Insights from Pi Volume 01, Issue 02: "Gen Z Matters More than Millennials"
Design as it pertains to the fashion industry is fluid. Each season brings in a new wash of lines, color, trends, folds, accessories. The big hitters announce their ideas on the runways, and the statements trickle down to eventually land in crumpled piles and sale racks at H&M. But occasionally there is a larger shift, a sea change of sorts. And every decade or so there is a voice that tells a story that feels new, fresh, different.
As creative director of Gucci, Italian-born Alessandro Michele has managed to breathe new life into a brand previously known for its dusty classics. In his vintage inspired style mash-ups that are both fresh and weird, he has revived styles previously preserved for old ladies, given them a modern edge, and, in turn, invited a new generation of fashion enthusiasts to the Gucci line.
Michele’s achievements—numerous for the four years he’s been on the stage, and enthusiastically received by most—have been partially due to his propensity to deliver passionate narratives in his work and public image. At times criticized for looks that are frivolous and overly garish, Michele steps above the critics and uses his creative voice and romantic vision for a more equal and beautiful world to unlock the public’s attention. His prolific creative bursts have resulted in a colorful library of fashion, interiors, beauty, accessories, and retail spaces that combine for a complete lifestyle brand. His world is a land of layered pat- terns, dramatic color combinations, and provocative cultural references. This is a playful place, an imaginative place, a place that transcends eras and ignores rules of taste and etiquette.
And it’s a political place as well. For his recent Cruise 2020 show, Michele brought out his signature historically layered look with notes of religious regalia, Disney appropriation, gender fluidity, and costume-inspired theatrics. He added to that pro-choice statements, printed and embroidered directly on the runway pieces, turning the show into a story about his support of global reproductive rights, individual choice, and gender equality.
To add to the narrative quality, he held the show in the Capitoline Museums, which dates back to 1471 and is one of Michele’s most influential museums from childhood. In order to get there, invitees followed a scavenger hunt invitation that led to one of the oldest bookstores in Rome, where they received an antique book stamped with the invitation details. These layers of story and quest for the past are part of the immersive narrative that Alessandro Michele emits in his creative delivery.
Though his execution is spirited and playful, Michele takes his roll very seriously. He states, “fashion is not about product; it’s about an interesting idea that you can’t resist buying into.”
“Fashion is not about product; it’s about an interesting idea that you can’t resist buying into.”
Michele sees his moment in the spotlight as one to take responsibly, vocalizing his support of the underrepresented and those who choose beauty over power. In this moment of career glory he says, “I love to give voice to things that are not very visible.”
“I love to give voice to things that are not very visible.”
Michele has managed to blur firm, long-established lines within the industry, and between fashion and the public. He mixes old and new in a way that makes styles previously cut for the senior set fresh and youthful. He says, “For me, nothing is old. I don’t know why. If a dress is beautiful, and it’s very personal, I think it can live forever.” He blurs the lines of male and female, through color play, model casting, and a bold step into a genderless design. Men wear long skirts, women don power suits in playful patterns, models firmly stand in a gender-fluid world. He states, “fashion should be genderless; how people perceive the idea of beauty can vary from one to another.”
“Fashion should be genderless; how people perceive the idea of beauty can vary from one to another.”
And he blurs the line between posh and playful, styling models in thrift-store chic, nerdy glasses and gorgeous leather handbags, layering patterns and textures in ways that were previously described as garish or just wrong.
Alessandro Michele’s rise to Gucci’s creative director at age forty-three wasn’t surprising in any way. He was neither a golden child, just out of design school, nor a known name stolen from another design house. His ascent was a slow rise, with years of hard work, craft development, and deep love for the Gucci brand, simmering on low heat until the world was ready. He studied fashion design at Accademia di Costume e di Moda in Rome, gained experience at Fendi, and in 2002 joined Gucci—one of Italy’s most trusted and iconic brands. At the time, the fashion house was under the smooth guidance of creative director Tom Ford. And things were indeed smooth—lines were straight, fabrics were sheer, and Ford’s minimalist silhouette defined the time’s modernist sensibility. Michele moved from leather goods design director to associate designer, to then creative director of their porcelain line. At various touchpoints, he repurposed the leathers, accessories brands, and retail stores—a wholistic brand story to craft and tell, and a precursor to the entire brand overhaul he would later unleash. When he was appointed creative director in January 2015, Michele was relatively unknown in the world of fashion, but he was adored from within the Gucci corporation.
