ford's successor, Frida Giannini – he was only modestly known outside the companies he worked for. That changed in a blink, in one of the most unexpected and consequential fashion stories of the last quarter-century.

Ford's Gucci was a sensation, its air of hedonism and hypersexuality in perfect sync with the prosperity and libido that defined Bill Clinton's US presidency, but during the Giannini years, from 2005 through 2014, the label lost its mooring and its lustre. It didn't turn heads. It didn't prompt talk. Above all, it didn't communicate anything specific about its time.

Michele's Gucci, in contrast, is engaged in a consistently spirited and occasionally profound conversation with the zeitgeist, drawing from it, adding to it and revolutionising fashion in the process. Young consumers plant their flags and sculpt their images on social media, so Gucci, under Michele, does too. They expand and even explode the old parameters around gender, sexual identity, race and nationality, and Michele takes that journey with them, even leads them on it, giving them a uniform for it, a visual vocabulary with which to express it. The emotional genius of what he has done is to affirm their searching. The commercial genius is to create totems for it and, in the process, democratise what we historically called "luxury goods", a phrase too haute and hoary for the party he's throwing.

François-Henri Pinault, the chairman and CEO of Kering, the luxury conglomerate that owns Gucci, says before Michele took the reins, the problem at Gucci wasn't really sales, which remained respectable. "The perception of Gucci as a fashion authority, as one of the trendsetters, was declining," he says. He fired both Giannini and the company's CEO, who was also her romantic partner and the father of her child, and started over, bringing in the Italian businessman Marco Bizzarri as a new CEO and charging him with finding Giannini's replacement – in all likelihood, a fashion nova from another label.

When Bizzarri met Michele, then 42, for coffee one day in late December 2014, he was just trying to learn more about the company. Michele, he tells me, "certainly wasn't on the list of candidates". But they talked and talked – about the more joyful culture that the company needed, about history and art and life, about how fashion is so much more than merchandise. The conversation spanned three hours, and when Bizzarri contacted him almost immediately afterwards to ask for more time to talk, Michele realised that he had joined the roster. Bizzarri then laid down a challenge that became fashion legend. Gucci was about to present its new autumn 2015 menswear collection, and Giannini had essentially finished it. What if they scratched it and swapped in a collection by Michele?

He had a week: five days for the clothes (36 looks in all) and two days for the staging of the runway show, every last detail of which, from the models to the seating arrangement, Michele subsequently changed. "It was a way for me to see if Alessandro was willing to take risks," Bizzarri recalls, "because considering the kind of turnaround that I had in mind, I needed a person who was willing, like me, to take big risks – and maybe make big mistakes. If he was going to tell me no, then I didn't want to be with someone who was risk-averse."

Michele was emboldened partly by his knowledge of the size and skill of the design team at Gucci. But mostly, he just didn't think about the insanity of what he was trying to pull off. "Somebody gave me the chance to do something beautiful, and when you are working on something beautiful, you don't feel the pressure," he says. "I work to create something that is in my brain, and I don't feel like I have to impress people outside."

The result, unveiled in mid-January 2015, was where the pussy bows came in, along with other necklines and fillips usually associated with womenswear. He used both female and male models, so interchangeable in their looks that they became a grand, genderless blur. They wore berets, spectacles, scarves. Androgyny cosied up to cheeky intellectualism, and in a slightly off-kilter palette: an announcement of his willingness to play with colour more daringly than his forebears at Gucci had. These weren't his boldest hues, which would come later, but they were surprising, under-appreciated ones: the gunmetal end of the blue spectrum, the rustier shades of brown, each sometimes throwing a pure, vivid red into more brilliant relief.

At the show's end, instead of taking a solo bow, Michele brought his whole team on-stage with him, which was another declaration that a new day had dawned.

Only then did the nerves kick in. "I'm not shy in my private life, but I'm really shy when I have to go out in front of a lot of people," he says. "I'm more than shy. I'm terrified." But the applause, he remembers, "was like the biggest hug I've ever felt in my lifetime."

Some fashion insiders muttered privately that Gucci had gone mad. But both Pinault and Bizzarri were impressed by Michele's instinct to transplant his own quirks and obsessions into the brand. It gave his designs authenticity and palpable emotion. "He's one of those guys who, despite the size of the brand, despite the power of the brand, says, 'This is my personal creative universe, and I will work with that and the icons and symbols of the brand to create something new,' " Pinault explains. "And he was right."

The success that Gucci has had with that approach was a factor in Pinault's decision earlier this year to appoint the unknown 32-year-old British designer Daniel Lee as the new creative director of Bottega Veneta, which Kering also owns. "I asked him about his own personal aesthetic," Pinault says, referring to Lee, "and then tried to find if there was any compatibility between the designer and the brand."

