Monday, 15 July 2024

Alessandro Michele

Gucci mastermind unwinds outside Rome

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It’s a story as old as time itself: fabulous Roman finds peace and good times in rural surroundings. Back in the days of the ancient empire it was called otium – a term denoting blissful moments that statesmen would take outside the urban centre for leisurely pursuits that were at turns tranquil and scholarly and sometimes debauched. Carrying on this fabulous tradition is Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, a Roman boy who just likes to get away from it all from time to time. In an undisclosed location somewhere in the rolling hills of Umbria, Alessandro has plans to turn his villa into an inspiring space for others to use while doggedly protecting his surrounding countryside from development by spa resorts, geothermal plants and chocolate-spread manufacturers. Beautiful!

From Fantastic Man n° 31 — 2020
Text by GERT JONKERS
Portraits by ALASDAIR McLELLAN

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As Alessandro Michele’s house looms up through the trees, I spot a group of five or six people standing on the lawn. They’re quite far away but one figure stands out in particular. I see him from the back, moving slowly, face turned away, wrapped in a huge blue cape with long, jet-black hair cascading from a big red hat. There’s an aura of magic around him. That’s Alessandro.

By the time I reach the house, the group has disappeared inside. We convene in a cosy room that looks like a kitchen, dining room and living room all at once. What an amazing place, I say. “Isn’t it beautiful?” says Alessandro. “I love beautiful things, of course.” The designer has just returned from Miami, where Gucci, together with Snapchat, hosted a beach party in honour of Harmony Korine’s new film. Alessandro had never been to Miami before. “What a crazy place!” he says. “It’s really an invention.” He rolls his eyes. From his hotel room he had the most amazing view onto the ocean, he says.

The party coincided with Art Basel Miami Beach, so Alessandro attended the fair. Did he see any art that he’d like to get for himself? “Oh, no. It’s not really me. But I thought it was fun to be able to see so many galleries in one go. It’s like travelling from LA to Tokyo, Berlin, London, Rome and San Francisco to see the latest art, all in one day. That’s amazing.”

“But,” he continues, “the contemporary art market! My God, the people you see there! Crazy! They interested me more than the art, to be honest. The artists, the new rich. It’s like a fruit salad of crazy people. Creepy and fabulous. So…really something for me!” He laughs. “It made me wonder if I could ever live in Miami.”

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Alessandro, who is 47 years old, says he’ll likely retire from fashion one day, but he’ll never retire from life; it’s just too much fun, he thinks.

Why not? I say. His fellow Italian Gianni Versace famously lived there.

“You still see a lot of Versace in Miami,” he says. “They’re as obsessed with him as they were in the ’90s. The one thing I found very odd was when I was walking around, looking for a place to get a coffee, and I passed by Casa Casuarina, Versace’s house, and they’ve opened a restaurant in it called Gianni’s. Strange, no? I use the word strange. It’s more than strange! Can you imagine, creating a restaurant right there where he was killed on the stairs, and calling it Gianni’s? Wow!” Alessandro has a way of talking that’s seeped with puzzlement and excitement. “The world is such a crazy place! That’s why I don’t want to die!”

Two years ago Donatella Versace gave Alessandro a tour of Gianni’s old apartment in Milan. “Gianni was obsessed with the past. There wasn’t one thing in the house that didn’t belong to the past. But I adore him for how, out of his obsession for the past, he invented something so psychedelic, so pop, so unbelievably modern. I think he’s one of the most influential designers of our times. He invented what is now considered completely normal: this mix of fashion and rock ’n’ roll. Gianni, and maybe also Tom,” he says, referring to his old boss, Tom Ford, who hired Alessandro as senior leather-goods designer at Gucci in 2002. “They invented a whole new way to be a fashion designer, somewhere between a movie star and a kind of fashion god. Since Gianni and Tom, fashion design is not about how to design a skirt, but how to create a world.”

A bit like you, too, I suggest, hinting at his unparalleled overhaul of Gucci, making Alessandro easily the world’s most influential designer in the last half decade.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m just a country boy from Rome who’s looking for something beautiful and who is trying to understand life.”

