What can we expect as Alessandro Michele takes over at Valentino?

Ambitious past designs hint at what the future may bring to the storied fashion house

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Things at Valentino are changing. Last week, Pierpaolo Piccioli, who had been at Valentino for more than 25 years and as sole creative director for eight, stepped down from his role as a “joint decision”.

On Thursday, barely a week later, ex-Gucci designer Alessandro Michele was named his successor.

“It’s an incredible honour,” said Michele. “I feel the immense joy and the huge responsibility.”

He added: “Today, I search for words to nominate the joy ... Joy, though, is such a living thing that I’m afraid to hurt it if I dare to speak its name.”

Valentino chairman Rachid Mohamed Rachid describes Michele as “an exceptional talent and his appointment underlines our great ambitions”.

An unexpected pairing

At first glance, this may seem an unlikely pairing. Since Valentino's founding in 1960, the fashion house has been about indulgent glamour, steeped in rich sophistication. Under Piccioli, this expanded into a vibrant vocabulary of everyday decadence, told via impeccable handwork and crumpled taffeta in opulent tones of emerald, mustard, lilac and the house’s defining colour – red.

In contrast, Michele – who worked at Gucci for almost 20 years – brings a singular magpie sensibility to the Florentine house, with an eclectic mix of colours, patterning and motifs. Mixing high and low, he teams gowns with cardigans and sequins with knitwear.

He created pre-dirtied trainers and looks constructed from tinsel. This eccentric and energetic vision included sending models of baby dragons and models' heads down the runway, while single-handily upending the staid world of menswear with his debut collection of feminine pussy-bow blouses.

Under his tenure, Gucci's revenues almost tripled from €3.5 billion ($3.8 billion) in 2014 to €9.73 billion by 2022. However, as sales cooled, he was seemingly asked to change tack, but instead stepped down in 2022 citing creative differences. Unwilling to forego his maximalist take on dressing, he appears to have preferred to walk away rather than compromise.

What Michele brings to Valentino

Michele's ability to create an entirely new fashion lexicon is proven, but the question is, can lightning strike twice? Can he bring a new, Valentino-centric magic to Rome, where the house is based?

A clever and well-informed designer, Michele is prone to citing obscure philosophers as references and whose borderline outrageous collections draw on trinkets, Latin prose, botany and little-known artists.

In taking over Valentino, Michele will be responsible for men’s and women’s ready-to-wear collections – already familiar territory for the designer – as well as haute couture, a very marked departure for him.

While he has brought high-level glamour to his ready-to-wear for Gucci, haute couture is a different universe entirely, aimed at a handful of ultra-rich customers.

It is also a space where houses can give full flight to their creativity, a platform Michele will no doubt delight in. Given that he will be making his first, very public, steps into this unknown arena, the house has already announced it will skip this summer’s offering, presumably to allow him more time to find his feet.

For all his love of shimmer and excess, Michele is a skilled designer, who extracted the DNA of Gucci and made each element a story in its own right. Of course, he has a deep understanding of its codes, having spent more than two decades at Gucci, first under predecessors Tom Ford and Frida Giannini and then as creative director for seven years.

With no such knowledge to lean on as he steps into Valentino, the next few months will presumably be spent immersing himself into the archive, to unpick its unique language.

Given Michele's eye for the sumptuous, this is likely to be a fascinating new chapter for designer and maison alike.

Updated: March 29, 2024, 11:56 AM