Sometimes the stars align. They certainly have for Alessandro Michele and Gucci. That the brand’s creative director is WWD’s Newsmaker of the Year and fashion’s preeminent fascination du jour intrigues, all the more so because of his accidental ascent to the pinnacle of influence. Michele only got his shot when the top job opened up following Frida Giannini’s exit because of a chance assignment to host then-newly installed chief executive officer Marco Bizzarri, and explain to him the processes of the design staff.
At that point, Michele was (now famously) a behind-the-scenes studio guy, toiling to help realize someone else’s creative vision, one it turns out, that could not have been further from his own. Just being asked to show the new boss around might have ended there, were not Bizzarri a rare breed of modern ceo, one who believes passionately that, at the highest echelons of fashion, creativity fuels commerce. The two bonded, Michele impressed Bizzarri with his aesthetic fervor and got the job. “Intuition in this case is superimportant, even more than rationality,” Bizzarri told WWD’s CEO Summit in October.
Michele made an immediate impact — even before his appointment as creative director was confirmed in January 2015. Earlier that month, for Gucci’s fall 2015 men’s show, the designer took the lead on a collection that rocked the fashion world and beyond with a show that brought the topic of gender fluidity into mainstream-fashion focus. Not that he’s taking credit for unmasking a percolating cultural topic. “Gender fluidity probably was not [prominent] in fashion, but it was a lot outside,” Michele said earlier this month. “I mean, outside, the world was really ready.”
Since then, his complete reinvention of the brand has awed. Yet while Michele’s Gucci may seem all madcap eccentricity in its overstatement and complicated mash-ups of references from current street to centuries past, there’s an underlying savvy. Case in point: Its collaboration, introduced for pre-fall 2018, with suddenly cool and youth-oriented Major League Baseball. Then there’s Michele’s liberal use of the house iconography, down to the last triple stripe. “I’m trying to use every single symbol and every single code of the brand…” he said. “I try to break the chains of these brands.”
Michele has certainly done his part to loosen the chains of red-carpet boredom, celebrities embracing his highly decorative whimsy as a glorious alternative to the standard, mundane mermaid dress and ballgown.
Along the way, Gucci’s numbers have skyrocketed, organic sales up a remarkable near-50 percent for the third quarter alone. And Michele has continued in the forefront of the cultural moment. For example, in October, Gucci confirmed it will stop using fur, a move followed on Friday by Michael Kors.
Whether Michele is a genuine seer, ever daring one step of ahead of his time, or merely a brilliant chronicler of the zeitgeist — doesn’t matter. He has influenced fashion from Zara’s windows on up, while making his voice resonant in the larger culture This is Michele’s moment — and why he has been named WWD’s Newsmaker of the Year.
Earlier, this month, he chatted via computer from Gucci’s headquarters.
WWD: Let’s start with the elephant in the room, well, on the screen. I had a problem with the show. Not the clothes, which I couldn’t see, but the strobe in the dark.
Alessandro Michele: First of all, I totally understand. I mean, sometimes the way I try to explain what I had to do, it’s pretty hard and could be not clear for people. It’s not a problem; I am open. It’s my way to work, it’s my way to express myself, it’s my way to express my vision. I am totally free in this way. You’re free to say that, OK, it could be a problem.
Basically, I used the fog to express my point of view. It’s a lyrical way to express something that doesn’t exist. Like, in some movies of Federico Fellini, you see the same. I mean it’s fog and a foggy atmosphere, a lot of crazy things. Because from the clouds, from the fog, everything can come out. It’s a way to put a glow between the space, the objects, the people, the light, the dress, the girls, the guys. It means that you are in a place that doesn’t exist in reality. I understand that sometimes with the light, [it might be] a little bit too much in this kind of installation. I understand that it could be sometimes hard to understand. But it’s my personal way to let the people of fashion, or the people that want to see the show, understand what I want to say. I’m also less interested [in showing everything clearly] because we live in an era where you can really look at everything when you want [online]. So I prefer to let you feel something.…
I mean, it could be possible that the next season, everything will be superclear and perfectly visible. But [for spring], I wanted to create a kind of an atmosphere that doesn’t exist, and fog helped me a lot. It’s a language. I understand that, at the end, it could be a lot. But this is the vision.
WWD: Creating a place that doesn’t exist. Is that your overall philosophy or do you think it’s just right for the moment now? We live in such harsh times.
