Few would have predicted the cosmic success that Florentine maison Gucci has enjoyed in the three short years since Alessandro Michele was handed the reigns to lead the waning house into a new future. Here was a man largely unknown outside of the brand he’d called home for more than a decade, plucked from his role as associate designer to then-Creative Director Frida Giannini and handed the top title, before being given two options: send out his predecessor’s autumn/winter 2015 menswear collection to face the world’s assembled fashion press; or scrap the lot and have only five days to create his own. Michele, it seems, is a fan of taking risks, choosing the latter and sending 36 looks down the runway only a handful of days later, on a folksy army of long-haired boys that couldn’t have been less Giannini Gucci if they tried.
Since that moment, at the beginning of 2015, Michele has made a habit of doing things his way. On the catwalks, gone are the hyper-masculine men and super-glamorous women that typified Giannini’s ultra-luxe aesthetic; in their place, that “ugly beauty” that so many girls want and so many guys puzzle over. In stores, racks of animal-embroidered knitwear, brazenly printed silks and bedazzled woollens have replaced the altogether cleaner lines of Gucci days past. And this has been no quiet assuage.
From day dot of Michele’s governance at the Italian firm there’s been a growing thunder of brash and brilliant optimism, one that has been fully supported by the man who offered the native Roman the commanding chair, Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri. Bizzarri has been vocal in his opinion of Michele’s talents, branding his contemporary vision for the house as vital to counteract a challenging market.
The rest of the industry seems quick to agree. “I was very excited about Alessandro Michele’s taking over the helm at Gucci,” Natalie Kingham, buying director at Matches.com, told us. “He has transformed the historic house into one of fashion’s most talked-about brands.”
This is undeniable. Michele has less wiped the Gucci slate clean, and more scrawled across every inch of it, with a rainbow of markers and an encyclopaedia of references that stretch from classical Greek mythology and Imperial China to ornithology and stained-glass windows.
For resort 2018, we found a patchwork of new influences in a show that had some screeching appropriation (see Michele’s homage to Harlem couturier Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day) and others simply salivating at the melting pot of fabrics, periods and patterns that weaved through the Palatine Gallery of the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. You’re likely to see Gucci addicts Margot Robbie, Yoyo Cao, Dakota Johnson and Jared Leto garbed in the brand’s regal-meets-kitsch pieces any day now.
It’s impressive that the label has enjoyed such a resurgence in popularity. “Michele has brought an eclectic, retro edge to the luxury fashion house, and each ornate design is impeccably crafted with the highest attention to detail,” Kingham explains, adding that Matches.com shoppers are always looking for something unique, something that feels fresh and invigorating. “Our customer is seeking out the new and the interesting. They respond well to brands that have a point of difference.”
It’s this switched-up aesthetic – this “point of difference” between Gucci of old and new, and other brands – which has really made the coffers swell, bringing a vitality to a label that had seen its sales shudder to a halt. True, there’s a decidedly retro mood to a lot of what the new Gucci offers, from the dazzling paisley prints and Lurex tights to the pussy-bow collars and oversize metal-frame glasses. Yet look closer and there’s a vast room of inspiration that’s been reworked and recombined in ways we haven’t been in the habit of seeing.
Going beyond a reframed image, Michele has also opened the door to millennials with a shrewd move that caters to the growing epidemic of wanting the new, wanting it now, and in a way no one else has: he’s offered them the choice of personalisation. “The way you dress is an expression of your personality,” Michele explains. “Men and women should feel genuinely free to enjoy self-expression.”
While other brands have made their own (notably earlier) foray into personalisation – see Burberry’s monogrammed scarfs, Bottega Veneta’s bespoke Knot bags and Louis Vuitton’s hand-painted luggage – Gucci is coming at it with all the flamboyance Michele has become known for.
May 2016 saw the label’s flagship store in Milan begin offering a Do It Yourself service, allowing Gucci lovers the chance to customise
the label’s signature Dionysus handbag with a treasure chest of patches – serpents, butterflies, lizards and more. Beyond the Dionysus, selected blazer, coat and tuxedo jacket styles can become “Gucci-fied” with changes to linings and trims.
Personalisation offers the key to young hearts (and wallets) that want the next big thing delivered in a one-of-a-kind shell, totally unique but pleasingly familiar. Gucci’s DIY salons have nailed that balance, ensuring anyone who ventures in will be getting something of their own that remains unquestionably touched by Michele’s visual fingerprint.
It is not just those on team sub-35 that are opting to customise. Three Michelin-starred chef Massimo Bottura is a firm fan of the DIY works, and a Gucci storyteller through and through. “The CEO of Gucci, Marco Bizarri, and I were friends since we were 14 years old,” Bottura tells me on a recent visit to Gucci’s Hong Kong flagship store.
“We spent five years of high school together, at the same desk. He approached me and we became very, very close again, after 20 years. I said, what are you going to do at Gucci, and he said, ‘I want to rebuild everything, the company is dropping drastically, we need to do something to rebuild the image’.”
That something – placing Michele at the helm of the maison – has certainly proved to be transformative. Why does Bottura think this is? “You have a contemporary vision, an obsession about quality, and obsession about little details – they make the difference. You have passion, you have history and you are contemporary. Frankly, it’s exactly the same as the way that I’m playing with food. The same philosophy. You think about the whole history you have and you get the best from the past into the future – not in a nostalgic way, but in a critical way.”
Treading the tightrope between the past and the future is something that has always been integral to Gucci’s DNA, and yet the full-throttle mood of Michele’s collections makes it more obvious than ever. Add the drive to DIY, and the line between old and new, designer and customer continues to blur. Perhaps the real question
is, how long can this maxed-out mood last?