How Alessandro Michele made Gucci great again

From the glamour of Tom Ford to Frida Giannini’s pared-down approach, the house of Gucci has reinvented itself several times. Current creative director Alessandro Michele is now positioning the brand at the vanguard of the industry, as Gucci’s cruise 2017 runway show in London proves.

A model walking the runway during the Gucci cruise 2017 fashion show at the Cloisters of Westminster Abbey on June 2, 2016 in London. Courtesy Gucci
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The Gucci effect. This is perhaps the best way to describe the influence that one Italian label is having on our fashion habits right now. Even those who have never heard of Gucci will have noticed that high-street stores are full of embroidered satin baseball jackets, toile-patterned trousers and pussy-bow blouses, not to mention clashing colours, Japanese prints and swaths of chiffon.

In the fast-moving world of fashion, new collections – and their copies – appear every three months, and while the elegant tweeds of Chanel and stark coolness of Saint Laurent remain for the fashion elite, the rest of the world seems to be scrambling for Gucci.

The question, of course, is why?

Gucci is not, after all, a new brand. It was founded in 1921 by Guccio Gucci, a one-time porter at The Savoy Hotel in London. Inspired by the expensive luggage that he was tasked with handling, he returned to his native Florence and established a high-end luggage and riding-wear company. Known for its exceptional quality, the company quickly gained a following among Europe’s well heeled, with Princess Grace of Monaco emerging as a keen supporter. Clothing was added in 1981 with Gucci’s first-ever runway show.

By the 1990s, however, Gucci had fallen on hard times, the result of family infighting and the murder of Maurizio Gucci, the head of the company. The ensuing chaos saw sales plummet.

A turning point for the company came with the appointment of Tom Ford as creative director in 1994, a man known for his high-octane approach, and collections that oozed sex appeal and glamour. Celebrities fought over his pieces, and Gucci hit headlines once more. Deliberately provocative advertising campaigns kept the spotlight on the brand, and sales boomed. But such success invariably has a shelf life, and Ford left the company in 2004 after 10 wildly exciting years.

Enter Frida Giannini, who was named Ford’s successor as the head of Gucci menswear. His polar opposite, she favoured pared-down chic over blatant sexuality, reinventing earlier pieces with an updated twist. Opting for a sleeker, more subtle silhouette, Giannini looked to different historical periods for inspiration. While this approach was at first well received, after a few years it proved too unfocused for customers, who, confused by the constant jumping from era to era – art deco one season and 1960s the next – began to turn their backs on the brand. In late 2014, against a backdrop of rapidly falling sales, Giannini and company chief executive Patrizio di Marco (later also her husband) were both unceremoniously fired.

Despite vowing to remain in her role until after the autumn/winter 2015 menswear show in February 2015, in January she unexpectedly walked out, catching the house off guard. The search for her replacement had already begun, with figures such as Hedi Slimane, Riccardo Tisci and even Ford seemingly in the running, but no one had been formally named, and Giannini’s rapid exit left the company without a head. With just days to go before the start of the all-important men’s fashion season, newly appointed chief executive Marco Bizzarri stepped in and named the relatively unknown Alessandro Michele as Gucci’s creative director.

Like Giannini before him, Michele was promoted from within the company. But despite being well known within Gucci, having worked there since 2002 as head of accessories under both Ford and Giannini, he was virtually unheard of outside of it. Despite industry shock that such responsibility could be handed to an untested designer, Bizzarri was adamant that he had found the right person for the role, declaring that Michele was chosen "based upon the contemporary vision he has articulated for the brand that he will now bring to life". As he later claimed to Vogue: "Fashion is about creating emotion – it's not necessarily rational."

Suddenly thrust into the global spotlight, just ahead of men’s fashion week, the new chief designer was faced with a dilemma. He could show his predecessor’s (almost finished) collection, or discard it and start afresh with his own. He opted for the latter, and in an astonishing five days – seemingly oblivious to the enormous pressure on his shoulders – redesigned the entire collection from scratch.

Faced with such time restraints, Michele would have been forgiven for falling back on tried-and-tested Gucci classics, subtly updating them in his own style. Instead, he threw caution to the wind, bringing to life his own, deeply personal vision for Gucci. He went in an entirely new direction, poring through the Gucci archives, and looking at antique textiles and clothes, extracting any elements that caught his eye – down to scraps of carpet. Nothing was off limits in the search for inspiration. And, once gathered, Michele pieced them all together, in entirely new and fresh ways.