A.M.: Honestly, I want to say that it’s almost my way to be. I love the things that you are not really sure if they exist or they don’t.…So the highest expression of creativity for me is that you are sure that you are looking at something that probably is not real — or it is. The way you look at something could be unreal.
I mean the words unreal, illusion — it’s like a poem. You can’t touch it, but you can feel its soul. It’s a big discussion.
WWD: In your press conference before the show, you said clothes are the bridge that help you explain the idea. Then in Florence, to my colleague, you said, “Eccentricity is not by accident,” and that eccentricity helps to convey your ideas.
A.M.: The clothes are like the costumes of a movie. They can let you understand a lot about a person, about a way that a person feels. I love to let the clothes talk, the face talk. There is always a big discussion between a face and a dress, a state of mind and the way you look, a color that you wear and the way you feel, a shape of a coat with the way that you want to cover yourself.
Eccentricity means that there are no limits, that you don’t need a uniform. Eccentricity is a word that transmits the idea of freedom. You can be really eccentric just with a white T-shirt. You can be very revolutionary with a white T-shirt, if you think what a white T-shirt meant in the past in our society, [and where you can wear it now], with a pair of sneakers. So eccentricity means something really crazy, but what’s crazy? Crazy is something that is in the wrong place but on the right body.
WWD: Do you approach a show as if you’re costuming a movie?
A.M.: Yes. Every time that I show something, it’s like a chapter of this movie. I hate to disconnect completely from the season before because from my point of view, fashion needs to have a kind of relation with the frame that is bigger than just one season.
If every season is [completely] different from other seasons, it is very difficult to give to a brand a soul. If we think about some really relevant brand in the past, we have in our mind something very precise, something very clear. If you think about Mr. Dior, you think about something that is very concentrated, an attitude. Again, it’s like a big movie and every time it’s like there is a little chapter.
So I am trying to give to the brand the idea that we are building a contemporary way to be a Gucci girl or a Gucci boy, or a Gucci woman or a Gucci man. I quite love to give the right fresco to the brand.
WWD: I love that.
A.M.: Yes, [give] to the brand. So it could be possible that next year it will be someone else in the company. Probably, they’d start something different. I don’t know.
WWD: Woah! Someone else in the company, possibly next year?
A.M.: No, no, no, no, no, no! But it could be possible that in the future someone else will be here. It could be, why not? I mean, you know the fashion system. I mean, it’s so strange.
Over the last few years, [so many] brands tried to put a [different creative] head on top of the brand, just give a new life. But this idea that we have to change the face of the brand every five, six, seven years — for me, it’s pretty strange. Because if you are a customer, if you are a fan, you want to recognize yourself in the brand that you choose.
That’s why I respect Karl [Lagerfeld] so much. He is the only one who had given, and is still giving, a lot to one brand. And you can recognize [over] a long time — the same spirit, in the same attitude. It is something very modern. It you are a Chanel customer, you can probably keep all the pieces from the last 20 years. Now, I am not sure if you can do the same thing with other brands. So that’s why Karl is the winner.
WWD: Karl’s remarkable.
A.M.: He is the only one.
WWD: And more than 50 years at Fendi, where you worked.
A.M.: My experience with the brand was really impressive. Fendi is the only Italian brand — it felt like a couture studio. It was not the kind of studio that we usually see in fashion, in prêt-a-porter. It was very open to research. It was full of different input from outside because Karl and Silvia [Fendi], they really loved and they still love to inject always something new. They are very cool. So that studio was the best place to learn how to be a creative person. I mean, it was everything, you know? When Karl arrived in Rome to work on the show, it was really a big moment. He is the youngest person that I ever met in my life. It’s like he’s always a 25-year-old guy.
WWD: It’s incredible, the way he works, the way he brings new ideas and new concepts.
A.M.: He is the coolest and most unpredictable person that you can meet in your life. Being with Karl and Sylvia and the experience of Fendi, it let me learn that creativity is something that can help you in terms of power. Creativity was the energy that really drove the company at the time. So being young with Sylvia and Karl and all the Fendi crew was like a gift. It was the best school ever.
WWD: When did you become aware of yourself as a creative person?
A.M.: It’s not really easy to answer this question. Because I know that this word “creativity” exists, [and] everybody told me that I’m very creative, but I’m not so sure that I’m so creative. I’m just what I am. I remember when I was a kid, I felt very free to do what I wanted to do. I just try to do what I have in my mind.
