Alessandro Michele: Gucci’s X Man

How Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele turned around the brand and what his surprising departure could mean for the brand.

By: Suman Tarafdar

Posted on: December 12, 2022

Alessandro Michele leaving Gucci

Of late, one way or another, Gucci seems to be on everyone’s lips, especially of the luxury purveyor. If Ridley Scott’s ‘House of Gucci’ wasn’t enough to tantalize, eye-catching visuals of a plethora of celebrities, most notably Harry Styles and Jared Leto in Gucci getups made everyone have a reaction – either way. If numerous recent alliances with other brands, headline making all, weren’t enough, then 68 pairs of identical twins in matching looks sashaying down the runway in Milan certainly was. Even in an emerging luxury market such as India, filmmaker Karan Johar’s ‘Gucci ki dukaan’ to Malaika Arora-led ‘Gucci Gang’, the brand has seemingly caught the attention, and translated into sales for the brand, everywhere.

So, it was all the more surprising to hear of the departure of Alessandro Michele as Gucci’s creative director after about seven years of helming the brand. Over creative differences, if sources are to be believed. The Rome-born designer, who has had a two-decade long stint at luxury conglomerate Kering’s marquee brand, and took over from Frida Giannini in 2015, saw the brand’s revenue go up from €3.9 billion in 2015 to €9.7 billion in 2021. Indeed, Gucci is key to Kering’s revenue as the brand makes up about two-thirds of profits at the French luxury group, which also counts Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Brioni, Boucheron and Kering Eyewear among its brands.

"There are times when paths part ways because of the different perspectives each one of us may have."

Alessandro Michele with Harry Styles

Alessandro Michele with singer-actor Harry Styles.

“Today an extraordinary journey ends for me, lasting more than twenty years, within a company to which I have tirelessly dedicated all my love and creative passion,” Mr. Michele said in the statement. “There are times when paths part ways because of the different perspectives each one of us may have.” Insiders suggest reading between the lines.

Kering CEO and chairman François-Henri Pinault was effusive too. “The road that Gucci and Alessandro walked together over the past years is unique and will remain as an outstanding moment in the history of the House,” his statement in turn said, but there has been a history of sudden changes at the top for Gucci. Think back to 2004, when the brand parted ways with Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole and the second, in 2014, Giannini and the then CEO, Patrizio di Marco were let go. Other brands in the group have also seen abrupt exits.

Despite Gucci’s seemingly impressive revenue, analysts have demurred. “Gucci is suffering from brand fatigue as Alessandro Michele has been doing more of the same for seven years,” Luca Solca, analyst at research firm Sanford C. Bernstein, told the Financial Times. “In order to reaccelerate, Gucci doesn’t need to move to the mainstream or to become timeless. It needs to open a new creative chapter.” In a note to investors, he stressed the importance of China to Gucci as the country is responsible for more than one-third of all sales. The slowing down of the Chinese economy has impacted luxury sales across brands, and Gucci has been no exception.

Alessandro Michele portrait

Perhaps it only goes to underline the fact that luxury is a fickle overlord, demanding approval and revenue alike. Apparently sales growth has been down, 13% in 2019 compared to 45% in 2015. Kering’s shares have fallen 24% year-to-date versus 4% for rival luxury conglomerate LVMH. Industry insiders said ‘brand fatigue’ and Michele, despite all his eye-catching moves over the last seven years, is out.

What changed under Michele

Just how did the 49-year-old shake up the rather proper, quite classic Gucci. Mr. Ford may have started the journey, but certainly it was Michele who made the brand. Industry insiders, and most importantly customers, took notice of what he was doing. It could be argued that Mr. Michele kept up the massive changes overtaking how we were consuming information, relying more and more on snippety, visually rich content, almost social media first than text or analysis.

Indeed his reign had a rather abrupt start as well. In January 2015, Gucci’s then CEO Marco Bizzarri asked Mr. Michele to serve as an interim creative designer for the January menswear show and gave him a week to reshape just-sacked head designer Frida Giannini’s original designs. Mr. Michelle complied, and his first show was labelled a “new Gucci: nonconformist, romantic, intellectual” by Vogue.

