Unlike the other reported contenders for the creative director position at Gucci (read: Tom Ford, Riccardo Tisci, etc.), which became available following the ouster of Frida Giannini late last year, Alessandro Michele is not exactly a well-known name outside of a small circle in the fashion industry. It is a very important name, nonetheless. He is the man leading the charge to revamp the famed Florentine design house and along with it, working to boost the brand in its struggle to produce any significant amount of growth in terms of revenue.
The result of Michele's nine months at Gucci has been a resurgence of a proportion that we have not seen since Tom Ford took the helm of the then-nearly bankrupt brand in the 1990's and revamped everything from the garments and accessories to the ad campaigns, bringing in stylist Carine Roitfeld and photographer Mario Testino to create a series of overtly sexual new campaigns and to help fashion a rather complete overhaul of the entire brand, itself. Before we get ahead of ourselves, Ford's shoes are big ones to fill. He did, after all, have a hand in boosting the brand's sales by 90% in one year's time - between 1995 and 1996. The comparison feels sacrilegious but we simply have to ask: Is Michele on his way to becoming Gucci's saving grace à la Tom Ford in the mid-90's?
It seems too soon to tell, as Michele's creations have spent so little time on the store floor. But what we do know is this: The brand's recent resurrection under the direction of Michele comes not only on the runway (by way of fanciful, androgynous fashion complete with a hint of gawky-yet-unassuming ease), but also in red carpet, editorial, and street style terms; an "it" shoe, the kangaroo-fur lined loafer; and early signs that strong financials very well may follow (more about that in a minute). Gucci's parent company, Kering, has made it known that Gucci is its top priority at the moment. Accordingly, we expect great things.
As you likely know, Michele made his official debut during the Fall/Winter 2015 womenswear shows in Milan and is said to have worked very heavily on the corresponding menswear collection, as well. What you may not know is that Michele has been at Gucci all along - currently working from his studio in Rome, purposefully so he can "stay a little bit away from fashion" - namely, Milan. No, he is not a new name on the roster at Gucci. In fact, he has worked closely with former creative director Frida Giannini since 2002. He moved to Gucci’s Design Office in 2002, assuming growing responsibilities within the Creative Department until he was promoted to the role of Associate to the Creative Director in May 2011.
Interestingly, Michele’s education and career thus far has some marked similarities to that of Giannini, who Gucci was seemingly quite pleased to let go following continuous periods of falling growth. Michele studied at Accademia di Costume e di Moda in Rome, which boasts graduates that include: Giannini; Roberta Andreetti, Design Director for Women's Shoes at Gucci; Filippo Cilia, Senior Designer for Womenswear at Salvatore Ferragamo; Guiseppe de Gennaro, Senior Designer of Haute Couture at Valentino; Eliana Giorgi, Women's leather goods designer at Gucci; and Matteo Russo, Senior designer at Alexander McQueen, among others. Also like Giannini, Michele started at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. He joined Fendi as its Senior Accessories Designer before switching to Gucci in 2002. (Giannini joined Fendi in 1997).
With these points of similarity between Giannini and Michele, it feels natural to wonder if Michele will be able to make this work any better than Giannini did - or didn't. As such, more important than Michele's background is his plan to trudge forward with a house that has not so secretly struggled over the past several years and has not yet mastered the art of catering to a changing demographic of modern day luxury shoppers. But the approach thus far sounds promising; the house is going back to basics - kind of. According to the New York Times, the appointment of a widely respected accessories designer like Michele suggests that former CEO Patrizio di Marco’s successor, Marco Bizzarri, intends to stick with a strategic push into higher-end luxury, especially accessories like handbags. That makes sense. Gucci has built its house on accessories, after all. And it seems to be a successful effort to date. Gucci's Dionysis bag (one variation is pictured below), for instance, is gaining quite a following. Publications have been quick to label it a "must have" bag. Starlets are being photographed carrying it. It has shown up in Gucci ad campaigns. It is being copied. This, my friends, is the making of an "it" bag.
Meanwhile, Michele’s debut and subsequent collections have romanced many critics, while also leading them to note the significant aesthetic departure from Giannini’s work. His vision for the famed brand - complete with midi lengths and pussy bows - looks to be directed at a younger and more sartorially adventurous consumer. While Michele's whimsical take on fashion may seem a bit impractical for a brand that is desperately aiming for growth, Michele said his primary goal is to make wearable garments and accessories: “I don’t think that being innovative means making only strange or weird things that you would never see in the street." And some of the industry's toughest critics believe in him. For instance, of his debut collection, the New York Times Vanessa Friedman compared him to two of the most successful designers of the moment, writing: "Mr. Michele shares an approach with Nicolas Ghesquière of Louis Vuitton and Phoebe Philo of Céline, both of whom have been much applauded for their willingness to make clothes."
From a strictly financial perspective, what Michele is doing may actually work. While Gucci is the most profitable brand for French luxury conglomerate, Kering, the Florentine brand is still struggling to bounce back from the logo-fatigue that consumers began to experience several years ago. Sales continued to fall for Gucci in the final quarter of 2014, making it the only label owned by Kering (which also owns Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, etc.) to post in the negatives this past year. However, things are looking up under the direction of Michele. While the house does not expect revenues to turn around until Michele’s collections have firmly hit stores, the Gucci brand posted sales growth of nearly 4% as reported in the first quarter of 2015. Comparable sales in Gucci’s directly operated store network were up a solid 6% in Western Europe and stable in the US.
The house under Michele is still very much a work in progress but it seems things are beginning to look up. Stay tuned …