The gender fluidity of Michele's work was what drew the lion's share of attention at first. "I was very surprised," he says, because it wasn't a considered provocation or political statement. "I thought that it was such a normal thing." It was happening in the world; it needed to happen in fashion: "This is not a time when fashion can stay inside a box."

Popular culture certainly wasn't staying inside that box; just a year earlier, the pioneering television dramedy Transparent had debuted to enormous interest and huge acclaim, and less than six months later, Caitlyn Jenner would appear on the cover of Vanity Fair. The LGBT consonant cluster was being elongated, litigated and traded in for more flexible banners like queer and genderqueer, and "binary" was suddenly a dirty word. Fashion hadn't fully reckoned with that. Michele did – intuitively, intelligently and expansively.

Alessandro Michele with his team on the runway after his first Gucci show. Credit:Getty Images

That was hardly all that distinguished him. Both the clothes and the voluminous notes that he distributes at the shows betray an erudition and a roving, restless mind that have a lot do with his deep roots in Rome. He grew up in the heart of the city, to parents who revered the arts and had the resources to enjoy them and expose him and his sister to them. His mother was an assistant to an Italian movie executive, and thus steeped in the world of cinema, while his father, a technician for the airline Alitalia, was a sculptor in his spare time.

"I walked through these antique ruins from the very first day of my life," he tells me when I visit him there in June. We sit on a green velvet sofa under a dazzling coffered ceiling in his office in a palazzo that was built in the early 16th century according to plans by Raphael. It's now Gucci's design headquarters.

Rome is overflowing with the archetypes and iconography of various epochs, layering them, cluttering them, bringing them into collision. When you step out of Gucci's Renaissance digs and glance to the right, you can see a bridge over the Tiber lined with baroque sculptures designed by Bernini and, on the far side, the cylindrical hulk of Castel Sant'Angelo, built in the second century by the Roman emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for his family. All of this visibly informs Michele's perspective and style. "I spent time with my dad not in the park, not playing sports, but just going to museums," he tells me. "So I spent time in front of these beautiful statues and all these faces and bodies."

"Rome is in Alessandro's veins," says Elisabetta Proietti, who taught him when he was a student at the Accademia Costume & Moda, a three-year school with a single program in both fashion and costume design just a few short cobbled blocks from the Gucci headquarters. Proietti is continually struck by the impact that the school's dual focus had on his work. To produce costumes, she says, you must be fluent in the gradations of the past, and Michele's collections for Gucci are indeed like glorious excavations – the fashion equivalent of archaeological digs (here the Elizabethan, there the Victorian, a nod to tsarist Russia, a wink at Ziggy Stardust) narrated in a century-hopping, decade-scrambling vocabulary of flowing caftans and boxy jumpsuits, floral and animal prints and brocades. His fascination with yesteryear is even more intense than his and other designers' more common flirtations with the present pop culture. And it's coupled with his insatiable appetite for reading, roving, learning. "He's interested in everything," Proietti says. "He's extremely, extremely curious."

Hari Nef recalls that when she first met Michele, at his request, over dinner in West Hollywood at the Chateau Marmont, she had recently graduated from Columbia University, "this program where I had been required to read Virginia Woolf and the Greek tragedies and Homer and Aeschylus. These were all fresh in my head, bouncing around." Michele was game. They bounced around in his head, too. "Frankly," Nef tells me, "these were nerdy topics I was rarely able to engage with people in the fashion industry about."

The "fashion industry" isn't something Michele cares to dwell on or in. Among the reasons he favours Rome, he says, is he's unlikely to bump into the designers, journalists, publicists and celebrities who define that demi-monde. His thoughts aren't contaminated by what is deemed trendy. "I want the separation," he says. "I need the separation. I'm not really inspired from fashion. I started from other points of view."

His longtime romantic partner, Giovanni Attili, is a professor of urban planning whose scholarship has focused on such subjects as the Haida Nation, an Indigenous tribe in British Columbia. Michele and Attili don't steal away to Tuscany or the Amalfi Coast for breathers. Instead, their holiday home teeters – literally – atop a gorgeous, ludicrous butte of sorts called Civita di Bagnoregio in central Italy. The village has a year-round population of about a dozen, largely because the earth under it is crumbling and the structures require constant maintenance. "I love the house because it's like it's falling down every year," Michele says. "You don't know how long it will be there. And you don't care. It's a reflection of our life, you know?"

On the inside of his left bicep, he has a tattoo of Attili's nickname, Vanni, while his own, Lallo, is tattooed in the same writing and place on his right arm. They're a matching set. The couple met 13 years ago, over the internet, in a funny way. Michele had just gotten a new laptop, and a friend was showing him how the Facebook precursor Myspace functioned, insisting that he sign up.

