In the heart of Florence, just a few blocks from the Arno river, sits the largest privately owned city garden in Europe. Stretching over 17 acres, the grounds feature several historic properties belonging to two branches of the blue-blooded Torrigiani family, including a soaring neo-Gothic tower, the famous 16th-century Villa Torrigiani (where the Marchese Giovanni Battista Giorgini presented Italy’s very first couture show, in 1951), and a greenhouse that hosts biannual private sales of antiques and vintage objects. Tourists, not to mention most residents, walk blindly by this secret sanctuary all day long, oblivious to the wonder that unfolds behind its giant iron gates.
“Of all the beautiful places I know in Florence, this is my favorite,” says Gucci’s newly appointed Creative director, Alessandro Michele, 42, eyes twinkling as he leisurely soaks up the sweet summer air beside the property’s swimming pool. “Someone built it to live happily in it. No one wants to show off the palazzo. The beauty is hidden and shared between friends and family.”
Michele first stumbled upon the prized spot more than a decade ago while on one of his obsessive hunts for vintage treasure. He is now good friends with the sporty, silver-haired aristocrat Serena Torrigiani Malaspina, the marchese’s niece, who takes him on joyrides in her golf cart, often serves him dinner, and is a reliable pusher for his ravenous vintage habit. “I love collecting objects,” Michele says with a big grin. “I’ve been an avid collector since I was a child.”
The fruits of that passion are poured over Michele’s own body. He is bearded and shorn in biblical proportions, and his arms and neck jingle with a swarm of gold clock-key charms, Victorian chains, and colorful beaded bracelets dangling with the baby teeth of his nephews. Nine rings crawl over his fingers like exotic Renaissance vines, including an 18th-century Georgian emerald-and-pearl mourning ring, a silver engagement ring and an inscribed gold wedding band given to him by his boyfriend, a diamond-and-enamel memento mori ring from Codognato, a gold lion’s head from Gucci’s last men’s show, and a Bourbonera red crystal ring that his mother bought for herself with her first salary.
Dressed simply in jeans, a white T-shirt, and Gucci tasseled loafers, Michele looks more like Chris Robinson on sabbatical in a Venetian court than a man tapped to lead a $3.9-billion-a-year fashion empire. But this gentle gypsy, who spent the past 13 years toiling quietly behind the scenes in Gucci’s design studio, is fashion’s latest disrupter. Eight months ago, Michele was plucked from his relatively anonymous job heading up leather goods and shoes for Gucci and inserted into the gargantuan and very public role of creative director, replacing his former boss Frida Giannini, who left this past January, along with her now husband, CEO Patrizio di Marco, after a companywide shake-up. Michele came out of the shadows with guns blazing, presenting four back-to-back shows that mixed genres, gender roles, and sexuality—and instantaneously turned Gucci’s image on its head.
In Michele’s first menswear show, in January, which he produced in exactly five days, he boldly put the boys in girls’ clothing—including floppy bow-front sheer blouses—that dropped the jaws of his jaded front row. For his first women’s show a month later, he put the girls in a mix of quirky and supremely executed granny clothing, completely swept free of high-octane sexuality. He put everyone in nerd eyewear, piles of the kind of intriguing jewelry he himself wears, and leather horse-bit mule slippers with tufts of fur. In short, Michele has taken Gucci on a wild, courageous ride that has shaken the 94-year-old house out of its fashion slumber and thrust it back into the conversation, making it one of the buzziest brands around.
“It’s a game changer not just for the brand but for what’s happening for fashion in general,” gushes Sarah Rutson, Net-a-Porter’s vice president of global buying, of Michele’s new Gucci. “The sense of colour, the mixing of fabrics, silhouettes, and multiple layers. It all just feels so right. These are all stylistic reference points that everyone will be using going forward.”
Michele, though, says he never had such lofty motives. He offers that his mingling of male and female codes of dressing comes with centuries of precedence. “I am mannerist,” he says. “I didn’t invent this. [Most recently], Armani and Yves Saint Laurent did. So when I read that journalists were giving me credit for it, I laughed because these people certainly do not know much about fashion history!”
