Dressing Madonna: Gucci’s Alessandro Michele Reveals (Almost) All
"It's like you're in a temple, going to meet the goddess, and then you discover that the goddess is a big perfectionist and an incredible woman," said Alessandro Michele, Gucci's creative director, about how he met Madonna in rehearsal in New York.
"She is tiny and beautiful," Alessandro continued. "The thing I really loved about her was her eyes - the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen; super green-blue eyes - I think she must have had the same eyes since she was six years old!"
The passionate designer, who has rocked Gucci with his magpie spirit, mixing inspirations from decades and centuries past, was spotted by über-stylist Arianne Phillips as new fashion blood for the Material Girl's "Rebel Heart" world tour.
Full disclosure: I was the person who suggested to Arianne at Prada's "Iconoclast" exhibition in London in February that Alessandro could create a new romantic look for Madonna.
Suzy Menkes with Arianne Phillips (right, wearing Prada) at Prada's "The Iconoclasts" installation in London last February
"Essentially, my job is to be an editor for Madonna," Arianne said, whose list of designers to dress the tour includes Jeremy Scott at Moschino, Prada's Miu Miu, Fausto Puglisi and Alexander Wang. But she was eager to include Gucci's Alessandro.
"I became entranced by his return to craft, the personal and feminine aspects that he has brought into his embellishment to the austere, slick Gucci," Arianne said. "It was like a return to beauty and incredibly inspiring."
EMBROIDERY FEATURED WIDELY IN THE GUCCI S/S 2016 SHOW
Sitting with Alessandro in the Gucci show room in Milan this week, surrounded by the spring/summer 2016 collection of intensely coloured and decorated outfits, wild with frescoes of flowers, he explained his thoughts about dressing Madonna.
"It was an idea to mix Spanish and Latin attitude with chinoiserie, in the exact pink you can see in that skirt," the designer said, pointing to a floral outfit on the rail.
ALESSANDRO MICHELE'S COSTUME FOR MADONNA, FOR THE "REBEL HEART" TOUR
"I thought that if Madonna wore the chinoiserie - a skirt with a super-long fringe - it would be like the divas of the 1920s, when the exotic was mixing Japan and Spain together," he said.
But these fantasies had to pass the eyes and experience of Arianne. She missed Madonna's "Rebel Heart" tour's first night in Montreal because she was in Hollywood with Tom Ford. She is working on his new movie, starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal - a film she had been waiting for since working on Ford's A Single Man.
ALESSANDRO MICHELE'S DESIGNS FOR GUCCI S/S 2016
"It's an interesting circle; Alessandro Michele first came to Gucci under Tom Ford, and played the soundtrack of A Single Man at his first Gucci show," the award-winning costume designer said.
Back to Madonna. It was in awe and trepidation that Alessandro - who was promoted to Gucci's creative director after years in the team behind the scenes - walked into the studio on the outskirts of Manhattan at 11 at night to come face to face with his idol.
ELEMENTS OF CHINOISERIE FOR GUCCI S/S 2016
"They opened the door, and she was having dinner - grilled salmon - and said, 'Welcome to my restaurant - do you mind that I'm eating?'" Alessandro remembers. "Then she danced for an hour and a half or two. She was ready to work after midnight."
I can imagine Alessandro sitting in the studio - as he was in front of me in the Gucci show room - looking like a Romantic poet, with his beard, long hair and his rings that he changes all the time, "because I have a huge box full of Georgian and Victorian jewellery".
ALESSANDRO MICHELE, CREATIVE DIRECTOR OF GUCCI, WITH SUZY MENKES IN THE GUCCI SHOWROOM IN MILAN
But as Arianne knew and Alessandro was about to find out on his midnight visit to Madonna, the art of performance clothes is different from fashion style.
An Alessandro Michele sketch for the backing dancers on Madonna's "Rebel Heart" tour
"When they asked me to design, I wanted to give her something super-romantic with the idea of an exotic, dancing Frida Kahlo with ruffles, colour, and a different kind of aesthetic," Alessandro said. "I started with something super-huge, because I did not imagine she would actually want to dance with this dress."
Alessandro Michele's sketch for the "Rebel Heart" dancers
The Gucci designer also discovered that he would have to create outfits not just for Madonna, but also for all the dancers, making it a marathon job.
"I tried to sketch in my office, to put together an aesthetic like I usually do," Alessandro said, describing one outfit as "Asian, with flowers and ruffles from Spain, something from Mexico, colours and English embroidery."
Alessandro Michele's costume sketch for the "Rebel Heart" tour
I interrupted Alessandro's stream of words to ask when he had first registered Madonna and her work.
Another of Alessandro Michele's costume sketches for Madonna's dance troupe in the "Rebel Heart" tour
"I was about 15 - I was a big fan," the 43-year-old said. "She was the first pop musician that I really loved. Because I was in love with the English music, like The Sex Pistols, I was a bit of a snob about pop. But she was the first one who tried to mix a certain kind of punk aesthetic - like black lace - and she put it together and tried to become a new superstar. She really wanted to be a diva."
I wanted to find out more about Alessandro, this designer who seemed to have sprung from nowhere with so much knowledge of history - of fashion and otherwise. He told me about losing his parents, saying that "I had a very beautiful relationship with my mother - she was so funny and intelligent. She died when she was 69 but she was like 20."
For Alessandro, Madonna has that spirit of eternal youth. "She is 57 but she's like a teenager, and if you're like a teen in your mind you are alive forever," Alessandro said. '"I have to say that Madonna is really open. She is surrounded by people that love art and she has a lot of people around her that are perfectionists. She is very intelligent - that is why she is still at the top after 25 years."
ALESSANDRO MICHELE TAKES HIS BOW FOR GUCCI S/S 2016
"And then she tried on the outfits, started to move to check that everything is good to dance in. She really is a performer - she doesn't just want to look beautiful - she cares more about the performance. She is obsessive about how to communicate with her audience."
He confesses that he was taken aback by her commitment. "I was completely shocked when I came to the rehearsals; it was in a place you would meet a real dancer, super rough, not a place for a diva, but a place for a real artist."