When Alessandro Michele and I meet at his hotel in New York’s SoHo, after what has already been a long workday for him, he tells me that he almost added another layer to the day: On the way here, his people had to talk him out of taking a detour to de Vera, one of the many antiques stores he knows and adores in the city. “I mean, if you are a collector,” he says, “you find things everywhere. Also, if you go outside just to the pharmacy, you come back with something. It’s like you are a prisoner inside a bit of a dream. If I have one minute, I take my iPad and I spy everywhere.”
Michele is a magpie. Witness his Instagram feed, which regularly features object tableaux from his home in Rome; he voraciously gathers the artifacts of other centuries, be they Renaissance altar frontals, 1960s Adidas kicks, or Belle Epoque porcelain cockatoos. He paints a picture of himself that any collector will recognize: sitting in bed late at night, buying piece after piece, click after click, unable to stop (“it’s dangerous”), but seeing his finds as rescues. “Because otherwise they’re thrown away or forgotten; they don’t know how they are precious. And I really hear the voice of them. And when they come home, it’s like they have arrived in a hospital, where I can take care.”
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This creates a certain aura. “My boyfriend always says, ‘Oh, there is a really strong smell of old in here,’” Michele says with a laugh. “I always say, ‘You can really smell the dead and the things that have happened, and now what is happening.’”
Hence, Michele’s new fragrance, Gucci Bloom, his first for the brand since being named creative director in 2015: “After two years,” he says, “I was able to give [Gucci] a smell.” Perfumer Alberto Morillas says that Michele’s directive to him was that Bloom be “feminine and happy.” Their collaboration “wasn’t very complicated,” Morillas adds. “Alessandro understands everything about perfume, and he’s charming and creative.” The result is a scent blended with tuberose, jasmine, and musk (“my secret musk,” jokes Morillas), with a whisper of the evocatively named Rangoon creeper, that calls to mind summer grasses and morning sunshine, but with something sharper, less languid, pulsing nearby. It smells both modern and traditional—which was exactly as Michele wished. “You recognize the flowers,” says Morillas, “but because of how they were extracted, what could have seemed old-fashioned is totally different.”
“I was thinking,” Michele himself says of the idea behind the scent, “what happened if a young girl goes in the garden of her old aunt, and there are flowers but also vegetables, and in the middle of a city.”
“Fashion now is like an old lady that is dying on a bed. I think we can let this old lady die.”
Which is how a garden grew over a Times Square subway grate one morning in May; a space tumbling with roses, lilacs, dogwood, peonies, with bluebells and cherry blossoms, and a driftwood swing draped in wisteria and spiraea, and a paint-splattered stepladder around which Hari Nef and Petra Collins and Dakota Johnson, the faces of the fragrance, lazed with Michele. “I don’t like to use the word ‘whimsical,’ ” Johnson says of Bloom, “but it feels whimsical. Something very sweet and mysterious, and I like those things.” According to Nef, meanwhile, the scent possesses “something ancient, like in a kind of cool, sinister way. But the florals ground it in this prettiness.” Collins says she’s never worn scent before this one. “I’ve always just been my body odor, and that’s it,” she explains. “But this is like a layer of emotion that you put on, which I love. Because I feel like every other perfume has always been sold just as sex.”
Michele’s reign at Gucci has been revolutionary. The sleek soft porn of the Tom Ford years is a distant memory—that capital “G” shaved into model Louise Pedersen’s pubic hair has long since grown out— but so too, it already seems, is the clean-lined, WASP-mannered vision of Frida Giannini, who was creative director from 2006 until her ouster in early 2015. Michele has unleashed a flea market of the imagination onto the brand’s identity, burying the sharp suits and leather miniskirts beneath a cascade of pieces hectic with vintage, antique, and art-historical references and embellishments. His looks are frequently androgynous, even more frequently downright odd, and very clearly in love with the sheer fun of marrying disparate references, textures, and materials. A typical outfit in this year’s prefall collection look book—photographed in Rome between a heraldic bookstore and a 17th-century apothecary—threw together ’80s purple stirrup pants, a striped sweater with cuffs and a turtleneck in cummerbund frills, a pair of rhinestone-plastered sunglasses, and black sandals with a three-dimensional snake coiling up the heel. A full cape, printed with the roaring of leopard and tiger heads, and patched with mammoth sequined pockets, went on top, in case things seemed a little too chill.