If that sounds like a fabulous simplification of what could well be a terribly complex job, well, maybe that’s exactly how Alessandro operates his creative directorship of one of the world’s biggest brands: with gut feeling and a slight sense of the philosophical. “I see my work as an investigation and I hope it’ll bring me a little bit closer to understanding why we are here,” he says. But, he also just loves nice clothes. I remember a great quote from Alessandro, when he said that he likes the idea of dressing up and looking happy and alive so that “death doesn’t recognise you.”

“Yes, exactly,” he says today. “When you feel bad and you put on something crazy, maybe it can carry you away and make you feel that the end is still far.”

WALK-IN

Alessandro spent two days in Miami, and when he landed back in Rome he went straight to his country house, a good two-hour drive north, which is where we meet today, on a Monday morning in December. “Allora,” he says. “I love it here. It’s like a village. I’d love to live here permanently one day.”

Alessandro currently lives in Rome. If I’m counting right, he has five houses: his humble old apartment in Rome, and a super swanky new apartment that he and his boyfriend, Giovanni Attili (known to everyone as Vanni), recently moved into and where, allegedly, Alessandro’s walk-in closet is bigger than the entirety of their previous flat. They already have a country place in Civita di Bagnoregio, which they’ve had for years, and they bought a second house in the same town, for visiting friends. “These two little houses,” Alessandro calls them. Their original house in Civita has often been described in the press, as has the way Alessandro, after landing the Gucci job exactly five years ago, holed up there alone to drum up the outline of his first women’s collection. Perched on a hilltop and surrounded by steep ravines, Civita di Bagnoregio is incredibly picturesque and now so touristic that in 2013 the municipality started charging tourists (currently €5) to enter. “They must be making millions,” Alessandro says, and since it made him feel a little bit like a tourist attraction himself, Alessandro and Vanni started looking for a new house in the countryside.

The term “house” doesn’t really do justice to where we are today. Alessandro has kindly asked me to not go into details about where it is that he spends his time off. Maybe it’s because, still, after five years at Gucci’s creative helm and a hundred public appearances alongside Elton John or Jared Leto, he’s slightly uncomfortable with being at the centre of attention. But also, who wants fans knocking on your door on a free weekend away? But let’s just say the venue is pretty remote and amazingly gorgeous. It has 360º views over the sprawling hills around it, and yes, given that the complex comprises several buildings, there’s something village-like to it. Some of the structures are in ruins and need substantial work, which Alessandro and Vanni, a professor in urban planning at the Sapienza University of Rome, have embraced with a certain patience. They bought the place almost three years ago, and part of the house, following some renovation, is perfectly liveable. We’re sat in the kitchen/living room, where an assistant serves espresso in jaunty coffee cups that close with a lid. (They could well be from Gucci, or from Richard Ginori, the Kering-owned tableware brand where Alessandro served as a creative director, part time, when he was assisting Gucci’s previous creative director, Frida Giannini. They gave him the job at the chic ceramics brand to keep him motivated.)

There’s incense burning and Chet Baker is singing. It’s a wonderfully cosy place. Friends are walking in and out, and one of them brought a pit bull that plays with Alessandro’s two Boston terriers, Bosco and Orso. Vanni, carrying a laptop, walks by and says hello. He’s a towering man with bright blue eyes and a ravishing beard, who wears a long, tweed coat with a bear embroidered on the back.

How did they find this amazing location? “I was looking for something…,” says Alessandro. “No, I wasn’t looking, I was dreaming of an empty place with a lot of land, and then this place found me. Mutual attraction. This old lady was living here – it was her family’s estate. The place was collapsing. She was looking to sell and she was about to sign with a real estate developer who wanted to turn this into a spa hotel! Can you imagine?” There’s an expression of horror on his face. “So I told her that I wanted to live here, and she started to cry. ‘I don’t know who you are, but you just saved my life,’ she said.”

