Step Into Gucci Creative Director Alessandro Michele’s World Of Wonder

Alessandro Michele wears a white gold necklace with tourmalines, rubellites and diamonds, with a detachable white gold pendant with diamonds and a 14.98-carat rubellite tourmaline (Photo: Betina Du Toit courtesy of Gucci)

It’s pouring with relentless rain in London, but in Alessandro Michele’s office in a Roman palazzo, the sun is streaming through large casement windows. It dapples the leaves of some luxurious houseplants and lights on a mahogany table where great red leather books, ceramic bowls, glass domes and what looks like a medieval wooden Madonna are grouped in an alluring composition. The Creative Director of Gucci is sitting with his back to all this splendour, wearing a green t-shirt and 1970s-inflected spectacles, and talking via Microsoft Teams about birth, death, the pandemic, art and adornment.

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Michele, who has been with the Italian fashion and accessories label since 2002, turns 49 this month, but with his flowing mane of black hair, full beard and endless curiosity, he appears much younger. Perhaps that is also in part due to his almost supernatural ability to predict and define the next big thing. His hand-picked family of brand ambassadors is an enviable array of the talented, beautiful and quirky, ranging from Gen Z’s favourite musician, Billie Eilish, to Harry Styles, who has transformed his early boy- band fame into something much more intriguing. This Styles has done with the help of a gender-fluid wardrobe of Gucci pieces, not least a glossy bamboo top-handle handbag that Grace Kelly wouldn’t have scorned, which he carried to this year’s Brit Awards.

Lou Doillon, the actress and singer who models in this story, is another. She calls herself one of the “Gucci children” who get to play dressing-up games with Michele’s creations. “His clothes always leave room for your personality,” she says. “In high fashion, you risk getting swallowed up by what you’re wearing and becoming a brand on legs. For him, everyone’s personality shines through. I think that’s because he has such tremendous respect for everyone.”

Step Into Gucci Creative Director Alessandro Michele’s World Of Wonder
Lou Doillon wears strass-embellished top; embroidered tulle bra, Gucci. White gold, spinel and diamond earrings, Gucci High Jewellery. (Photo: Betina Du Toit courtesy of Gucci)

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Michele has been adorning men and women, or as he himself says simply, “everybody”, in his exuberant designs since he was appointed to the role in 2015, unveiling his debut collection to rapturous applause. At the time, his vision of young men in pussybow blouses and floral trouser suits, and women in lace and bobble hats, was revolutionary. In his most recent show, for fall/winter 2021, women wore riding hats and harnesses, and men, diaphanous off-the-shoulder black and sequins. And models of both sexes or none wore high jewellery on the runway, which, while not unheard of, is certainly not run of the mill. Blaming post-World War II austerity for turning men away from an enjoyment of precious stones and adornment, Michele aims to bedeck us all in rubies, sapphires, opals, tsavorites and beryls. “We look more wild with jewels on,” he says in his charmingly Italian-accented, though very fluent, English. “More like an animal. We’re the least colourful animals in existence, so placing jewels on our bodies, we connect with the earth and can look like exotic birds.”

The show, titled Aria, was also a birthday celebration, for the House of Gucci is now 100 years old. Founded in 1921 by former Savoy bellboy Guccio Gucci as a Florentine leather goods shop, the brand grew and expanded. John F. Kennedy called Guccio’s son Aldo “the first Italian ambassador of fashion”, and the house flourished in the glory years of Cinecittà and La Dolce Vita. After weathering murderous internecine family dramas in the 1980s, Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (now Kering) acquired Gucci in 1999, when Tom Ford had already been Creative Director of the brand for five years, and the name Gucci was back in vogue again. According to Michele, it was a Tom Ford claret coloured velvet suit that “made Gwyneth Paltrow famous”. And he reprised his predecessor’s creation—for both men and women—in the Aria show. Another standout piece was a small crystal-encrusted minaudière in the shape of an anatomical heart that, says Michele, signifies “the heart of the brand. It’s like a grail. It’s the heart of fashion that’s alive”. There were other elegant acknowledgements of the House’s history in the collection in the riding crops, snaffle loafers and lavish use of the GG logo. The show aired on the Gucci website.

