Hubert Burda Media

Game Changer

Barely a year in the hot seat, Gucci's creative director ALESSANDRO MICHELE is shaking things up every opportunity he gets

Game Changer

As they say, the only constant is change. And there is no place where this is more apparent than in fashion — where it's always about the now, the new and the next.

At Gucci, creative director Frida Giannini's earlier-than-expected exit early in the year was not without first readying its Autumn/Winter 2015 menswear collection. But Gucci, in its attempt to distance itself from the past, decided a whole new collection was in order even though they had only five days to curtain call. Yet, no detail, from the set and the models to the seating arrangement, was spared.

The job of producing a replacement collection fell on Giannini's 43-year-old deputy Alessandro Michele, who also had to present a womenswear collection the following month. Working on the two collections simultaneously, he reportedly drew inspiration from his own vintage pieces, antique textiles, even carpets and upholstery.

Heralding the birth of a new Gucci, his menswear presentation had people sitting up to take notice from the very first look: A model with long loose locks in a scarlet-red silk satin georgette pussybow blouse, loose black trousers and leather sandals with khamsin fur. The next also strutted in a pussybow blouse, this time paired with a cable-knit vest, beret, spectacles, satchel and leather slippers with kangaroo fur. The third wore a blouse so sheer, you could see the tattoo on his chest. The fourth, again with the long blonde locks. But this time, it was definitely a girl in a suit. In fact, with a total of four female models in its menswear presentation, it felt like Gucci couldn't wait a month to introduce Michele's new gender-neutral vision.

The bohemian parade of pasty-faced characters with cut-glass cheekbones looked like they walked straight off a Wes Anderson movie set. But it was the soundtrack of A Single Man that they walked to. It would be the very last vestige of Tom Ford's legacy, whose hyper-sexualised aura lingered on through Giannini's nine-year tenure. Some believe it was Michele's fond farewell to his former boss' influence.

The send-off culminated at his first womenswear show. Though it was staged at Gucci's usual venue in Piazza Oberdan, the area was transformed into a train station, which seemed to symbolise both a departure from the former Gucci vixen, and the arrival of a new, younger Gucci waif.

For the show, Michele chose enigmatic faces, barely made-up, with tresses worn loose and casual (two models sported pastel pink hair). You will recognise five male models from the show before, and the vintage-flavoured clothes that evoked an ethereal air of weirdness and romanticism that had gone from geek chic to granny chic.

So eager were they to carry out the boy-meets-girl-meets-boy concept that in May, the company marked down the last batch of Giannini's designs (as much as 50 percent in China), to make way for Michele's goods.

WHO'S THAT GUY?

Michele and Giannini have much in common. They both attended the Accademia Costume & Moda in Rome, and worked at Fendi before joining Gucci in 2002. While Giannini oversaw its handbags department before being promoted to head of accessories, then taking over Ford's role in 2005 when he left, Michele oversaw leather goods, shoes, jewellery and homeware. In 2006, he was appointed design director of leather goods and five years later, Giannini's associate.

Head honchos at Gucci were long aware of Michele's potential, tapping on his passion for interiors and décor to take on the additional role of creative director at Richard Ginori in September last year. The luxury house had acquired the distressed historic brand, once touted as the Ferrari of porcelain, in a bid to expand into handcrafted tableware.

Initially credited for leading the menswear design team, his official appointment as Gucci's creative director was announced late-January 2015. A double promotion within four months?

“I thought: Why should I look for someone else when he can translate the heritage — and when the values of Gucci are in his veins?” Marco Bizzarri explains to Vogue.com. Bizzarri himself had only recently assumed the position of chief executive. Parent company Kering's CEO François-Henri Pinault concurred in an interview with Vogue.co.uk: “We were extremely surprised, touched by [Michele's] passion, his intimate view of the house — and after long reflection we decided to give him a chance.”

Whereas Giannini struggled with her representation of Gucci — perhaps she wasn't, as so often accused, following Ford's formula; she was simply so enamoured of the Gucci girl he created — the unlikely heir ultimately had the audacity to throw out everything Tom Ford and chart a new direction.

BLURRED LINES

“Night and day. I am trying to cause a little revolution inside the company — to push another language, a different way to talk about beauty and sexiness, which is an old word. It's about sensuality now,” says Michele.

To convey Gucci's new mood, he swapped Giannini's usual collaborators, photographers Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, for Glen Luchford. “It's not easy to live now,” Michele muses, “I think we need to dream. So I wanted to present an idea of something romantic, in dream time — like in a movie.”

After years of banal in-your-face sexuality, some see his reinterpretation as repressed sexual desire (as suggested by the backstory of his Cruise 2016 presentation in June, where the girl plays it coy with the boy who follows her). The collections tell of another translation. It's not about putting boys in girls' clothes, or girls in boys' clothes — some of the apparel are simply asexual. At a time when transgender icon Caitlyn Jenner can openly talk about her struggle with gender identity to much public love and support, and with the US Supreme Court's landmark ruling legalising same-sex marriages, insisting on gender definitions would appear almost archaic.