It’s an exemplary tale of the demise of Italian aristocracy, says Alessandro; the old rich can’t afford this kind of country fabulosity any more. Aren’t you the new Italian aristocracy, I suggest, and isn’t that why this place lives on with your loving help? “Interesting,” he says. “I’m definitely trying to buy more land around here. We were just discussing that last night when we were standing outside and we saw these deer playing like kids. It was so beautiful… There’s the constant danger of investors trying to develop the land around here.” Big conglomerates are wanting to buy tracts of land to grow hazelnuts for their chocolate spread, in order to keep their “Made in Italy” label. “They’ll cultivate the land intensively,” says Alessandro. (A few weeks after our meeting, Alessandro is mentioned in a story in ‘The New York Times’ that hints not only at the threat of nut harvesting in the area but also – even worse – a geothermal plant being built near his estate. “Hasn’t beauty a value?” the paper quotes him as saying, and “I ask myself, in 2020, do we really need to still destroy everything?”)

GUCCY

The very first time I saw Alessandro was the moment a lot of people saw Alessandro for the first time: on Monday, 19 January 2015, at 1.20pm, on a stage in Milan. A shy man with half-long hair and a bushy beard, wearing a cream Aran jumper and grey, baggy jeans, took a bow after the first Gucci show he was in charge of. He had spent a frantic few days with the design team whipping up a brand-new and completely radical collection of gender-challenging dress-up fun. It felt quite retro, as if he’d plundered someone’s attic full of fabulous silk blouses, oddly proportioned suits with the creases from years of storage still clearly visible, vintage granny glasses and fur-lined house slippers. It was different from everything else being shown at the time. Where did this come from? From a thrift-shopping fan, clearly, and someone who loves a bit of history. He was officially appointed as creative director two days after the show – much to everyone’s surprise, including his own.

Alessandro’s touch demanded a huge overhaul of the company, from somewhat glitzy and cold to fun and warm. It proved a runaway success for Gucci, with the house’s total revenue growing from 3.9 billion when he started (sales rose 13 per cent in the quarter after that first menswear show), to 9.6 billion in 2019. That’s a lot of expansion in five years.

What’s extra startling, though, is how Alessandro’s vision seems quite singular yet can embrace seemingly opposite styles so naturally in a total hodgepodge of yesteryear influences. I’m old enough (as is Alessandro) to remember how certain style movements would clash, sometimes aggressively so, in the 1970s and ’80s. Hippies hated punks and vice versa, and punks looked down on disco and its happy glitziness. Skinheads hated everyone who wasn’t a skinhead, and everyone hated skinheads, even if their bleached, rolled-up jeans worn with Dr. Martens were a hot look. Then one day in June 2016 I saw a Gucci show in the hallowed halls of Westminster Abbey in London where punk T-shirts and disco shoes and hippie bags and skinhead jeans all merged in happy unity, and it still made sense. And even when you think you know what you’ll find in a Gucci store, it can be a surprise to see what’s on offer. Is that a house painter’s uniform next to a chic blazer covered in Gs and a sweatshirt with “Guccy” scribbled on it with a sharpie? It has the exciting what-am-I-going-to-find-here-today? factor of a dream flea market. Alessandro’s is an eccentric signature that looks unmistakably Gucci yet can encompass almost everything. What a brilliant concept!

His inspirations are clearly more historical than futuristic, but Alessandro doesn’t like the notion of nostalgia. “Unlike the Renaissance or Classicism, which were about revamping something that’s interesting for the present, I think it’s only in our current era that we treat the past as something that needs to be preserved. And to preserve something that is dead feels wrong to me. You risk ending up with a postcard, something without life. So I want to preserve this place by pushing it into the now,” he says of his house in the countryside. “I’d like to preserve the atmosphere of this place. But it’s important to start a conversation between the past and the present. I’m not really a nostalgic person. I mean, I love the past, but only when the past is really alive in the present. Otherwise you’re just sitting in a ruin.” And anyway, who knows exactly what happened here in the past? “Maybe they held raves here in the Middle Ages,” says Alessandro.

