The fashion industry is rife with creative director house-swaps and corresponding revamps. Amid such press-worthy shakeups, one certainly stands out: The new Gucci, à la Alessandro Michele, the quiet Italian creative, who was appointed to the role of creative director early last year, after working for years behind the scenes with former creative chief, Frida Giannini.
After making his womenswear debut in Milan in February 2015, Michele has created incredible buzz around the formerly tired Florence-founded house. Consider, for example, his Spring/Summer 2016 collection. The “multicolored, sparkly” frocks from that collection have nabbed the covers of Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, i-D, The Gentlewoman, and Marie Claire, among other prominent publications. In fact, Gucci has landed the most spring 2016 magazine covers thus far, according to a number of industry reports.
These designs are not just sacred showpieces, though. Michele has enchanted celebrities, bloggers, buyers, and editors, inviting them to forget their previous notions of the famed Italian design house and lust after his every design – from floral print garments to kangaroo fur lined shoes. As a result, his designs are jumping from the runway and magazine covers to the red carpet and the street with significant frequency. There was nary a major fashion site that did not have a slew of Gucci-clad street style stars in its Fashion Week street style gallery. Similarly, Michele’s Gucci has been spotted on every major red carpet so far.
The demand for the new Gucci is undeniably present. What is not quite as straight forward is why. Is it that the market is really taking a turn for less-is-more in terms of what is deemed sexy (which is the Michele for Gucci aesthetic in a nutshell), or is there more going on here? It seems obvious that the latter is the case. Sure, it can likely be said that the sleepy sexy look and gender fluidity that Michele is pushing are resonating with consumers, but there is a lot more going into the house’s revamp than a change in aesthetic.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Take the timing into account. The announcement of Michele’s appointment came at a relatively quiet moment in fashion – before the Hedi Slimane departure rumors started, before Raf Simons took the industry by surprise when he announced that he was leaving Christian Dior, and before Alber Elbaz was abruptly shown the door at Lanvin. As we have come to see first hand, over the past several years, in particular, this game of musical chairs proves immensely entertaining for fashion fans. With the creative directors of big houses being thrust into the spotlight – becoming celebrities of sorts – the level of interest amongst those on the periphery has risen.
So, the natural cycle of musical chairs (which was been sped up enormously over the past several years) becomes something of a must-watch, must-witness process from the initial appointment speculation rumors, to the confirmation, to the subsequent debut and the aftermath, the latter of which tends to be polarizing. For instance, as Vanessa Friedman recently wrote of Slimane’s YSL: “Remember the initial shock! horror! at his grunge girls on the runway in Season 2?” As such, creative director debuts – which appear to be coming with increased frequency – are something of an interactive experience, complete with nail-biting anticipation.
And the Michele for Gucci appointment has been no exception. Following months of rumors that Gucci’s former creative director, Frida Giannini, was to be ousted, after years of disappointing growth for the Italian design house, both Giannini and her real-life partner and Gucci CEO, Patrizio di Marco, were out. The fashion press had a field day. The publication of articles entitled, “Inside the Messy Firing of Gucci's CEO and Creative Director” and “Downfall of Gucci's power couple” ensued. But the drama did not end there; according to a report by the New York Times, on the heels of di Marco’s firing, he allegedly sent out a 3,000-page memo, some of which was made public. There was also the alleged speech (read: rant) that di Marco delivered to his employees at the Gucci cafeteria in Florence shortly before his departure.
Such chief-level shake-ups do not just sell magazines or garner page views, they arguably create a sense of excitement, which, of course, must be coupled with the fact that such activity also tends to have a negative effect on value. As Vanessa Friedman noted in connection with Slimane’s recent departure: “Products themselves require investment. They are not cheap. Consumers have to believe they will hold their meaning over time. And the meaning is created by the designer.” This is undoubtedly true, but in Gucci’s case it seems to have produced more pros than cons.
An injection of relevance with Giannini’s ouster and new life after Michele’s appointment put Gucci back on the map in Milan. It has certainly given fellow Italian brand, Prada, a run for its money in terms of being one of the most anticipated and talked-about shows during any given season. And as we have learned, consumers may just be buying a lot more Gucci than before. The house has posted growth (Gucci revenue advanced 4.8 percent for the fourth quarter of 2015, compared with the 1.5 percent growth expected by analysts, as reported in February), whereas its Prada continues to struggle in that regard.
TURNING TALK INTO ACTION
Gucci has taken its newfound fame and capitalized on it, using celebrities as leverage. Christina Binkley, fashion columnist for the Wall Street Journal, told us recently that Gucci is the celebrity’s go-to brand at the moment “because it’s the hottest brand around, their photos go viral when they wear it, and Gucci is brilliant about working with celebs.”
This proves true as this award season saw Gucci being draped over the backs of Cate Blanchett at the Spirit Awards; Harry Styles at the American Music Awards; Nicole Kidman at the SAG Awards; Brie Larsson, Jared Leto, Lee Byung-Hun and Ryan Gosling at the Oscars; and, let’s not forget the event bigger than any red carpet in the U.S.: the Super Bowl, for which Lady Gaga wore custom Gucci. “It’s just good business on everyone’s part,” Binkley explains. “Also, particularly with men’s wear, there really isn’t anything out there to compete with those zany printed suits, so if you’re Harry Styles, there you are!”