WWD: From my reading, it sounds as if your father had quite an influence on you.
A.M.: My father was an artist. He really influenced my life a lot. So did my mom. They fascinated me when I was a kid because my mom was obsessed with movies and my dad, with art and other things. And nature and animals and crazy things. So I think that I have been so lucky because I grew up with all of that.
WWD: At the WWD CEO Summit in October, Marco Bizzarri spoke about the importance of creativity with a passion we seldom hear from chief executive officers.
A.M.: The relationship with Marco is probably one of the most important points of my work. Marco is the person that really believed in me, and he gave me the power — it’s not easy to translate in English. He gave me the power to express what I wanted to say. He taught me a lot, and he convinced me that I had to do exactly what I wanted to do without compromise.
Marco is the perfect ceo for every creative person because he really believes in creativity. He needs to translate what it means to be a brand in fashion outside the catwalk. But he tries to protect your creativity and your vision and your point of view, and he never tries to talk with me about something different. He didn’t try to push me on another way. He really wants to know what I’m trying to do, so we share a lot.
He is really fascinating because he is in a way very creative in his job. He said, “I am not a creative person.” But I can say that he is creative; you can be creative in every single [area of] work. You can change the language, you can change the point of view, you can change everything in your job. So this is creativity.
WWD: That takes courage.
A.M.: Marco for me is a kind of a revolutionary ceo. I’ve seen how many times the ceo and the creative director fight, they discuss a lot. I don’t know if I’m really lucky but I love Marco. Marco is like my mentor. If I have a problem, I call him. He is the person who let’s me feel really free. He is the person that if I have a problem, if I have something really crazy to say, I call him and that’s it.
Marco is trying to build a new way to be in this market, and he is really brave. You need to be really brave because you risk a lot every day, especially at a brand like Gucci, with a lot of zeros. He is like a gambler. He loves to win without compromise. Every time I say, “Marco, I want to do this next week or next year,” he says, “You have to do it now.” I want to work with him forever.
WWD: How important is curiosity?
A.M.: Curiosity is on top of the list. It’s the most important thing in our life. It’s something that drives our hearts. If curiosity dies in our love or our job, you lose energy. If you are not curious with your boyfriend or with your girlfriend it means that the relationship — it’s done. And in this job, it’s really important.
WWD: Speaking of being curious about everything, you have at different times stated as your inspirations ornamentation and street and renaissance and the classical period and British culture and rock ‘n’ roll. That’s a whole lot. Tell me how all of those have coalesced into your Gucci aesthetic.
A.M.: It’s not easy to say. For me, in this era, beauty is something less clear [than in the past]. That’s why to talk about my way to look at beauty, it’s more than saying you need a piece of Renaissance with something that looks like punk. It’s like for Stravinsky with the notes. You are using those notes, but the result of this apparent confusion — it’s a new music. The idea that when you are talking about fashion or an aesthetic, you have to be inspired by just one thing is just — for me, that is close to the idea of copying something.
It’s my language in this big box that is Gucci. Gucci does not really have an aesthetic code except for bags — and a state of mind: the idea that in the past when you bought a Gucci suitcase or a Gucci bag you were rich. [You had] the craftsmanship, the beautiful leathers, the history of the family.
WWD: Gucci has had a number of distinct realities. Your Gucci is unlike anything that preceded it in Gucci’s history and yet you are making very liberal use of house signatures — the stripes, the logo.
A.M.: I am trying to use every single symbol and every single code of the brand. I don’t want to change the codes, I just want to give them a new life. It is my way to let them talk again to the people. I try to break the chains of these symbols, in a way. Because the company used [specific] stripes for the suitcase, stripes for the bag, the blue, red, blue stripe. There were a lot of rules.
I am trying to let them talk again in a very contemporary way. I can put this kind of hieroglyphic in a beautiful way with, for example, different floral patterns. It’s like I am breaking the chains. We live in a world without rules. We are trying to live in a world that is open to everything. I am using the symbols like decorative pieces, in a very personal way. I care about the power they have, but I don’t care in the way that I am using them.
WWD: We live in a world without rules and yet there are rules. Are you at all concerned that the possibility of being called out for cultural appropriation will limit your creativity, and creativity in general?
