Alessandro Michele gives Gucci some heat
“We were extremely surprised, touched by his passion, his intimate view of the house – and after long reflection we decided to give him a chance,” François-Henri Pinault told me about the appointment of insider Alessandro Michele to take over the fashion hot spot at Gucci.
Pinault, chief executive of the Kering luxury group with its flagship, Gucci, was referring to his decision with Marco Bizzarri, president and CEO of Gucci, to appoint as creative director one of the team that had worked with outgoing designer Frida Giannini. Michele will, hopefully, be the new Tom Ford – the designer who rebooted the brand in the Nineties and brought a sexual charge to the glamorous Italian leather house.
But behind this week’s announcement and the chance it gives to the Rome-born 42-year-old Michele – a name unknown outside the Gucci coterie – is a complex story of luxury shivering in a cold climate.
Since Gucci’s recent sales had been more or less stagnant for the $4 billion brand, it had seemed inevitable that, after nine years at the helm, Giannini and her partner and CEO Patrizio di Marco, would be replaced. Across the luxury world, after two decades of solid growth, many companies are counting the cost of a slowdown in China and a hiccup in the established methods of increasing business geographically and demographically.
It is not just that there are few nations or countries left to conquer. The entire fashion system of choosing a star designer to electrify a dusty brand – see Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel in 1983, Tom Ford at Gucci in 1994, and John Galliano at Dior in 1996 – is looking shaky. First, there are not enough exceptionally creative people to go round; if they are put in place, an iron legal agreement binds them to the brand – and with the pressure to produce ever-more between-season collections, there is a risk that a designer’s skill fades or, at worst, he/she collapses under the pressure or resorts to those well-known props of drink and drugs.
So what is management to do?
Designer musical chairs is a costly and risky business. Since LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) and Kering, formally PPR, are the main contenders, they fight for the top talent. It is not surprising to find that in 2002, a year after LVMH bought a stake in Fendi, Alessandro was poached by Gucci. Working alongside Frida Giannini, he continued to focus on leather goods – the cash cow of most luxury companies.
Michele, who has started the fame game by showing his vision of Gucci menswear last week, may turn out to be the company’s hidden treasure.
Marco Bizzarri described the men’s autumn/winter 2015 collection as “a remarkable collaboration between the men’s design and production teams ”and” a clear indication that the brand is ready to take a new direction.”
Michele was not, unlike so many of his fellow designers, trained at London’s Central Saint Martins. Instead, he and Frida Giannini both went to Rome’s Accademia, Costume & Moda. I was introduced to this hub of creativity by Lupo Lanzara, who now runs the family business and has shown me the dramatic and detailed work of the students. His mother, Fiamma Lanzara, the Academia’s president, remembers with enthusiasm both Gucci designers. She told me that Alessandro was a student on the four-year programme in Costume & Fashion Design which ‘’combines within the same educational path costume and fashion as two expressions of the same art’’.
“Ironic, diligent, positive, serious, respectful and discreet, with infinite curiosity – this was Alessandro during his educational career,’’ she says. “We wish to him all the best for this new challenge and opportunity, hoping to see him again back at school to share his experiences with our students.”
What are the chances of a designer who has been in the background moving smoothly to front of stage?
Kering may be thinking about the success of the design duo at Valentino. After founder Valentino Garavani himself retired in 2008, the brand tried out an outside designer, who did not work out. Then the light shone on two designers who had been working, unknown, beside the maestro for a decade. The appointment of Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli has been a resounding success, inspiring other companies to look for talent within.
Yet every fashion house is different. So are the outside circumstances, with political events such as the demonstrations in Hong Kong and the recent Paris terrorism attacks having a baleful effect on business.
Gucci has made its choice. And everyone in the fashion business will wish Alessandro Michele well. He – and the luxury world itself – need all the good luck they can get.