JOLLY HEDONISM

Alessandro and Vanni are here a few days per month, and for longer stretches of time around Christmas and in the summer. It’s huge for just the two of them and their cute dogs, but Alessandro’s idea is to breathe life into the place. “We want to give young, beautiful people the chance to work here, study here. They should have the opportunity to live in beauty.” They’re planning a theatre, classrooms for Vanni’s students, and studios for residencies. “Maybe the Gucci studio can set up here,” he says. But he might be joking. The place is a perfect example of otium – that ancient Roman tradition where the empire’s high society would spend their time off in the countryside, for contemplation, meditation and maybe some jolly hedonism. Although he clearly appreciates the rest and relaxation and tranquillity that are to be had from his country retreat, when I mention the concept he doesn’t seem so keen on the idea of compartmentalising one’s life. “Does that strict divide of city and country still really apply? You don’t have to stand in the middle of Trafalgar Square to get a sense of the city. You can be in the middle of nowhere and still be in the middle of everything happening.” Yesterday, here, in countryside bliss, Alessandro was working on some red-carpet dresses. “I don’t mind. I open my laptop or iPad, work a bit, and close it again, and I’m done. I’m not a slave, you see? That’s the magic of technology: you can switch it off.”

FANTASTIC MAN - Just to the right of his enormous front door, ALESSANDRO is wearing his favourite country cape, a cardigan, jeans, and the red hat he designed for himself to wear to the LACMA gala in LA, 2019. Sewn inside the hat are two labels: one says GUCCI and the other LALLO, his nickname.

STOIC

The first time I met Alessandro properly was on a Monday in Rome, 15 February 2016, at 3pm. That morning, on landing at Fiumicino Airport, I’d got a hint of Alessandro’s universe. Instead of the ubiquitous chauffeur in a black suit, Alessandro’s PR man was awaiting me in a super jolly see-through knitted jumper with a big butterfly embroidered on the chest.

Alessandro occupied a chapel in Gucci’s headquarters, in a palazzo designed by Raphael, the Renaissance painter and architect. Michelangelo used to live on the other side of the street. Alessandro was in a baggy T-shirt, brown corduroy trousers and turquoise slip-on shoes with bees embroidered on them in gold thread. “I’m sorry, they’re a bit outrageous,” he said. On a shelf behind his desk sat a stuffed bird and a collection of wooden hands on sticks like you’d see in the window of an antique glove shop. On Alessandro’s wrist, a gold Rolex. We chatted for 15 minutes. His assistant served an extremely strong espresso. Wim Merten’s modern minimalism played in the background. At the time, Alessandro was just over one year into his tenure at Gucci. The whole world was banging on his door, but he didn’t seem too fussed about the pressure. “To be honest, I expected to be fired immediately after that first show,” he said, so all this felt like a bonus, which is a very stoic way of looking at stress.

And that’s still the vibe I get from Alessandro today, in and around his country residence. There must be massive pressure to deliver, to keep Gucci’s perpendicular growth figures going, even when fashion’s eternal cycle will one day turn back from maximalism to simplicity. But if that’s on Alessandro’s mind, he’s good at hiding it. He’s busy preparing his first stand-alone men’s show in years, after he pushed for showing menswear and womenswear simultaneously. He’s not reverting for financial or visibility reasons. “I just feel like it,” he says. Just like he feels the urge to support young, new fashion designers in Milan (but he’ll do it behind the scenes, he says). He also wants to restore the old, overgrown oak-lined drive to the house. He points to a building that’s boarded up. “We think that could be classrooms,” he says. I don’t see a pool, or an orchard, or even a terrace for a breakfast in the sun. “Oh, but I hate the sun on my skin,” says Alessandro, hence the wide-brimmed red hat he keeps on hand all the time.

Alessandro grew up in Rome with an airline-engineer father, who was also an accomplished sculptor, and a mother working in the film industry. Their city apartment had a huge garden with lots of birds in cages, and dogs, cats and turtles roaming around. “I’d love to get a third dog,” he says, as Orso and Bosco snore loudly through our conversation. “Or, even better, I’d like to find another dog, or to have another dog find me. The countryside is such a delight for dogs. When I see Orso and Bosco running around here, being happy and free, that’s beautiful.”