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The soundtrack was a blend of songs that namecheck the brand and, says Michele, was a challenge to create. “I really tried to go very deep into what it means for a brand to be in the middle of this crazy anniversary at this time,” he says. “I tried to get there through the songs that reference Gucci and started to count them.” This proved an impossible task, with researchers continually coming up with new performances by JAY-Z, A$AP Rocky and Dita Von Teese. “Maybe it’s crazy to go through fashion history with songs,” Michele says ruefully. “Every week, they came back saying, actually, there aren’t just 2,000 songs, we’ve found another one.” But it was a challenge that revealed something about the brand and about its creative director too. “It meant that we aren’t 100 years old, we’re one year old, completely new. The label is like a baby. And I think that Gucci is a kind of exception. When you think about brands with a past, you feel their history. But with Gucci, you think of something contemporary.” This is for the designer a unique alchemy. “If I think about Tom [Ford],” Michele explains, “he was trying to tell the story of the hedonistic period of New York, with Halston. And that was such a long time ago. But when he started to talk in that language, the result was unbelievable.” Indeed, Ford’s Gucci, with its long lines and jewel colours, encapsulated the 1990s. In the same way, the Aria show, lavishly quoting (with the Georgian designer’s permission) from Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga in its silhouettes and branding, felt breathlessly modern. In fashion, it’s vanishingly rare to share in this way, a fact that the Chairman and CEO of Kering, Gucci and Balenciaga’s parent company, emphasised at the time of the show. François-Henri Pinault said, “I’ve seen how [Alessandro and Demna’s] innovative, inclusive and iconoclastic visions are aligned with the expectations and desires of people today.”

Step Into Gucci Creative Director Alessandro Michele’s World Of Wonder
Gold, beryl and diamond earring, Gucci High Jewellery (Photo: Betina Du Toit courtesy of Gucci)

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Once Italian travel restrictions were partially lifted, Michele left Rome with his partner of over a decade, Giovanni Attili. Attili, who is a specialist in environmental engineering and a professor at the elite Sapienza University of Rome, is equally as hirsute as the designer—indeed, they bear a striking physical similarity. They decamped to their country house on the Umbria-Lazio border with their Boston terriers Orso (Italian for “bear”) and Bosco (Italian for “wood”), whose images have, of course, featured in a Gucci capsule collection. “I went there in June and stayed all summer, working at home, having fun with my family and my partner and my dogs,” he recalls. “And some friends who came back and forth, and people from work.” One of the great revelations of lockdown, for Michele as for so many others, was the chance to see the seasons evolve. “I saw the clouds coming, I saw the yellow light of the sun change and the leaves change. I have the sound of the wild wind that came in the winter in my ears now.” He also saw autumn for the first time, calling it “the season in between that I never saw because I was always in Milan and Rome and London and New York and wherever. I remember noticing the seasons because the shop windows changed, but now, I saw the end of the summer in the middle of an amazing landscape.” Michele talks and thinks like a poet. His post-show press conferences are famous among the fashion pack for being philosophical, gnomic and, apparently, having nothing to do with the catwalk pyrotechnics he’s just shown. This is because the designer is a polymath whose influences vary from medieval religion to Old Master painting to, of course, rap and pop culture.

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The title of the high jewellery collection he showed is Hortus Deliciarum, a “Garden of Delights”, which he sees as a way to describe Eden, or a paradise in classical mythology: “It’s a place of beauty but not very defined… a beautiful way to describe something that is just beyond [our perceptions]”. Because Michele takes inspiration from everywhere, almost anything goes in the collection, which includes Dionysus-themed pieces, waterfalls of diamonds, tiger heads and dainty bow motifs. High jewellery, in which the most exquisite and enormous stones are fashioned by supreme craftsmen, is a specialism that usually takes generations to get right. And Gucci was not necessarily a natural choice to produce such pieces. “Gucci is not really connected with jewellery,” agrees Michele. “But why not? It’s such a powerful and beautiful label. And if I’m putting my soul and my creativity in, a piece of my creativity and my soul is that I love to decorate guys and girls and people with these kinds of things. So I thought it’s a good reason to do something more. It’s a good reason to play, to play as a kid.”

As for how the Gucci client would respond to the new venture, Marco Bizzarri, Gucci’s CEO, is wise enough not to distract Michele with talk about sales—no matter how stratospherically they soar. As he has said in the past, he wants “to have a company culture [whereby] emotion and creativity [are] at the front and business followed. A place where creativity is fostered by joy, by happiness.” Meaning Michele is free to dream and to spin gold (or to crochet it—at which he is remarkably skilled).

