Of the many designers to make their debuts at fashion houses this year — Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski at Hermès, John Galliano at Maison Margiela, Guillaume Henry at Nina Ricci — none generated the widespread fervor that Alessandro Michele's first round of ready-to-wear collections for Gucci did this year. It's no exaggeration to say that Fashionista's editors have been obsessed — not just with the runway collections and accessories, but also with the man himself. As the sheer number of editors donning the label's fur-lined slippers and re-released Dionysus bag at fashion week attest, we're not alone.
Gucci is, of course, a major fashion house — with €3.5 billion in annual sales, it generates more revenue for Kering than all of its other luxury brands, including Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent, combined. Any designer — whether a well-known name like Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci, who was rumored to be on the short list for the job, or an unknown entity like the 42-year-old Michele, who worked at the house for 12 years before his ascension — would have had the industry's attention at his first showing.
But the mystery surrounding Michele's appointment — that he emerged, name virtually unknown, from the helm of Gucci's accessories department following Frida Giannini's contentious departure — certainly heightened anticipation for his womenswear debut in February. (Unofficially, he showed his first collection during the men's shows in Milan in January, but was not named creative director until a few days later.) "The main reason he generated so much interest was that he was this unknown designer," says stylist Karla Welch, whose client roster includes actress Olivia Wilde and the singer Lorde. "All of a sudden, he's made [Gucci] the 'It' brand without being a superstar, without that name-brand association."
When most people think of Gucci, they think of the Tom Ford era of Gucci — slinky dresses with plunging necklines, the aggressively sexy ads. The clothes of Ford's successor, Giannini, still evoked a jet-setter lifestyle, but were more moderate in their sexiness. What Michele brought out in his first collections was both a familiar Gucci and an unfamiliar one. There were the well-known house signatures like horsebit loafers, interlocking Gs and red stripes. But combined with vintage-y mink coats, androgynous suiting, wallpaper florals, tilted berets and geek-chic glasses, they evoked not sex but the rag-tag glamour of a Wes Anderson film. To borrow a description from Vanessa Friedman, they looked as if Michele has "delved into an imaginary attic trunk full of vintage treasures, recombining the elements for the girls and boys of a haute flea market world." Under Michele's direction, Gucci today is about sensuality, not sexuality — and it has a unique Italian feel, evident especially in the choice and mixing of prints.
The result is that in just one year, Michele has emerged as one of the most important voices in women's fashion, joining the ranks of Miuccia Prada, Phoebe Philo and Hedi Slimane. In a period defined not by wide-sweeping movements or trends, but by individual tribes (the tribe of Céline, the tribe of Saint Laurent and so on), Michele has raised a banner for a somewhat forgotten group: the colorful, carefree fashion eccentric. "With Alessandro's collections, there's definitely a greater sense of freedom, and a greater sense of being able to have this sort of tossed salad of a look, just sort of mix a lot of different ideas and wear them at will and not have to worry about it," says Robin Givhan, fashion critic at The Washington Post.
For as much excitement as Michele's designs have stirred among followers of women's fashion, his gender-fluid approach to dress has ruffled far more feathers on the men's side. Traditionally, Gucci has shown its men's and women's collections separately, and favored traditionally masculine, and traditionally feminine, looks for each. Michele has dismantled those guardrails, casting male and female models in every one of his runway shows, all wearing a mix of lace, suiting and florals seemingly drawn from the same pile. Michele, with his Louis XIII mane and penchant for statement jewelry and, for formal occasions, floral-printed suits, himself embodies this approach.
Michele has "helped to further and deepen a conversation about what menswear is supposed to look like," says Givhan. "I don't think that the average guy is going to be wearing a lace shirt, but I do think that in a more subtle way it will have an impact on [men's] clothes, help them think about in a more creative way."
Fortunately for Gucci's owners, Michele's impact hasn't been solely cultural — his designs are resonating with buyers, too. While sources tell me that some more conservative retailers have reduced their investment in the brand, others have substantially expanded their stock. At Net-a-Porter, Gucci is now the company's second biggest seller after Saint Laurent, according to Sarah Rutson, the company's vice president of global buying, who says with some pride that while others were skeptical of Michele's first collections, she snatched them up straightaway. Matchesfashion.com, meanwhile, has more than doubled its Gucci buy since Michele's takeover — investing not just in the women's collections but in the men's collections as well. "We took to it straightaway, we loved the aesthetic," says Buying Director Natalie Kingham. In addition to "resonating quite well on the runway," Michele's collections have also appealed to Kingham because they are full of "strong, very wearable" pieces that don't require a head-to-toe commitment, but can be mixed into a customer's existing wardrobe.
It's not just Michele's new designs that are breeding consumer enthusiasm — his coolness has seemingly suffused the entire brand. While you'll see plenty of fur-lined slip-ons at fashion week, show-goers are also breaking out their old double-G belts and heritage loafers. Givhan says she's noticed it, too. "That's what's been so interesting about what's happening at Gucci. Alessandro has been able to help revive the whole idea of Gucci, and not just Gucci spring/summer '16." Kingham notes that since Michele's appointment, sales of more traditional Gucci fare, including the aforementioned belts and loafers, have also gotten a lift.
As the old adage goes, with great power comes great responsibility, and going into 2016, the pressure on Michele will be twofold: to continue the momentum he's brought to the runway and to perform at the cash register. While Michele's collections represented "only a very limited portion" of Gucci's third-quarter sales, Kering noted that the brand is already seeing a return to positive momentum, with sales in Gucci's directly operated stores up 27 percent in Western Europe and 24 percent in Japan. Kering will release its full-year results on Feb. 18, less than a week before the next Milan Fashion Week kicks off. Tick, tock.