If you’re destined to be a style luminary, it doesn’t hurt to start that path in Italy. When Alessandro Michele stepped into the creative director roll at Gucci, he brought with him a couple thousand years of Roman design legacy in addition to his years of training, practice, and hard work. But it is that Italian heritage, and the nurturing of his naturalist and artistic parents, that gives him an insatiable quest for beauty and invention that is rare and special. He says, “I live in Rome and Rome lives in me, if you start from that perspective nothing is ancient and/or old, everything is contemporary, because everything is there. If every morning you see ancient monuments and statues, how can you say that they are not alive? They are there in everyday life, like me and you. It’s an ongoing dialogue between past and nowadays—future is just an assumption to define the contemporary.”
“I live in Rome and Rome lives in me, if you start from that perspective nothing is ancient and/or old, everything is contemporary, because everything is there. If every morning you see ancient monuments and statues, how can you say that they are not alive? They are there in everyday life, like me and you. It’s an ongoing dialogue between past and nowadays—future is just an assumption to define the contemporary.”
Michele brings a very sincere and personal expression to the brand. His voracious appetite for antiquities and classic art oozes into all aspects of his work. He is a life-long collector and a passionate lover of museums, flea markets, memories, and sacred churches. His influences are wide and random—British culture, the natural world, his parents, gender politics, the Queen, and even Snoopy. And he is not afraid to mix them. In fact, it is this layering of influences that gives his vision a sense of freshness and life. He takes the old and somehow makes it feel timeless and modern.
And he’s done it for interiors as well, as mentioned in the first issue on Pi on home. Michele launched the line of Gucci Housewares in 2017, where he contin- ues to layer textures, fringe, bold colors, and references to history and antiquities.
Often in the world of interior trends, there is a detected line of influence where fashion styles make their appearances in finishes, fabrics, or textures. For in- stance, the pleat of a skirt can inspire the drape of an upholstered item, or the print of chair can follow fashion’s lead. But for Michele, it is a whirlpool of aesthetics—where antique patinas found in historical furnishings influence the clothes, and costumes and embellishments found in paintings that hang in museums appear in the patterns of interiors. Nothing is off limits and everything is up for grabs. And memories, influences, and stories from Michele’s past are everywhere.
While Michele’s maximalist style has done wonders for the brand and parent company Kering, with growth topping 35 percent in most quarters since he took the creative helm, it has not been without controversy. This past year Gucci was blasted on Twitter for a sweater that appeared to depict black face. Many were outraged and threatened to boycott Gucci for not having any black designers. The brand that had a longstanding stake in hip hop culture was bruised. Gucci president Marco Bizzarri took the blame and the company instigated many measures to increase diversity awareness, including creating a scholarship for under-represented fashion students in Accra, Ghana, Lagos, Nigeria, Mexico City, and New York. Bizarri protected Michele, and said, “I’m going to kill the creativity of Alessandro if I put him in a cage. If we stop being creative because we’re afraid we’re going to make a mistake, what happens to the company?”
Walk into the Gucci Wooster showroom in SoHo and you can sense this curious timelessness. Full of needlepoint pillows, rose-print porcelain, gold-fringed vel- vet theatre chairs, and colors oh-so-many colors, along with kitschy animals, jungle patterns, elegant leather shoes, and art books. Eccentric sales people greet you with a sense of excitement, like you’re all about to head off to the most lavish dinner party together. While the urge to bucket the styles into clean eras and references is strong, just go ahead and give yourself over to the collective feeling of it all. Nothing is too totally unfamiliar, yet nothing is totally comfort- able in a referenced space and time. The amalgamation of eras, textures, and icons, portrayed in a theatrical, exaggerated, almost costume-like way creates a sense of drama that you can almost smell—a mix of old lady perfume, little British mince meat pies, fine leather shoes, and full roses that are slightly past their prime but still tragically beautiful. Add to that the goth influences, biker chic sensibility, and snakes and serpents that give an edge to it all. It’s all carefully curated and presented for lavish consumption. By just walking into the store, the customer steps on stage and becomes a part of the narrative. To go so far as to buy one of these pieces is to become a part of Alessandro Michele’s story, and what a fantastic story it is.
Katy Kennedy, Creative Director, Advertising Custom Program
Curator of Pi // Patterns & Insights, Cameron Campbell, is a Design Forecaster, Curator and Strategist. Her key driver in life is to engage people and inspire creative growth through context, speculation, art, literature, objects, and technology. Want to know more about Pi? firstname.lastname@example.org