With his long smooth hair, glasses verging on hypertrophy and black fan—more a testimony to the ambient heat than a pedantic or pseudo- ecological stance—Alessandro Michele looks like a neo-hippie.
Except that, in half a decade, he’s managed to turn Gucci into a glittering cash machine. The Florentine brand, a heavyweight of the Kering Group, achieved a turnover of €9.6 billion in 2019, up 13 percent. The man lauded by the press since he took up Gucci’s artistic reins in 2015 appears, smiling and affable, on our phone screen, together with his press attaché.
Talking jewellery, something that in essence is all about touch and intimacy, could prove problematic in the dematerialised COVID-19 context. But Michele rises brilliantly to the challenge. It is, after all, in his blood.
A unique case in the world of fashion, this 48-year-old from Rome designed Gucci’s first high jewellery collection, Hortus Deliciarum (Garden of Delights), presented in 2019.
He’s now working on a second opus, which he describes with unabashed enthusiasm, like everything Alessandro Michele undertakes. Vogue talks to the man who’s currently finding his happiness at Gucci.
Where does your interest in jewellery spring from? I’ve loved jewellery since I was very young. It’s a passion passed down to me by my grandmother, who was almost a collector. She used to love big pieces, huge rings and cuffs. This influenced me and also stimulated my love for history and past centuries. As I grew up, I started collecting jewellery of different styles, from different eras, in layers, like a geologist. I have cameos, some carved in lava, English jewellery from the Victorian era, Italian neoclassical micro-mosaics. I like the Roman school, Castellani, and am continually looking for more ordinary pieces, too. I also have a passion for gemstones. What I love most of all, though, is artisan, handcrafted work. I appreciate the idea of revival from another era. These jewels are little masterpieces. They’ve become a great passion because I believe these objects have magical powers.
Is that what led you to launch your first high jewellery collection in 2019?
Yes, undoubtedly! For Hortus Deliciarum, which I wanted to be as eclectic as possible, I imagined opening a safe belonging to a man or woman who shared my obsession with jewellery. It’s a choral expression, combining many different voices derived from classicism. In it, we find the Napoleon III spirit, British jewellery, and rings inspired by modernism. I had a lot of freedom, room to manoeuvre. The singular, perhaps strange thing about these models comes from the discordant symmetry between the sizes, colours and shapes of gemstones used. I love this imperfect spirituality. It’s like I’ve unearthed some old jewels with a rather bizarre DNA.
What can you offer the world of high jewellery?
I have an eye for detail and high jewellery is a detail-focused craft requiring real know-how. For me, it represents quintessential luxury, much more so than a handbag or pair of shoes. It’s a way of completing a certain kind of aesthetic I have in my head. I sincerely believe I can approach this world with a lot of passion and love. Although it might belong to the handful of big brands producing it, my approach is more that of a fan with a vital need to wear certain pieces.
You say you don’t follow any rules. However, the whole aesthetic world you’ve set up really brings Gucci’s codes to the fore.
Whatever we do, it generates paradox. This is, unfortunately, the very essence of fashion. If you do something surprising, unusual, it becomes a brand, a code, even a norm. We might look at particular combinations of clothes or accessories and think: ‘Ah, how quirky, that could be Gucci. It looks like Gucci!’ A look that’s straight out of a flea market, mixed with pieces emblematic of the bourgeoisie and elements of street. This hybrid way of dressing has almost become the rule. Putting together unexpected things is now synonymous with Gucci.
You’ve said that jewellery reflects humanity’s good side. What do you mean by that?
There’s something compelling about the artisans who create these little marvels. From gem buyers to jewellers, they have unparalleled passion. We don’t find this strength of feeling anywhere else. Perhaps because they’re enchanted by gemstones and want them to be reborn. The jewels come from nature and are transformed in multiple ways, with such care. I’d call it a testament of love. Golden ornaments steeped in eroticism. People try them on, handle them, buy them. There’s a kind of joy in looking at them and touching them. They stimulate real pleasure.
Does jewellery have a sex?
It has several! Feminine, masculine, hybrid. If jewellery does have a sex, it’s a sex that corrupts. Jewels have been used as a currency of exchange for centuries.
What can you say about your next collection? We’re in the process of finishing it. The theme is the universe, the stars. I imagined a microuniverse and micro-constellations, where gems, which are at the heart of the planets, make up a firmament. A voyage through a slightly strange solar system. But, since we’re still in the finishing phase, these stars are still in the dark. I’ve no idea when we’re going to release them. This high jewellery collection springs from my desire to complete something. It’s like it’s been in gestation. We can now say that the child has been born. I’m like its father, looking out for its first steps. And when it leaves home, I’ll feel like something’s being torn from me.
One of your principles is that beauty must last. What do you do to ensure that fashion, something ephemeral by nature, can last?
Fashion is like film. It’s all about experimenting, producing new things. When a fashion object is created, it has a meaning. It reflects and takes on the desires of those who buy it. I find that lots of people recognise themselves in what we do. My ambition is to encourage our customers to make their clothes last, make them want to continue wearing them for the next 10 years, because they match their true identity. Fashion is something curious and quite mysterious. I have a huge wardrobe: so many shoes, I don’t know what to do with them. I love fetish pieces, which I still wear. However, I keep buying more and producing more. Fashion is like love. You don’t know where it begins or where it ends. I’m well aware of the problem this poses. To be meaningful, fashion must generate and regenerate itself. But, at the same time, I want to keep everything I have. It’s a really complex issue and a key question for me.
Your collections are polysemic. But what’s really to Alessandro Michelle’s taste?
I work like a pornographer. Pornography’s an area where anything’s permitted, even things that are in bad taste. And I, Alessandro Michele, am perhaps the one who wants to bring pornography into fashion. Deep down. I love it when women are sexy even if they’re ugly and men are attractive even if they aren’t alpha males. I love walking the streets bare-chested. I love it when marvellous things are worn in a desacralising way. It seems to me that life’s like this or, in any case, I’m like this. I like impossible conversations.
How do you explain why everything you touch turns to gold?
I really don’t know. I ask myself the same question. There’s a visceral need, an urgency, in everything I do. People feel this sincerity. They see there’s no marketing behind all this.
If you hadn’t chosen this profession, what would you be doing?
I’d be an archaeologist or art critic. Freud also had a passion for archaeology; I’d be like him and invent myself a job.
How would you like people to remember you?
I’d like to leave traces of my passion. I want to be remembered as someone who was madly in love with the love around him. I’d also like to be remembered as a joyful person. That’s why I get on so well with objects, which are supposedly inanimate. You do need a lot of joy and an upbeat outlook to give them life. I get close to them so they can talk to me.
Would you like to add anything?
“No, but I love your red ceiling!”