Beautiful is, naturally, Alessandro’s favourite word. “Isn’t it beautiful here? I love beautiful things, of course,” was the first thing I heard him say today. And beautiful applies to almost anything:

 – The view on the nearby lake is beautiful.

 – The Renaissance villas that old aristocrat families built in the area are beautiful.

 – Montefiascone is a beautiful town, as is Civita di Bagnoregio.
 – The upper floor of his house is still in ruins: that’s beautiful.

 – The beautiful people that he puts in his Gucci shows and campaigns may not be the supermodel type of beautiful, but “my kind of beautiful, nerdy Milanese students with beautiful ugly faces.”

 – If Alessandro ever retires from fashion, he might open a beautiful flower shop.

 – Instagram was beautiful when it started, but Alessandro is bored with it now. These days his 685,000 followers get only the occasional glimpse of his life.

 – Ugly fashion from the ’90s can be beautiful.
 – My chipping nail polish is beautiful.

 – He recommends a visit to Orvieto Cathedral’s Cappella Nuova to see the Renaissance frescoes – showing mass gatherings of medieval people, naked, in paradise, or being received in hell. “They’re crazy and look like a contemporary movie,” says Alessandro. “So beautiful. I sometimes go there for inspiration.”

Alessandro’s favourite realm of inspiration and contemplation is his storage space in Rome, stuffed with artefacts. “I used to have three warehouses full of stuff,” he says, with a hint of embarrassment. He would probably qualify as a hoarder. “Yes, I buy at Christie’s, Dorotheum. 1stDIBS not so much; it isn’t very good any more, I find. My favourites are little English auction houses away from the city – you find the most beautiful Tudor and Stuart Age portrait paintings. I won’t say they go for nothing, but they’re still really cheap. I shouldn’t say this, of course; I’m ruining my own market.”

The charm of a good old physical, Sunday-morning flea market is already long gone, he finds, although as a dedicated collector he can’t stop trying. His finds often inform his work at Gucci. “Old books, weird children’s dresses, odd objects… Things that aren’t really fashionable. Relics, I call them. I don’t care about a vintage Paco Rabanne or Saint Laurent dress, you see?” Today, after lunch, Alessandro and his friends are heading to an antique building-materials outlet nearby. “You can find the most amazing things there: fireplaces, stairways, fences. It’s not always clear where they got it, and you wonder if they got it the regular way. In other words, very Italian!” He bursts out laughing.

Tomorrow he’s heading back to Rome. Alessandro is known to thrive on the interaction he has with his team and is said to ask people’s opinion constantly. “I want to know how people perceive things. What’s the response? I don’t want to make things that are just fancy or nice. If someone from my team says, ‘Oh, that’s cute, that’s nice’ – I hate that! It makes me want to scream! I want to make things that are unbelievably fabulous or terrible! I can be happy with terrible. I hate cute.”

CAPE

We’re standing on the porch of Alessandro’s premises. The designer is wearing sturdy hiking boots (not Gucci), a pair of jeans, an old white T-shirt, a generous camel cardigan, his big red hat and a big, ornate cape. “So practical; it’s like a blanket,” he says. “And it’s fun. It makes me happy.” He may have saved the property from the claws of a 5-star-spa-hotel developer, but he’s turned it into his own haven of mindfulness. While we’re talking, the Gucci press machine is busy sending out news of a capsule collection featuring MICKEY MOUSE, a range of beauty products, new sneakers, a Gucci-sponsored art show in Seoul, South Korea, and the launch of a photography book in Milan. But Alessandro Michele is perfectly in the now, relaxed, enjoying a leisurely start to the week, his mind uncluttered with regrets of things past or future worries. “I bought a new camera,” he says. “I love taking still pictures. I don’t pretend to be a photographer; I just love to play with it. Nothing serious.”

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CONTRIBUTIONS

Photographic assistance by Lex Kembery and Simon Mackinlay.