Models carried replicas of their heads at Gucci’s autumn 2018 fashion show in Milan.Credit:Getty Images

"I was aghast at these kinds of things," he says, but he played along, connecting with one of his friend's 700 acquaintances – Attili – because of his profile picture. "It was just the view of a beautiful landscape in Canada," Michele recalls.

As the two exchanged messages, Michele remarked that he had no idea what Attili looked like. Attili, amused, pointed out that his face was right there, in that landscape. "I didn't realise," Michele says, "that if you clicked on the picture and made it larger, there was a little guy inside. I didn't know I had the possibility to get inside that picture. I was really bad."

Which is strange, because one of the hallmarks of Gucci under Michele is how clever it is about social media and what a commanding presence it has there. Michele has more than 400,000 followers on Instagram, where he posts a hypnotic array of pictures that underscore how readily his designs, with their embroidered symbols and explicit pop culture references, translate into viral images.

That's integral to the traction that Gucci has found with young consumers. "If you're constantly documenting yourself, you want to be wearing things that are a little over-the-top or statement-oriented," says Phillip Picardi, who was until recently the head of Teen Vogue. Michele makes that possible. "He's managed to do maximalism in a very chic way, and that's perfect for your Instagram grid or your Instagram story." The adolescent protagonist of the critically acclaimed independent movie Eighth Grade, released in July in the United States, ends each of her YouTube videos by saying, "Gucci." It's her equivalent of "cool".

In Rome, I watch Michele work with about a dozen colleagues on his spring 2019 menswear collection. Boxes upon boxes of jewellery crowd the tables where they sit. A kaleidoscope of fabric swatches dangles from the walls, and there's an easel of potential T-shirt designs that reveal a current fixation on Dolly Parton, her 1973 song Jolene and the movie The Bride of Frankenstein. I have no idea how they all hang together – but then I don't think that I'm supposed to.

Four male models charting varying degrees of androgyny wander in and out, quickly changing clothes. Some of their shorts have billows and pleats that evoke skirts. A shiny long-sleeved shirt and an even shinier jacket look as if they're made from hot-pink and turquoise plastic. The wispiest of the models, his long hair gathered in a bun, appears in a pale mauve shirt with traditionally feminine construction, burgundy slacks with wide hips and, over them, a white jockstrap. As Michele fusses with sleeve lengths and frets over colour combinations, Björk's Utopia album plays in the background. (Naturally, he designed her outfit for the video of the album's first single, The Gate.) The word I hear him use most often suggests the playful attitude that he brings to bear on everything he designs. It's not bello, or "beautiful". It's carino – "cute".

At one point, I ask him which of his collections he was most pleased with – which one expressed exactly what he wanted it to. He cites the collection with the dragon, his autumn 2018 womens- and menswear show. It was titled Cyborg, and the dragon wasn't the half of it. Several models carried replicas of their own heads. Others had masks obscuring their faces.

The clothes kept pace with that eccentricity: royal blue turbans, a multitiered black pagoda hat and colourful patterned head scarves. Rhinestones galore. The plainest suit and the palest jacket had Major League Baseball insignia, just because; a ruby sweater with sleeves that looked like enormous, fuzzy dust mops had "Paramount Pictures", with the iconic mountaintop image, across its chest. He says that he was contemplating the nature of identity today: how everything from the poses you strike on social media to the accessibility of cosmetic surgery allows you to hide, expose or wholly transform yourself.

"It's like a laboratory, you know?" he says. "Your life can be like a laboratory. In the past, the idea of being human was what the earth and nature gave to you." That's not so anymore. He calls this era "post-human", explaining that "you can really manipulate everything. It's pretty scary, but it's also pretty interesting. You can lead different lives. You can decide to be different things."

And fashion must reflect that, too. By Michele's reckoning, it can no longer be a leash, tethering you to someone else's ideal. It has to be a licence, setting you free and giving you the tools to figure out your own. "Fashion now is like an old lady that is dying on a bed," he said in Harper's Bazaar last year. "I think we can let this old lady die."

I ask him if that makes what he is doing post-fashion. He ponders that for a few seconds, letting it sink in.

"Probably it's true," he says, "because in a way, it's like, I don't care about fashion. I'm trying to say that fashion is a platform. The way you look is the way you live." No stranger can decree that. It comes together incrementally and sometimes haphazardly, in a fitful and imperfect process of discovery, the way every story and every city does. Why pretend otherwise? Why not just celebrate it?

Edited version of a story first publish in The New York Times T Magazine. © 2018 The New York Times

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