A.M.: I don’t think that appropriation is something bad. Appropriation is that I wanted to use a piece, to be inspired from a piece of another culture. Culture is something open. The more it’s open, the more it belongs to this world. [But] I know that sometimes the use or appropriation of something is very complicated, because we live in a very complicated moment.
But from the creative point of view, appropriation for me is something beautiful. It [means this] is something that I love, that I adore, something that is not like me, that I am open to be inspired by, in a way.…For me, appropriation is very close to the idea that you are celebrating something.
WWD: How do you get that across in a world that has become so politically correct?
A.M.: I think that if you use your heart and you are trying to do something the right way.…It’s very complicated. But I think that in creativity, it’s something that happens in a very natural way. We are always very polite in the way that we approach culture diversity.…I try just to pick up the beauty of everything.
It’s very complicated, because you understand that you [offended] just at the end. You started with the best intentions. Like for Dapper Dan, for example, it was a big discussion. I mean, I adore him and I was one of his fans. So for me, in that case, it was just an honor to use his aesthetic in the Gucci show. It was my way to say, Gucci in a way belongs also to [others]; it’s not just our company.
So it was for me, the girl in the cruise show was like saying that Gucci loves you, and you are in the middle of the renaissance, and you are a piece of this renaissance. And for me it was quite, I don’t want to say “stupid,” but obvious to say that it was Dapper Dan. It was so clear that it was Dapper Dan. Like you saw Botticelli and you saw a lot of other references.
And so why I should have said at the time, “Guys, it’s coming — a Dapper Dan creation?” I mean it was a girl that looked exactly like her with the same hair, with the same dress.…After, I discovered it was like a disaster, like a bomb. And just to answer to your question, you start like a poet, with your heart, with the things that you love and you want just to take in front of the community.
I understand that it’s not easy. Now there is like a big conversation between everybody, and I don’t want to stop it. I mean, like you said at the very beginning of our conversation, you said, “I want to start from our point, me and you, during the show.” I mean, I was not angry with you. You were saying what you wanted to say and that’s it. Thank God that we are free to say what we want to say.
So I knew that after the Gucci cruise, we had kind of a big problem. I mean, we had a big success, but we had on another side like a bomb. At the end, I met in person Mr. Dapper Dan. We are, in a way, friends.
So this is life. You try to do something in a good way.…So to me it was like an homage.
WWD: On your design process, take me through how you approach a show.
A.M.: I start from an image, I start from an idea. It could come from whatever. There is not really a rule. It could be a movie. It could be possible that I go to an exhibition, that I talk with a friend of mine and he talks to me about the history of a family, of a person.
I always try to look at the brand from another point of view. It’s like I start the same movie or the same history of the same family one time from the [perspective of] the granny, one time from the youngest nephew. So I try to inject inside the things that came in my creative process. And after, it’s like I am walking inside the idea, it’s like that I am trying, in the three months that I have, to pick up from outside the things that I think are relevant. And I try to create the costume from the history, these stories.
WWD: Let me ask about individual garments — there’s so much going on. How do you decide what goes where, which piece gets a dragon, which gets a tiger, where the flowers go?
A.M.: I start with an aesthetic idea (and push it). What would happen if this beautiful girl with this amazing Victorian dress goes to Elizabeth Street in New York and buys the most crazy Lycra leggings? Probably she doesn’t want to wear just the dress; she wants to put the leggings under this beautiful dress. And so I try to work on a print on these leggings, to dream about how a young girl can be creative in the way she decides to go out. For me it’s important to understand what this girl is doing.
WWD: So you see the character first?
A.M.: The character, it’s the first point. It’s a very complicated way to work because after, when I have the pieces, I refine everything with embroidery with this chinoiserie, with this kind of flowers, with this kind of color. It’s like that, one girl and one boy after another. I want to give you an unbelievable fresco of something contemporary. When I think of the young generation, they are less concentrated on just only one attitude. They are more open to mix the things that they’ve found. So I am trying to give to Gucci a new language.
WWD: Too often in fashion, we see collections that look hurriedly assembled. You take a full three months?
A.M.: It’s a long process. You need to make the costumes of this crazy movie, you need to hear what is happening.
