Jared Leto on his artist-muse relationship with Gucci’s Alessandro Michele

The actor and musician, who has been the face of Gucci Guilty since December 2015, returns to launch the new Gucci Guilty Absolute fragrance. He tells us about his friendship with the brand's unassuming creative director.

Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele, left, and actor Jared Leto at the Fashion Awards in London. Eeva Rinne / British Fashion Council
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Curled up by the fireplace in a fashionable London hotel, Jared Leto speaks slowly and thoughtfully. “I think that Alessandro does something very special,” he says of Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele. “He puts so much love, care and joy into his work that when you wear Gucci, you’re not just wearing something that’s beautiful or pretty, you’re actually – you’re feeling the same thing that he feels when he’s making it.”

The two men have formed a fascinating friendship since Michele, having taken the Gucci label in a surprising new design direction, chose Leto as the face of the Gucci Guilty fragrance in December 2015. When asked if the two share a classic artist-muse relationship, the actor and musician jokes of his designer friend that “you could say he’s my muse”. Yet, the two do seem to inspire each other creatively. From their appearances on the red carpet to the Gucci-clad city breaks they share on Instagram, the two men seem to blend work and fun.

What makes it compelling to an onlooker is the sense that both treat their lives as works of art. For a method actor such as Leto, the lines between performance and reality are already blurred. The Academy Award-winner for Dallas Buyers Club likes to inhabit his characters during the course of filming – famously sending his co-stars bizarre gifts while playing the Joker on Suicide Squad, and insisting the crew refer to him as Joker or Mr J. Unusually for an actor with his perfect bone structure, he has never made a romcom, favouring instead gritty and challenging roles in films such as Requiem for a Dream (for which he spent weeks living on the streets of New York) and Chapter 27 (for which he gained so much weight, he reportedly gave himself gout). "I don't make very many movies," he says, "but when I do, I tend to play more offbeat characters. I like that; it's interesting, you know?"

We know. And if we didn’t know before, Michele-and-Leto-era Gucci has convinced us. Looking at pictures of the pair simply hanging out – Michele’s long hair tumbling over the shoulders of a white, studded biker jacket adorned with colourful flowers that echo the large pink rose appliquéd onto Leto’s satin bomber jacket, in one shot seen by millions of Instagram followers – it’s hard to remember a time when minimalism was the order of the day. And yet when Michele erupted onto the fashion scene less than two years ago, the major fashion houses (Gucci included) had drifted so far down the line of simple lines and neutral shades as to generate a trend known as normcore – defined by no less a source than the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning “deliberately unremarkable clothes”.

Rich and eclectic, full of bold ideas and quirky details, Michele’s autumn/winter 2015 collection seemed to disrupt an entire fashion era. When asked why he thinks his friend’s work has proven so influential, Leto suggests: “It’s a celebration of life, and by acquiring it and wearing it you in turn have a sense of this joy, this celebration. Animals and nature and flowers and colours and texture. He makes something that we covet.”

Michele’s updated bohemian style has been hugely influential on A-listers and designers alike. And yet challenging the style orthodoxy probably wasn’t the soft-spoken Italian’s intention; he was just being himself. “Those who are truly contemporary are those who neither perfectly coincide with their time nor adapt to its demands,” read a note placed on seats at that first show, quoting the biopolitical philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

It’s unsurprising, then, that for Gucci Guilty Absolute, his first fragrance, which launches in the UAE in April, Michele has created something highly distinctive. A blend of leatherwood, vetiver and patchouli, it calls to mind a richly dressed man in a library, surrounded by leather-bound books, an open, roaring fire, and perhaps a smoking jacket. The effect is mesmerising. To create the scent, master perfumer Alberto Morillas custom-mixed two leading notes: a leather accord called woodleather, which is a tribute to Gucci’s leather-making roots, and goldenwood, which is a new natural extract of the Nootka cypress. Morillas discovered this ingredient under an old bell jar in the Royal Botanical Gardens’ archive, and selected it specifically for Gucci Guilty Absolute. The resulting scent offers ultra-dry woody notes steeped with depth and complexity. Complementing the composition are three types of patchouli oil, as well as the more fresh-smelling vetiver.

“Alessandro has a big collection of many, many, many perfumes,” says Morillas, who worked closely with Michele on the scent. “He asked me: ‘Can you make a new patchouli for me?’ And he told me exactly what he wants, because he’s very creative. My challenge was to make a different product – very different, very Gucci, by Alessandro.” Although its woody character makes the scent seem more masculine, Morillas argues that Absolute can be worn by a man or a woman. “It’s not really masculine or feminine … it’s an Alessandro perfume. His choice.”

It’s immediately apparent, seeing Leto perched by the fireside with his elfin crop, why the striking actor was chosen as the face of the male and female Gucci Guilty fragrances. “I think they were looking for someone different, someone maybe who didn’t fit the mould,” the actor agrees. “There’s an idea of masculinity that’s some kind of big brawny, handsome, manly man, and I think they were looking for someone who is a bit unexpected, maybe? And that’s why they approached me.”

The Absolute fragrance’s press launch in December was timed to coincide with the Fashion Awards in London, where Gucci’s chief executive, Marco Bizzarri, and creative director were both on the British Fashion Council’s shortlist. Bizzarri and Michele’s nominations reflect just how influential the house has become, and with Leto presenting for International Accessories Designer, Michele was widely expected to win his category. (He did.)

When the friends arrive together, flashbulbs pop endlessly for their startling costumes: the Italian in a metallic brocade suit with flared trousers, the American looking like some manner of priest with a long, embroidered, scarlet coat that has been draped, robe-like, over a black tuxedo jacket, tuxedo stripe burgundy trousers and Gucci loafers worn with white socks. In case the eclectic embroidery on the coat (which includes the unlikely combination of a Japanese fish and Donald Duck) is not enough adornment, a yellow crystal bow has also been tied at Leto’s neck.

To see Gucci triumph in both its categories is surprisingly heart-warming. “If I’m standing here tonight, it is undoubtedly because we have a creative visionary who is bringing the soul of this great brand to life, so thank you Alessandro,” says Bizzarri, cordially accepting the International Business Leader award. For his part, Michele seems a little bashful speaking in English to a global audience. “I promise that I will dream forever, because fashion is about a beautiful dream,” he says, to rapturous applause.

The line recalls something that Leto has said earlier, about the role that fragrance plays for him when he gets dressed. “When you put something like this on, there should be some anticipation or some hope or expectation that there is going to be an adventure,” he muses. “Even if it’s just going out and having an unforgettable night with your friends. There are reasons, I guess, that we do this. You put a tie on or a nice pair of shoes or you put a watch on, maybe it’s a nice watch, maybe it’s not the watch you would wear if you’re working in the backyard or something. It’s ritual.”

For another perfume, another brand, this almost spiritual rhetoric might seem overdone. At Gucci, however, that is the point. From the chief executive to the creative director to the perfumer to the muse, everyone has decided to take a risk and create something meaningful. As with Michele’s ready-to-wear collections, Gucci Guilty Absolute might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But you cannot help but admire the artistry of it.

Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, March 2.