Alessandro Michele, the man who “rescued Gucci” is to leave after seven years as its star designer. The fact that you may not know his name, tells you everything about the fashion industry today and its thuggish churn through talent. If anything it’s an even more ruthless business than it was 30 years ago, when it first deified its pet designers and then, to varying degrees, destroyed them. Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Marc Jacobs were all victims of that era, as a fascinating four-part documentary on Sky called Kingdom of Dreams lays out – but it’s worse today.
In the 1990s, creative directors at the big brands were stars in their own right – that gave them some leverage. Tom Ford, who openly speaks of this 10 lost years, after he was unceremoniously fired from Gucci and struggled with drink and drugs, eventually bounced back, parlaying his already well-known name into an eponymous brand he has just sold to Estée Lauder for $2.8 billion.
These days, designers have the same responsibilities, even more pressure (the number of shows they’re expected to conjure up has quadrupled) but beyond the cognoscenti, they’re unknown. It’s in the brand’s interests to keep it this way. Bottega Veneta, part of the same group as Gucci, this year parted ways with its creative director, Daniel Lee, who also seemed at the top of his game. The hand over to his successor, Matthieu Blazy has been seamless.
Already there is speculation about who will take over at Gucci from 49-year-old Michele, with two names already at Gucci being mooted. As anyone who watched last year’s Lady Gaga vehicle, House of Gucci, can attest, this house is unique. In an industry addicted to drama, Gucci is chief addict. It’s seen coups, near bankruptcy, take-overs, a murder and several Lazurus like revivals. And boy is it prone to brutal kiss-offs, even when the victims are seemingly at the height of their powers – as Tom Ford, who was ousted in 2004 after the house was acquired by Francois Pinault, the fourth richest man in France, knows too well. The richest man in France is Bernard Arnault, Pinault’s arch rival who owns LVMH whose brands include Celine, Dior, Fendi and Louis Vuitton.
Ford had saved Gucci from bankruptcy. Michele saved it from irrelevancy. In 2015, it was a two billion euros a year business, coasting on robotic reiterations of Ford’s original 1990s vision for the brand. Michele, who by then had been working for 13 years in the backrooms and knew the house inside-out, turned every last tenet it stood for on its head. Out went the slick, sleek, Americanised, highly-sexualised minimalism, and in its place came a romantic and gender-fluid maximalism, which is now so commonplace on the public stage (witness Harry Styles on the cover of Vogue in a dress), we forget how rebellious it seemed in 2016. Sure, David Bowie was dubbed a “gender bender”, by the more florid sections of the media back in Michele’s beloved 1970s, but machismo rapidly reasserted itself in fashion in the decades that followed.
Michele’s embrace of the ambivalence – cross-dressing gender-fluid “models”, often plucked from the streets or his own work studios – tapped into a rejection of the status quo that was spreading through societies post Me Too. He captivated Gen Z and Boomers alike, with a seemingly endless slew of off-the-wall, but instantly desirable, luxury accessories, from furry backless Gucci loafers to re-proportioned legends that had been gathering dust in the archives, such as the Jackie (a hobo bag that had been a staple of Jackie Kennedy’s) to Grace Kelly’s favourite bamboo-handled bag.
Julia Roberts, Serena Williams, Jared Leto, Adele, Nicole Kidman, Beyonce... It might be quicker to list the celebrities from Old and New Hollywood, as well as musicians and artists, who didn’t queue up to wear Gucci. And it wasn’t only because they liked the aesthetic, but because wearing it made them look as though they were at ease with the world’s rapidly changing mores.
I was at Michele’s first show in March 2015, one of those rare debuts that changes everything in fashion. I’m not just talking about the 1970s meets Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic that subsequently swept across the globe – you can still see it everywhere this Christmas – but the cracking open of fashion’s tight (and uptight) beauty prism. Michele liked outsiders and people who didn’t conform to conventional standards of beauty. As well, as of course, dressing the likes of Harry Styles and Jared Leto, his muses have included gardeners and British trainspotters he spotted on TikTok.
All very cute and kooky, but what was remarkable was how this apparent whimsy proved a commercial juggernaut. Gucci’s annual reports spiked 25 per cent. Michele acquired a prophet-like presence – and not just because, with his flowing locks, beard and knack of speaking gnomic riddles, he looked and sounded like one, but because his connection with the zeitgeist seemed infallible.
True, he was essentially riffing on his beloved 1970s tropes, but there was something for everyone, whether it was a minimalist looking for a knockout velvet trouser suit, or an octogenarian looking for an updated monogrammed tote.
His most recent two shows were critical blockbusters and a visit to any affluent city in the world confirmed that the more accessible accessories – the small camera bags and the trainers – are still prized by millions of aspirational fashion fans. But revenues have lagged behind other mega brands since the pandemic – most notably, those in the LVMH group. And in today’s climate, there is no room for coasting, creative pauses, or regrouping. It's survival of the fittest.