For example, when I was working on the cruise collection in London, I was talking about Victorian and I was talking about Cyndi Lauper and pop music and punk and what was happening in the last 100 years in London. At that point, you have to start to do the research. This is not easy. We also work in a very complicated way with the fabrics and everything. I mean, the research inside the collection is unbelievable. With fabrics, you can get crazy. It’s like you can drown in this ocean because we work with a lot of suppliers and a lot of factories. We always try to inject something contemporary inside this old way to create this brocade and jacquard. After, you have to create the shapes. One piece looks a little bit Victorian. But If you look really closely at the dress, the shoulders are a little bit Eighties and less Victorian.
I think I have the most talented group of designers. Because to work with me can be really fun but, it can be like a psychological test. At the beginning, they did not understand what I was doing. Now, they are completely into the story.
WWD: Yours is an open-minded approach.
A.M.: Fashion for a long time has been like a very rigid script. If you think of it in the Seventies, the Sixties, in the Fifties, in the Eighties, I think they had more freedom than what we’ve had in the last 10 years, after the 2000s. I think that the fashion industry was in a kind of — really a mess. Because the economy went really bad and everybody tried to push on the market more safety. You needed to follow the marketing. Now, I think that it’s the moment for us to start everything from the creativity. That’s why I feel so comfortable with Marco, because we share the same idea.
WWD: Let me ask you about another way that Gucci has made major news recently — no more fur.
A.M.: No fur.
WWD: I was in the store in Paris in October. There were amazing furs on very prominent display — on a gorgeous mink with huge intarsia rose. So through this past fall, fur has been very important to your Gucci. Were you a part of the decision to eliminate it?
A.M.: This is another huge discussion. I love fur. It has a big history in our culture. I worked for Fendi. I understand how unbelievable the work that you can do on a fur, like the most unbelievable masterpiece. It’s beautiful and fascinating because it’s a piece of nature. I used a lot, I mean, I used a lot. But at a certain point, I started to talk with a lot of people.
WWD: Was there a Stella McCartney influence in play?
A.M.: With me? No. It was just, I started to talk with people who said, “You love animals, you love nature. How you can manage the fur? Because you kill a lot of animals.” So I started to talk about this with Marco. He said, “I don’t want to say that you have to stop, but just to think about it.” And Jared Leto. We talk a lot because he was so convinced that fur [is wrong].
I know very well that there is a point where you have to decide. I spent a lot of time talking about it and trying to understand what was the right way to approach this problem. And at the end, I thought, it’s like when you have to stop to smoke. You know that it is something that is not good for you, but you love it. But it’s not good. So at the end, you just have to take your box of cigarettes and throw it in the bin and that’s it. Because after, you feel much better.
I feel very proud of myself because it was something that I really love, but I knew that it was not good. In creativity, there are a lot of challenges. Creativity means also that you have to change and be open to change.
So from the first moment that I stopped using fur — and it happened that one morning I just arrived in the office and I said to the guys, “We can’t use any more fur. I don’t want to use any more fur.” They were shocked, but they were really happy. So after one minute, we started to study something different, with a different texture, something [to make up for] what we were losing. It’s a good [moment] to do something different, to use a different language. It’s something that could be very powerful. I feel that I didn’t lose anything relevant.
WWD: You are WWD’s Newsmaker of the Year. In April, Time Magazine made you one of its 100 most influential people of the year. Are you aware of your influence?
A.M.: No. I am a person. I don’t have this perception that I am so influential. When I started, I started to do something authentic, and I started with this authenticity talking about what I am and what I was, and what I was inside one of the powerful brands on Earth. So I needed to say something authentic.
WWD: From your first collection, for men, you’ve done a great deal to drive the conversation on gender fluidity. Was that intentional?
A.M.: I was not thinking about gender fluidity. Gender fluidity probably was not [prominent] in fashion, but it was a lot outside. I mean, outside, the world was really ready. So no, I wasn’t self-conscious about what I was starting to do. I was starting from my vision. I am still from the same point.
I feel like I’m starting every day like the first day. I know just that the community now, it’s bigger than before. When I try to read what I receive on my Instagram, what I receive from the people in the street, this is beautiful. It’s powerful in the way that you feel that fashion is powerful. This is something that makes me feel really good because I love fashion.
WWD: You seem very appreciative of the position you’re in.
A.M.: I want to be like I am. So a 45-year-old man that loves beauty and loves to work with other people and loves to be honest and express exactly what I want to express. This is the only point. I am very, very honored that outside, people are understanding what I’m doing. So this is beautiful.