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Michele grew up in Rome, where his mother worked as an executive assistant at a film studio, exposing her son to the glamorous sweep of that world, while his father, a much earthier figure (he was a technician at Alitalia, but wrote and sculpted in his time off, carving wooden walking sticks, among other things), taught the young Alessandro to have a kinship with nature. This melding of high style and quasi-shamanism informed Michele’s own approach as a creator, from his university studies in costume design to his early days designing handbags at Fendi, but his appointment to the top job at Gucci nevertheless sent shock waves through the fashion world when it was announced. He wasn’t a marquee name, poached from another label. He wasn’t a star. But while the word “unknown” was used in press reports, it was hardly as if Michele, then 42, had been found in a bus station; he was the head of leather goods and shoes at Gucci, had been with the company for a dozen years, and knew the industry intimately.
And yet there is undeniably a fairy-tale element to the story of his rise, and to the whole Michele phenomenon. Though he expresses himself like an artist and not as a brand strategist, a prowess for the latter must surely lie beneath the crushed velvet and the lion’s-head rings. Gucci’s first quarter global sales this year jumped by more than 50 percent, contributing heavily to 3.5 billion euros (approximately $3.9 billion) in revenue for its parent company, Kering.
Still, when Michele talks about designing, he talks about “playing,” and he actively resists tenets sacred to the fashion world’s way of doing things, from presenting separate men’s and women’s collections to the fashion calendar itself. His Fall 2017 show merged both, and he considers the idea of a seasonal collection almost disposable, certainly malleable. “I mean, fashion now is like an old lady that is dying on a bed,” Michele says of these changes, which he sees as vital for the industry. “I think we can let this old lady die. Fashion has done a lot of wrong things. I started when I was very young, in the ’90s, and it was one of the very attractive moments, but I think they tried to stay in this bubble—that fashion was just fashion, we are fashion, and this is not fashion, and we have to do the catwalk, and we have to do a season of things and products. I don’t think it’s working anymore.”
Nor does Michele seem particularly bothered if these new freedoms—and the eclecticism of his pieces—send people directly to the Gucci racks or toward their own versions and visions of those designs. It’s quite radical, this belief of his that what might otherwise be considered theft or plagiarism—the ubiquitous floral bomber jackets this summer, the rebirth of brocade, the embellished sneakers for miles—is actually a mark of success. “I like it when I see people dressed on the street and it looks like Gucci, but it’s not,” he says. “It means you are doing something right.” If you want to go in the store, he adds, “that’s fine. If you want to go to the market, it’s much better. Or if you want to buy just a pair of shoes, and then you want to go to the market, it’s better than better. I do the same. It’s like in our life if someone wants to—come si dice, costringere—force you to do something, probably you will not do it.”
“My job is my life…I feel lucky that I can express myself.”
There is something heartening, and subtly political, about the relish with which Michele puts seemingly incompatible elements in conversation, and in how he has convinced a world of poise and polish to see the mismatched as beautiful, and nostalgia as a prompt for reframing and reinvention, rather than for regression or exclusion. His colleagues at Gucci say he has brought a more open atmosphere to the company, and Michele comes across like a guy who is content to have been somehow allowed, at the very highest level, to do what he loves. “It’s more that my job is my life,” he replies when I ask him about how he resists pressure. “I feel happy when I work. I don’t care if tomorrow I will be fired. If you are more connected with your position than your creativity, probably you feel pressure. But if you don’t care…”
Michele doesn’t finish his thought, but the implication is clear. “I feel like a happy person,” he says instead. “I don’t feel myself on another level. I feel lucky that I can express myself.”
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Lead image: Michele and his muses in New York’s Times Square; On Nef: Gucci cape, $39,000, gown, $13,000, earrings, $410, and rings, prices upon request; On Collins: Gucci kimono, $2,300, top, $1,100, pants, $1,700, rings, $880 each, and platform booties, $3,650; On Johnson: Gucci jacket, $6,200, earrings, price upon request, gloves, $990, and rings, $640–$880, all items available at gucci.com.
Collins’s makeup and manicure: Melissa Murdick for Gucci Beauty, and Madeline Poole. Johnson’s hair, makeup, and manicure: Mark Townsend for Dove Hair Care; Kate Lee; and Deborah Lippmann. Nef’s hair, makeup, and manicure: Peter Butler for Leonor Greyl; Christian McCulloch; and Madeline Poole. Production: Ian Kaplan for the Custom Family; set design: Nicholas Des Jardins for Mary Howard Studio. Special thanks to the Times Square Alliance.