The collection he delivered five days later was a total reinvention of the label. He repositioned the house, presenting eclectic and vibrant pieces jumbled together in a colourful melange of vintage and new. The first model down the runway in Milan was as far from the Gucci of old as it was possible to be. The new Gucci man had long hair and wore a bright red pussy-bow blouse. Michele delivered men wearing women’s clothes, and women wearing men’s clothes. The models were geeky, the genders were blurred and the clothes were a revelation.

Fearless, flamboyant and gender-ambiguous, his collection of faux vintage looks – many resembling something you might find on your grandmother’s washing line – was young and joyful. Fashion was suddenly about creativity again. Money no longer felt like the driving force, as pretty young things stomped down the runway seemingly wearing whatever they felt like. The message was crystal clear. Forget how much it costs, and wear what makes you happy.

Fast-forward to June 2016, and I find myself being ushered into the stilled surroundings of London’s Westminster Abbey, ahead of the Gucci cruise 2017 fashion show. The cathedral has stood for 900 years, impervious to the comings and goings of monarchs, and the civil and world wars that have raged outside its walls. We are guided around the back to the Westminster Cloisters, the bit that visitors rarely see, once home to the monks of the Abbey. Set around a courtyard, The Cloisters now stand open to the air, the glass that once filled their windows having long since vanished. It may be June, but it is cold and draughty, and as we take our seats on stone benches worn smooth with time – onto which embroidered Gucci cushions have been placed to try to provide some warmth – the Middle Eastern press sit huddled unhappily against the cold.

The cruise 2017 collection is described by Michele as “an homage to English people”. As a self-confessed Anglophile, he has long admired the irreverence of British fashion. If the French are known for their chic, and the Italians for their shoes, so the Brits are famed for their eccentric leanings. Michele speaks of “a British attitude” to his work and is drawn to the many facets of British culture, be it the punks of 1970s London or the 18th-century gardens of landscape architect Capability Brown. (Gucci has since announced that it is partnering with Chatsworth House in Derbyshire to support cultural activities on the estate, no doubt spurred by Michele). “I love the English aesthetic – in a way I feel like it is close to my own language, a beautiful chaos,” he says backstage, post-show, calling the country “a box of treasures”.

Hence the venue for the show. Apparently Michele wanted somewhere famously British.

And what a venue it is. Against the severe austerity of the stone, which echoes with the haunting melody of Scarborough Fair, sung by Schola Cantorum, the liturgical choir of Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in London, Michele's vibrant colours sing out.

The British references are clear from the start, as Victorian pottery animal motifs appear across tartan skirts, bags and skinhead-era bomber jackets – now reimagined in florals. It is a collection inspired by “punks, Victoriana and schoolboys”, Michele says. Bleach-splashed jeans and steel-toe-capped boots are softened with tuxedo jackets, while Victorian widows weeds are worn with brothel creeper shoes. An endless kaleidoscope sees elements tumbling over each other, be it 1970s floral ruffles with post-war headscarves, or fisherman’s hats and crochet dresses. Edwardian ruffles are played out in psychedelic metallics, and sports socks are worn with high heels. Even the Union Jack pops up, equally at home on jumpers and shoes. With a nod to the British star models of the 1990s, Erin O’Connor wears demure polka dots and a baker boy hat, while Jacquetta Wheeler closes the show.

In short, it is a riotous, anything-goes approach to dressing, and if it feels exciting but disjointed, it soon becomes clear that this is precisely Michele’s point. As with all of his collections – and this is his seventh – the pieces are both startlingly original yet pleasingly familiar. He has an undeniable skill for combining vintage elements in ways that make them entirely modern and fresh.

Yet amid all the colour, pattern, fun and energy lies his greatest skill. In so casually tossing the rule book out of the window, and making it look so easy, so effortless and so glorious, he leaves us all thinking that we can do the same. We yearn to delve through wardrobes and unearth vintage treasures that we will wear with aplomb. We long for creativity and ache for outrageousness. In short, we all want to be dressed by Alessandro Michele.

It’s the Gucci effect.

Read this and other stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, September 8.