Michele’s own knowledge of fashion history is scholarly. He launches happily into an impassioned speech about various animal species in which the males prance around like peacocks to attract the attention of the females before segueing into the fashion practices of the French aristocracy under Louis XIV, when high heels, bows, and wigs were regular elements of a man’s wardrobe. “The idea that a man should be wearing something different and more eccentric is obviously the oldest idea on earth,” he says. “Men nowadays really don’t dress up anymore. But men wore bows before women.”
Switching up the boy and girl closets is just one of Michele’s many moves. He has also deliberately erased the glossy, in-your-face sexiness of Gucci’s steamy past, characterizing it as a concept that was already done masterfully by Tom Ford, for whom he worked at Gucci before Ford left in 2004. “Why should I try redoing something that he did perfectly?” Michele asks. “That would be like trying to repaint the Sistine Chapel.” But while Michele acknowledges that sex will always be “very important” to Gucci, he would like to construct a new female allure that is more personal. “I really don’t consider Kim Kardashian sexy,” he says by way of example. “She’s like one of those primordial sculptures of fertility, like the Venus of Willendorf.” Referring not to Kardashian but to women in general, he adds, “Some women are forced by men to look a certain way, to be accepted by the general public, and I find that terrible.”
Michele’s woman is spiritually unchained. She might like fancy things, but she has an anarchic soul. “She’s an intellectual who has taste,” he says. “A woman whom you’ll never know if she has a boyfriend or a girlfriend, a woman with great freedom of expression.” One of those women is singer Florence Welch. “We passed each other in the street in New York and admired each other’s outfits,” Welch recalls of her first encounter with the designer. “Then we met and spoke about the Renaissance, churches, vintage jewelry, and everything under the sun. We realized that our aesthetic is Jimi Hendrix mixed with an old lady!”
Michele describes his aesthetic as “a hippie renaissance idea of fashion.” It was a look that crystallized perfectly last June in New York, when he showed his powerful Resort collection, populated with a forest-nymph yellow lace dress covered in flower and animal patches, colourful ruffled and embroidered gowns, and the hot new Dionysus tiger’s-head-closure bag. “All our vips reached out to our personal shoppers as soon as it uploaded,” Rutson says. “Even a woman like me, who is always in khaki, black, white, and gray, is like, ‘I want to wear pink! And yellow!’ ”
Creating that raw desire is precisely Michele’s mission at Gucci. “Fashion is a religion in one sense,” he says. “Once upon a time our brand was considered the sanctum sanctorum of fashion. I want to produce things that people really want to buy.” In this respect, Michele freely discusses designers he admires, such as Jonathan Anderson, Alessandro Dell’Acqua, and Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino. He even cops to having recently obsessively hunted down a pair of Valentino sandals for himself. His openness is refreshing, his likability undeniable. “He has such a sense of wonder and creativity,” adds Welch. “He is such a warm and fun person to be around.’’
The nice card is one that Michele also plays in Gucci’s Rome office, where he oversees a staff of 70 people. Hysteria and nastiness, two unfortunate realities of the fashion world, are not part of his new regime. “I can be tough in my own way, but I don’t like aggressiveness,” he says. “That’s not the way I am; it’s not part of my character.” Though he flows like a powerful river when he’s speaking one on one, Michele finds the public aspect of his new job to be a source of consternation. “[The postshow bow] feels almost like I’m going off to my own execution,” he says with a laugh. “It’s very hard for me.”
Apart from this, however, Michele’s calm coolness is eerie. His purpose is clear and his confidence unwavering, both of which he chalks up to pure passion. “I could easily compare my job to being in love,” he declares, “because when you meet someone you are really into, you just can’t believe you’re dating them.” Michele and Gucci are indeed shaping up to be fashion’s new It couple. And no one is more surprised than the designer himself, who admits that he was thinking of leaving the company as recently as last year. “The fact that it has been perceived well by the press and that people were waiting for something big to shake things up,” he ventures, “well, I just feel like it was kind of written in the stars.”
Words: J.J. Martin
Photography by Jason Schmidt