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Lulu Tenney model Gucci Aria
Lulu Tenney is wearing Gucci Aria

“It’s Like Pornography”: Alessandro Michele on Hacking Gucci and Balenciaga

In the new issue of AnOther Magazine, Alessandro Michele tells Alexander Fury about his audacious Autumn/Winter 2021 Gucci collection, which confounded all expectations

Lead ImageLulu Tenney is wearing Gucci Aria

This article is taken from the Autumn/Winter 2021 issue of AnOther Magazine.

“It’s like pornography.” Alessandro Michele uses typically atypical terminology to describe his latest Gucci collection. In an ongoing challenge to traditional seasonal nomenclature, he has called it Aria, the operatic term denoting a self-contained piece for a solo voice. Which is ironic, given that Michele’s Gucci is boldly plural – especially today, drawing in myriad creative voices, aesthetic histories and ideological constructs, many parts to make the whole. This time, Michele went even further, describing his approach of openly appropriating other styles, symbols and signifiers as “hacking”. To draw us back to his pornographic play on perception, he means the results seem slightly illicit, the gains maybe ill-gotten. “It’s illegal, but maybe we can start to change this word a little bit,” he says. “You can hack if you have permission.”

Michele, who turns 49 this autumn, has helmed Gucci for six and a half years now, a restless period of ceaseless reinvention of the century-old Italian leather goods house. Not only Gucci’s clothes but its entire aesthetic universe has been transformed – hacked, not in the sense of the act of illegally infiltrating a computer system, but of violently or sharply cutting. Michele has hacked at Gucci’s heritage, its history, its meaning, to reshape it into something new. I’m reminded of a turn of phrase by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin – whose work Michele admires and quotes often. Benjamin used the German word Tigersprung – ‘tiger’s leap’ – to describe fashion’s leap into the past to create an ever-changing present. Michele embroiders lots of tigers on things. Maybe they mean more than you would imagine at first glance.

“Gucci is a brand that started from the creativity of a family,” says Michele. He’s talking from his home in Rome, a few weeks after presenting his Gucci collection, via Zoom but without video. The focus instead is on his melodious, strong-accented voice, softly crooning. Michele is mesmerising in person, dressed like some kind of bejewelled fashion shaman with his long, flowing hair. But as with any great leader, his voice is enough to pull you into his world, his cult. Now he’s talking about the cult of Gucci – the history of the brand, but also of the family. “They just did something unbelievable because they were not couturiers. They were just people of the bottega” – the Italian word for ‘shop’, not the Kering brand that shares that name – “that started to work in leather goods. They really used a lot of creativity to start this unbelievable trip. In Gucci there is a space for everybody. There was a space for Tom, who invented, again, the image of the brand – you know the story.”

“Tom” means Tom Ford, of course, who in 1994 was appointed creative director of Gucci – a name then more commonly seen in tabloid headlines than fashion pages, emerging from a morass of familial power struggles and murder plots worthy of pulp-fiction novels and, now, a blockbuster movie – and ignited its rise to the pinnacle of the industry. What Ford did was to rebrand Gucci, as swiftly and adroitly as Michele has done, giving it a slinky, subversive sexiness that pervaded everything from evening dresses to advertising campaigns to exotic ephemera – such as a kinky leather Gucci whip – intended to provoke reactions. Michele’s vision for Gucci is softer, sure – it’s tough to picture Ford quoting Benjamin – and infinitely more multifaceted, as befits the vastly expanded sphere of luxury today. But it’s just as powerful.

“There is a big philosophical conversation around the copy. And the idea of combining the language of two brands, it’s also a dream of a fashionista. I mean, it’s like history if you can combine Leonardo with Raphael, not because I feel myself like Leonardo! Maybe Demna is Raphael ... ” – Alessandro Michele

And for this Gucci collection, Michele embraced every part of the house’s identity – his opening look was one hell of a tiger’s leap, exhuming a keynote outfit from Tom Ford’s Autumn/Winter 1996 Gucci collection, a velvet suit in a shade of scarlet that the New York Times critic Amy Spindler compared to Mick Jagger’s bruised lips, slithering over a baby-blue shirt. It was sort of Scarface. More tigers. I remember it, from when I was a kid, the advertising campaign showing Georgina Grenville languishing on a sofa, staring up at a male model, Ludovico Benazzo. They were both dressed in that suit, her hand stroking a velvety thigh.