There is also something to be said for making and showing clothes people actually want to wear – something few houses have managed to do quite as well (as indicated by their need to revamp other aspects of their brands, such as the runway schedule and their deliveries, in an attempt to lure consumers back into stores).
Michele, on the other hand, “has tapped a nerve. If you look closely, he’s drawing on bits and pieces from many other labels [and putting them together].” Binkley cites Dries van Noten, Marco Zannini’s Rochas, Chloé and Saint Laurent as potential inspiration, “He’s assembling them into a look that is strangely desirable right now. It’s an intellectual look, and it’s fearless.” This fearlessness seems perfect not only for gaining attention on the red carpet but also for street style – a time when blending into the background is definitely not the aim of the game for the fashion personalities strolling between shows. With each recent fashion month that has passed, we have seen Gucci’s silky pussy-bows, androgynous silhouettes and enchanting, jewel-toned prints worn by just about every truly major street style figure, including by not limited to Bryanboy, Anna Dello Russo, and Susie Lau.
Another connoisseur of street style, Fashion Features Editor of Sunday Times Style, Pandora Sykes, believes the popularity of Gucci is due to how easy it is both on the eye and the mind: “It’s so much fun! It’s bright and very Instagrammable,” she told us. “By his own admission, Alessandro isn’t trying to make a political statement. The shininess of his new collection is about having fun. Getting popular figures like Hari Nef on board to take over their social media channels is always great PR.”
Sykes, who was also a Gucci fan in Frida Giannini’s time, wrote on her own blog in November 2015 of her love for Gucci being specifically about the logo. The population shares the love of a logo and Sykes believes Michele has tapped into this: “Alessandro knows the value of saleability, which Gucci coffers badly needed. Look at the logo belts, cheap enough for someone who doesn’t have the budget for a Gucci coat to buy into the brand and clearly show that they are wearing Gucci. The price point is clever, the loafers are £400-£500 (roughly $570-$710) and not £700 (roughly $990) like many designer shoes and the Soho bags start at £600 (roughly $850).”
Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, it seems like Gucci is doing it right from every angle: public relations, the right amount of accessibility, celebrity endorsement, street style endorsement, and this season, help from an edgy street artist. Yes, Gucci tapped Brooklyn-based artist, Trevor "Trouble" Andrew, aka GucciGhost, to take his hand at some logomania graffiti art.
IS IT MEANT TO LAST?
But is any of this meant to last? With the year-long abundance of press around Michele’s Gucci, it’s hard to believe the popularity is everlasting, especially given the plague of short-termism that runs rampant through the industry.
London-based fashion correspondent and fashion lecturer Julia Robson believes we are in the midst of a Gucci “wave” of sorts. “I think global fashion is currently still just immersed in “Michele-ism” in a similar way a few years back it was all about “Philo-ism,” when Phoebe Philo was steering fashion towards her clean aesthetic with Céline. Robson believes that mixed with the appeal of his Vetements brand, Demna Gvasalia’s deconstructed Balenciaga will likely be the next “wave” for the fashion aesthetic: “It’s clearly not going to be a long term effect with Michele but short term. This season you can see the impact of Gucci rippling through many other collections, but it won’t last forever.” Fashion is nothing if not cyclical, after all.
Binkley is also skeptical as to whether Michele’s popularity will remain. “There’s no telling at this point whether he’s built for just this era, or if he’ll transition. Nobody can maintain this level of popularity forever,” she says, yet she believes that Philo and Michele are opposites: “They’re similar in that they’re both obsessions but Philo is about power and control – feminine power. Michele is about letting your freak fly.” Their aesthetics are also the antithesis of each other. Philo is a champion of the minimalistic with an emphasis on timelessness, and is known to be a woman’s woman.
Her customers, the self-dubbed "Philophiles" have also proven that Philo’s popularity has not diminished terribly and the industry is as interested in her work as ever, especially with the rumors of her leaving Celine.
On the other hand, Gucci is the brand for the ultimate maximalist. Pushing perhaps even further than Miuccia Prada’s label, Michele layers historical reference on historical reference, creating a collection that is a carefully created dressing-up box of aesthetically beautiful and well-crafted clothes. In terms of the near future, Binkley believes profits will rise steadily into the double-digit increases. “Long term, the house will outlive us all, one designer after another, with high points and low points in popularity,” she says.
Predictions for Gucci’s future aside, and considering that we don’t know whether Michele is someone who will transition with the newly implemented 3-year or so schedule, what we do know is that his current popularity is unrivalled. Binkley aptly describes the Gucci wearer of today, saying: “Everyone who ever felt like a weird kid, or too smart to be popular, or totally out of sync with the jocks can wear Gucci and feel like they’re finally cool.” And in a landscape that is pushing for more disruption of the traditional high fashion model, including a wider sense of inclusiveness, there’s certainly something to be said for Michele’s approach.
Ruby Abbiss is a London-based fashion journalist, who has contributed to national and international magazines including WWD online and Harper's Bazaar UK.