His signature designs were often androgynous, with a touch of eccentricity - or genius, depending on where you stood, and always glamorous, ever flamboyant.

Alessandro Michele with Jared Leto

Alessandro Michele twinning with actor Jared Leto.

His signature designs were often androgynous, with a touch of eccentricity - or genius, depending on where you stood, and always glamorous, ever flamboyant. His first show as creative head of the brand is best remembered for a male model on the runway wearing a bright red pussy bow blouse. Other models, still male, followed in lace tops and floral-patterned vests. He broke unwritten rules often – note the pairing of socks and sandals! Oversized coats were a thing for him. As were mixed prints, oversized glasses, backless fur-lined loafers… Gender fluidity arrived as never before with his shows.

X marks the brand

He also perhaps helped make fashion more accessible – by associating with brands who were not necessarily in the same luxury hierarchy space but probably had a far greater reach. Perhaps the most noteworthy is the ‘Exquisite Gucci’ collection, complete with Adidas x Gucci logo on headwear, blazers, and tracksuits. Gucci collaborated with Disney, with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck featured on t-shirts, low-top sneakers, denim jackets, and sweatshirts. In 2020, it tied up with outerwear brand The North Face with joint logos on puffer jackets, backpacks, and boots. Gucci and Balenciaga incorporated both brand’s aesthetics into apparel, shoes, and accessories. Gucci and Comme des Garçon partnership has produced several unique tote bags and accessories. For Xbox’s 20th birthday, the two brands came together for a limited-edition collaboration of 100 game consoles.

Many moves were absolutely politically correct, though one can always have question marks raised over a sector that chooses to destroy its surplus products rather than discount. In 2017, Gucci pledged to go fur-free. In 2019, Gucci decided to go carbon neutral. In 2020, Gucci launched its first eco-friendly collection called ‘Off The Grid’, featuring sneakers, bags, accessories, and ready-to-wear apparel made using recycled, organic, bio-based or sustainably sourced materials. In 2021, Gucci reduced the number of annual shows from 5 to 2, declaring the fashion calendar obsolete, noting the role of the pandemic and noting the muchness of the luxury retail sector – asking if the fashion industry was producing too much and putting on too many shows.  

Ranveer Singh in Adidas X Gucci

Indian actor Ranveer Singh in Gucci X adidas collection.

Maximalist, showman, disruptive, enfant terrible – however his legacy at Gucci is remembered, what is for sure is the changes he made to a rather staid brand, catapulting it into an Insta age by creating innumerable moments that could – and went viral.

India’s celeb set, read ‘Bollywood’, has been particularly brand stuck, and the better known the brand in India, the more they flaunt the label. Perhaps none exemplifies this better than Karan Johar’s recent poem on Instagram, which expressed his attraction to the brand. “Haa main hoon Gucci ki Dukaan, worn exclusively for Hunarbaaz desh ki Shaan … ban gaya main Ranveer Singh ka wannabe …Bach ke Rehna Badshah ab copy karoonga aapka bhi….” (Loosely translating to: Yes, I am a Gucci shop, I am a Ranveer Singh wannabe, and now brace yourself because I will copy you too Badshah.) Incidentally actor Ranveer Singh is also the local face of Gucci x Adidas collaboration and can be credited with making the brand even more famous in India, despite carrying forward Mr. Michele’s gender fluidity in a notoriously conservative society. Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, Ayushman Khurana – there are many in the Indian tinseltown happy to sport the double Gs.  

Maximalist, showman, disruptive, enfant terrible – however his legacy at Gucci is remembered, what is for sure is the changes he made to a rather staid brand, catapulting it into an Insta age by creating innumerable moments that could – and went viral. Whether his departure needed to be more decorous is up for debate, though maybe it is befitting an age where effect trumps tradition, especially in fashion.

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