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Among all Michele’s passions and interests, it seems to be his love of jewellery that glows hottest. “I’m a collector,” he explains. “I’m obsessed with jewels.” He dates this passion back to his maternal grandmother. “She was an amazing woman, so tough and very elegant and stylish. She was really, really, really crazy about jewels,” he recalls. “With her, I learned how beautiful it is to buy a jewel. I would spend a lot of time in so many shops with her when she was choosing things. I remember I was mesmerised in front of these amazing pieces.”

He was brought up in Rome, with a father who worked for Italian airline Alitalia and a mother who, before his birth, worked for The Rank Organisation and still kept the glamorous gowns she had worn to premieres and events during her career. “She loved the divas who went to sleep in their makeup with their hair perfect. She was very connected to that era. I feel I’m more punk. It was a moment when people were playing with personality, with changing themselves. Because how you look has power and the punk crew started to question the politics of power and the way they looked,” he says.

It is, perhaps, this familial clash of punk and per bene—the Italian term for a haut bourgeois mindset—that caused friction, however loving, between Michele and his grandmother. “We were always fighting. I remember my mum saying to her mum, ‘How can you start a fight with a little kid of eight?’ And Granny would say, ‘But he’s terrible! You have to listen to what he’s saying.’” On her death, his grandmother left her jewellery to Michele’s sister, who, he says, prefers to wear costume jewellery: “She says, ‘I don’t like to wear those precious pieces, I feel uncomfortable.’ But I feel very comfortable wearing them.” So Michele took a huge and beautiful 1930s bracelet with a ruby clasp from his grandmother’s collection to wear. “And my sister said, ‘Oh, my gosh, if Granny were looking at you wearing this bracelet, she’d kill you.’ And the bracelet got stolen. And I was thinking, maybe it was my granny; she didn’t want to give me this bracelet. I’m sure she took it back,” he says.

Step Into Gucci Creative Director Alessandro Michele’s World Of Wonder
Lou Doillon wears cotton blazer; matching trousers; embroidered tulle bra, Gucci. Gold, beryl and diamond earring, Gucci High Jewellery (Photo: Betina Du Toit courtesy of Gucci)

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Whether or not the supernatural played a role in the theft of the bracelet, it’s certainly true that the occult looms large in Michele’s life and work. His Old Master painting collection has just been delivered to his and Attili’s new house—an ancient building that he says still feels cold in the heat of a Roman summer—and he’s puzzling out where to hang each picture. An Instagram image taken by Attili (“who’s really good with a camera”) shows Michele wearing a huge Mongolian-lamb gilet, kneeling among his Renaissance pictures, which are all laid out on the marble floor. “They’re a big inspiration,” Michele confirms. “I’m obsessed with English painting. I love the idea of Tudor paintings. There’s something mysterious and kind of creepy. The way they look at me is very cinematic.” His favourite subject is one Mary Tichborne, born in 1541 and painted by the Master of the Countess of Warwick. “She looks like a contemporary diva,” he says. “She has this beautiful red hair and these amazing rings on these delicate hands and she’s all in black.” She’d look completely at home on the eclectic catwalk of Michele, whose casting has been acclaimed for celebrating a wide spectrum of quirky, etiolated beauty.

Today, Michele himself is wearing some dozen rings—at least one on every finger—and looking relaxed. It feels as if the past year, however challenging, has been good for him. But then, he has always appeared at home with himself and carries his astonishing success at Gucci, and the pressures that must surely come with it, lightly. “I’m very proud of myself,” he confirms. “I’m brave enough to change without obsessing about criticism. But I want to be sincere with myself and with the people that are watching what I’m doing. In the end, I was trying to find life and creativity inside the madness of the pandemic. That meant thinking in a very poetic way, understanding that there is light after darkness.”

Surely, in the end, it is Michele’s very personal blend of punk, pop and poetry that will see us all through to a brighter future.

Model: Lou Doillon
Makeup: Tiina Roivainen/ Airport Agency
Hair: Cyril Laloue/Wise & Talented using Maria Nila
Manicure: Brenda Abrial/ Wise & Talented using Kure Bazaar
Production: Louis2
Stylist’s assistant: Lucie Petit