Michele gave his take when he sent the androgynous Antonia Wilson out twice — on both menswear and womenswear runways — in similar silk satin blouses with skinny black bows. It's easy to assume that he was cutting corners to deliver both men's and women's collections within a short time frame, but really, he was epitomising Gucci's new aesthetic which transcends gender differences.

“I think it was absolutely what needed to be done,” enthuses Sarah Rutson, Net-a-Porter's vice-president of global buying, in an interview with Style.com. “Fashion needs energy. Fashion needs sometimes to scratch at a sore — rip off a scab, rip off a plaster. And, you know, no one's talked about Gucci in a long time. They've got to re-engage a new dialogue, so I'm wholly supporting it.”

If anything, Michele could not have produced a more realistic illustration of how people now shop. “We get men buying into women's brands such as Céline and we have women buying into the Givenchy men's collections,” Lianna Mann, vice-president of womenswear, home and jewellery at Hong Kong-based retailer Lane Crawford, observes.

“What we have noticed from a retail perspective is that a lot of women are shopping on the men's floors,” Linda Hewson, creative director of Selfridges, told Trendwatching.com. The British department store has taken this trend seriously, configuring genderless retail spaces, which could transform the shopping space of the future.

DO IT YOURSELF

“When I started the first collection, I was thinking not in terms of fashion but in terms of attitude, that sense of beauty which I tried to find for an old and beautiful and charming brand like Gucci,” says Michele.

That attitude has become the thread behind the seamless transition from his three collections to date. The clothes may look familiar, but it's the styling and the spirit that endow an appeal so aspirational you want to put them together yourself and wear it now.

Critics may point out that if Gucci's new looks can be reconstructed at a fraction of the price, why would customers wait months for the collection to hit stores? Also, how will long-time fans take to these new youth-infused wares?

“It's about styling,” Rutson reiterates. “Saint Laurent would not be doing the business it is doing — and in ready-to-wear — if that was not being sold to a large segment of women of many ages, the young included. Our average-aged customer is not going to have a problem with [Gucci's] collection when we break it down and restyle it. But I do know we'll open up a new customer base with it, and that is what's important,” she says.

This “post-production” effect retires design to the backseat. The originality of designer offerings always comes under question anyway, and in this era of social media where we all want to be one-of-a-kind, we'll just have to assemble our looks ourselves.

Michele, who styles his own shows, champions the concept. It stems from his mother, “a super crazy lady, from this super stylish movie world” who's a first assistant to a film executive. “There is something eccentric about people like her that we miss today, so I built my fashion show around the idea of individuality. The way you dress is really the way you feel, the way you live, what you read, your choices. That's what I want to put into Gucci.”

This explains the styling-heavy ensembles. Clothes look nothing out of the ordinary, but are imbued with personality via accessories like Where's Wally beanies, berets, nerdy spectacles, heirloom jewellery and signet rings like the ones that adorn Michele's fingers.

EVERYDAY LUXURY

Compared to Giannini's jetset glam, Michele's approach is more pedestrian — his Autumn/Winter 2015 ad campaign literally has models in buses and trains. For Cruise 2016, Michele also gave the usual single runway format (another Ford leftover) a complete overhaul by having his models walk across the street into the garage show venue. It all makes Gucci feel within reach, like it's something you can relate to.

But like everything else about his work, there is more than meets the eye. Whereas it may look like the new Gucci girl has ventured up into the attic to play dress-up with Gran and Gramp's old outfits, it's not simply a case of nostalgia. Rather, it is his interpretation of what fashion is, and the idea of ultramodernity.

“The contemporary is the untimely” Michele explains in his show note for the womens' runway show. The collection does not “limit itself to a simple recording of the present, but rather it embodies that elusive threshold between the ‘no longer' and the ‘not yet'... where relics of the past merge with signs of the future.” Jackets are made cooler with three-quarter sleeves. Heirloom trinkets are made quirkier with unexpected velvet centrepieces. Some pieces bear engineered pleats and deliberate creases, all because “I love the idea that a dress has a memory,” he says.

Michele didn't leave Gucci's calling cards behind either; instead, he turned them into renewed objects of desire. The “Double G” now sits side-by-side on the belt while the iconic horsebit loafers comes reincarnated as shaggy haired renditions. The updated monogram bag is the new Dionysus Bag with GG Supreme print — his take on the Gucci G motif, that is further embellished with a double Tiger-head closure. Some bags are decorated with hand-painted geraniums or three-dimensional embroidered bees — an artisanal edge that endows an elevated sense of luxury.

“I love couture, but the other side of me loves the street, and I think the mix of these two can create something new,” says Michele. “When I go to New York and London, I love to see how very brave the young people are — they have no rules. Even the super chic ladies of the past, like Princess Irene Galitzine, had super modern attitudes. Today they'd all be into street style.”