As Alessandro Michele’s Gucci sets its sights on fashion-world domination, Sophie Bew looks at the key ingredients in its recipe for sartorial success.
It is said that Rome wasn’t built in a day. But legend has it that the Gucci we know today was built in five. It turns out that 14 is perhaps a little closer to the truth – though still unconfirmed – but such hearsay and rumination stands as a testament to the truly astounding transformation with which Rome-born Alessandro Michele quickly blessed the Gucci empire in just three years.
When in January 2015 the label’s creative director Frida Giannini followed her life partner and Gucci’s then-CEO Patrizio di Marco abruptly out of the door of the ailing fashion house, she left shock and surprise in her wake. Due to exit the company after the Autumn/Winter 2015 menswear presentation she would show the following month, Giannini left the label prematurely and that last collection unfinished. This is when Giannini’s associate and the brand’s head of accessories Michele stepped in. Scrapping her designs altogether he created a new collection and a whole new look in less than two weeks. It wasn’t until two days after he and the entire design team took their bow that Michele was officially appointed creative director.
Everything had been rewritten in this short sliver of time, right down to the casting and seating arrangement. Cue slinky suits worn by an androgynous troupe, pussy-bow blouses for boys and dandyish tailoring on girls. Michele’s eccentricity – then completely unfamiliar, now knowingly trademark – came by way of clashing crushed velvet with sheer chiffon (on both male and female bodies), silk chemises with nerdy pom pom hats. Rumours of Giannini’s successor swirled: Riccardo Tisci? Christopher Kane? Joseph Altuzarra? Tales were told of Tom Ford returning to his mantle. Michele, rather, was met with a ‘Who?’ While a distinct departure from Giannini’s Gucci could be felt, critics could not yet put their finger on what this new Gucci could be. Time would soon tell.
At the AW15 womenswear show the following month – the first since Michele’s official appointment – the dust began to settle on a frenetic new formula. Fur-trimmed military coats were followed by suits wrought in what resembled medieval tapestry, voluptuous fur coats in an outmoded silhouette that appeared plucked from the rails of a flea market. Sheer chiffon, and plisse pleats lent a fluidity to gawkish hemlines and off-kilter angularity, while barely there nipple-grazing blouses offered this magpie mish-mash a glimpse of sexuality. A melange of berets, jeweled velvet headbands, geek chic specs, yeti slippers and the now ubiquitous fur-lined loafers all came as accompaniments.
CEO and president Marco Bizzarri, who slipped into the role upon Patrizio di Marco’s departure, brought in from Stella McCartney and Bottega Veneta (both of which had seen sales improve under his watch), knew Michele to be a firestarter from the outset. Michele, at that point disillusioned by fashion already “had one foot out of the door” of Gucci when Bizzarri asked to meet. At Michele’s apartment, the pair discussed a new future for Gucci, one that rejected the model of industry’s pervasive seasonal obsolescence. “Since the end of the 1990s up until quite recently, I think fashion became much too product-oriented, and creativity completely died,” Michele said in an interview in spring 2016. “I think the first people to sense that were the consumers themselves; they clearly understood that it had all just become a trick to sell things… this idea that you have to constantly change, change, change yourself, and so every single month there is a different bag, a different coat, to help this change. What’s fashionable about buying something new every month? That’s not fashion, that’s just slavery. And if something is genuinely beautiful, then surely the last thing you’d want to do is throw it away and change it for something new.”
Michele’s answer to this conundrum was placed on each seat at his first womenswear show: “Those who are truly contemporary are those who neither perfectly coincide with their time nor adapt to its demands… Contemporariness, then, is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disconnection.” This idea of one’s own idiosyncratic language, which would evolve and regenerate, would macerate and mature rather than replace itself with each new collection, offered the key to contemporaneity. With these notes, Michele at once explained the brand’s new formula and predicted its own recipe for success. Store makeovers were quickly rolled out across the globe, made out in Michele’s treasure-trove vision – red velvet walls, oriental embroideries, curiosity cabinets, tapestried pillows and velvet roped entrances. They were playful spaces, brimming with craft, romance, ebullience. Within two years, and by September 2017, the company’s revenue had rocketed 49 per cent, its strongest increase in 20 years.
And though the label, by Michele’s own volition, was not tethered to the now, this new objective reflected something deeper in our collective psyches: a new democratic time both expounded and expanded by the polyphonic platform of the internet. In a world where almost anyone could have a voice, Michele was championing “the idea of personal style and individuality,” explained Sarah Rutson, the vice president of global buying at Net-a-Porter, “which I think was lacking after several seasons dominated by a more minimalist mood.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gucci gained eight million new Instagram followers in 2017 alone. Visual diversity quickly came to define the elaboration of Michele’s universe. By AW16, one could expect to covet just about anything. From head-to-toe pink fur looks to a little boy’s matador suit, silver-screen siren gowns or collegiate co-ords. A pilgrim hat. By AW17, the clothes were modeled by aliens in the Glen Luchford-lensed campaign; by AW18, models carried baby dragons, lizards and their own heads – Michele had built a solid base on which to present abundant unpredictability. But woven in among the unexpected would always be his staples – those loafers, that synonymous embroidery – reinvigorated by their proximity to timeless newness.
In 2017, more people entered the search term ‘Gucci’ on e-tail empire Lyst over the course of the year than they did generic terms like ‘shoes’ and ‘dresses’. And inclusive pricing is a contributing factor: said Lyst index saw Gucci hold the first, third, fourth and fifth best-selling products of the year, each of which – from the bloom-printed sandal to the GG logo belt, the rose-embroidered Ace sneaker or the flashy logo Tee – falling under the $500 mark. In the wake of such evident success, this summer Gucci announced its aims to reach €10 billion ($11.3 billion) in annual sales and replace LVMH’s Louis Vuitton as the world’s biggest luxury label.
A swathe of political statements no doubt entwine this label more tightly with its millennial audience. Whether that’s the banning of animal fur – “I don’t think it’s still modern and that’s the reason why we decided not to do that. It’s a little bit outdated,” explained Bizzarri in October 2017. Or donating $500,000 to the anti-gun movement – “We stand with March for Our Lives and the fearless students across the country who demand that their lives and safety become a priority. We have all been directly or indirectly impacted by these senseless tragedies,” the brand stated in a release. Michele is not afraid to align the brand with the pressing topics his audiences will be engaging with. Clever business acumen in our woke world, yes. But also an insight to the values of the brand: celebratory, loving, open, playful and inclusive and who wouldn’t want to buy into that?
END OF STORY