Whenever fashion quotes from its past it’s never quite the same. Michele hacked at that look, shifting the proportions, overlaying the subtly sexual open shirt with an overtly fetishistic leather harness. Ironically, that has its roots in an even older Gucci – Michele tugged it from the brand’s origins, the leather equestrian goods offered alongside luggage in a tiny Florentine shop established by Guccio Gucci in 1921. He learnt his trade at Valigeria Franzi, purveyor of luggage and leathers to the Italian aristocracy, but had also spent time at the Savoy in London, hauling expensive luggage. Literal first-hand experience. Guccio started off importing goods to his store, but given the excellence of Tuscan craftspeople, he began to have artisans make pieces for him locally. But he – and those leather workers – probably never imagined their harnesses and whips would be shifted from horse to human.

“Fashion is about life. Fashion is the closest thing to life – because every day, from the first day of our life, we put something on our body. So it’s such a crazy thing to apply boundaries or limits. Because life isn’t about limits” – Alessandro Michele

Then again, Michele likes to confound expectations. So, although rumours of a collaboration – or whatever you want to call it – between Gucci and its stablemate Balenciaga swirled before Michele unveiled his Aria show in April, the sheer audacity of Michele’s approach was still breathtaking. This wasn’t a polite example of co-branding, an anodyne sweatshirt plastered with a couple of emblems. Michele filched the patterns of Demna Gvasalia’s tugged-across asymmetric coats, his curve-bottomed Hourglass handbag, stretch trouser-boot hybrids and the waist-nipped, plump-hipped suits he showed in his first Balenciaga show in 2016 – it was at that event that the two designers first met one another – and slapped a Gucci label in them, sometimes over them. He printed Balenciaga’s logo atop Gucci’s monogram canvas, smothering one suit with crystals spelling out both labels’ names in a delirious co-branding confusion. The Gucci Jackie bag, a fiercely protected house classic first introduced in 1961 – it was given the rather less evocative serial number G1244 until last year, when it was officially renamed after its most high-profile fan, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – now comes stamped with a print stating, falsely, ‘BALENCIAGA’. It looks like a fake.

The language of the counterfeit is something Michele is fascinated by. I should have asked him if, really, he’s always hacking Gucci because he isn’t a Gucci – he’s perpetually working under someone else’s name. But he was already talking, slowly, methodically, about his ideas. “There is a big philosophical conversation around the copy,” Michele says. “And the idea of combining the language of two brands, it’s also a dream of a fashionista.” He breaks into laughter. “I mean, it’s like history if you can combine Leonardo with Raphael, not because I feel myself like Leonardo! Maybe Demna is Raphael ... ” He’s laughing again. “But it’s like a dream. It could be really bad, it could be a beautiful experiment. The beautiful thing is that it’s forbidden, and when you say that something is forbidden, I think that it starts to be interesting, in terms of creativity.”

Michele pauses, thinks. “Fashion is about life. Fashion is the closest thing to life – because every day, from the first day of our life, we put something on our body. So it’s such a crazy thing to apply boundaries or limits. Because life isn’t about limits.”

Hair: Anthony Turner at Streeters. Make-up: Lynsey Alexander at Streeters. Models: Daan Duez at Rebel Management and Lulu Tenney at Ford Models. Casting: Michelle Lee Casting. Manicure: Lotje Vleugels. Digital tech: Henri Coutant. Lighting: Romain Dubus. Photographic assistant: Samir Dari. Styling assistants: Niccolo Torelli, Louise Pollet and Jasmien Van Loo. Hair assistant: Harriet Beidleman. Make-up assistant: Raffaele Romagnoli. Producer to Willy Vanderperre: Lieze Rubbrecht. Production: Mindbox. Producer: Isabelle Verreyke. On-set producer: Lise Luyckx. Production manager: Roel Van Tittelboom. Production assistants: Charlotte Dupont and Marteen Rose. Post-production: Triplelutz Paris

This article appears in the Autumn/Winter 2021 issue of AnOther Magazine which will be on sale internationally from 7 October 2021. Pre-order a copy here.