‘We smile, we say hello to everybody, we enjoy ourselves.’
How Alessandro Michele and Marco Bizzarri are making Gucci the feel-good fashion brand.
By Jonathan Wingfield
Photographs by Juergen Teller
Although we’re still only in April, fashion in 2016 has already defined itself as a chaotic and confusing place to be. If you believe all the daily reports and rumours clogging up our inboxes, there’s precious little to smile about: fashion is a ‘broken system’ in need of disruption, with designers in a perpetual state of anxiety, houses fluctuating between buoyancy and irrelevance, key markets feeling the pinch, and consumers snapping at the industry’s heels, demanding more product in less time.
Against the backdrop of all the perceived hysteria, the luxury Italian house of Gucci appears to be stubbornly – perhaps even gleefully – bucking the system, thumbing its nose to the general mood of uncertainty. Presenting itself as unshackled and reinvigorated, Gucci’s new era continues to steadily unfold with healthy sales and an aura pitched somewhere between carefree and supremely confident. Barely 15 months into a monumental reinvention, the overriding sensation within the company appears to be unity and fearlessness.
It wasn’t always so, of course. The events leading up to today’s newfound optimism can be traced back to long before December 2014, when faltering sales and lukewarm reviews finally left couple Patrizio di Marco and Frida Giannini – Gucci CEO and creative director respectively – helpless in the face of their inevitable and unceremonious ousting. The brand had simply stagnated for too long, never truly able to sustain the phenomenal period of growth and gravitas that Tom Ford and CEO Domenico de Sole commanded between 1994 and 2004. When François-Henri Pinault, the chairman of Gucci’s owner Kering, replaced di Marco with Marco Bizzarri – a high-achieving CEO previously at Stella McCartney and Bottega Veneta – it felt as if he were drawing a line in the sand. Announcing a new era. A revolution, even. And when Bizzarri announced that Gucci’s new creative director would be Alessandro Michele, speculation surrounding the brand reached new heights. While Michele’s name was met with a universal, ‘Who?’
Bizzarri immediately empowered Michele – until then a behind-the-scenes accessories designer who had first arrived at Gucci under Tom Ford and worked his way through the ranks to become Giannini’s right-hand – to completely reinvent the visual codes of the brand, overseeing ready-to-wear, accessories, eyewear, jewellery, children’s wear, the beauty and fragrance divisions, advertising, digital and social-media platforms and store design. Meaning more responsibility – and more power – than practically any other creative director on the planet. Overnight, Michele dramatically called time on Giannini’s first-degree polished glam, in favour of an idiosyncratic patchwork of quirky vintage looks, insouciant cool, geek-chic women and androgynous men. Where Giannini had spent the previous decade paring back Gucci’s double-G logo and signature green-red-green web stripe, Michele transformed them into colourful, geometric stars of the show. Rarely has there been such a comprehensive about-turn of a brand’s DNA – whether in fashion or beyond – and at such staggering scale (Gucci has an annual turnover of approximately €4 billion). Inevitably, all eyes have since been on Bizzarri and Michele: scrutinizing their actions, showering the collections and Glen Luchford’s advertising-campaign imagery with renewed interest, while questioning the long-term commercial wisdom of such a brazen move.
Which leads us to the other debate that seems to have shaped much of the fashion landscape of recent times: the rapport between a house’s CEO and its creative director. As has been proven, notably at Gucci, the synergy between a business mind and artistic visionary can produce spectacular results for a fashion brand looking to expand its market share while maintaining an all-important sense of directional cool and desirability. Ford and de Sole were arguably the greatest example of this in the history of the industry, having transformed the dusty Italian house on the verge of bankruptcy into an entire luxury fashion group. Indeed, behind many of luxury fashion’s most significant success stories, past and present, lies a healthy professional (sometimes also romantic) relationship between CEO and creative director: Yves Saint Laurent and partner Pierre Bergé, Miuccia Prada and her husband Patrizio Bertelli, Marc Jacobs with Robert Duffy at his eponymous label and Yves Carcelle at Louis Vuitton, and, although operating on a smaller scale, Rei Kawakubo and husband Adrian Joffe, who continue to make Comme des Garçons a relevant and desirable brand.
But for every love story, there’s also heartache and bitterness, or simply a lack of chemistry, and some designers and CEOs have fallen foul of the very relationship that should have been paramount to their professional success. In fact, some seem to have triumphed in spite of backroom tensions.
So what about the partnership at the heart of Gucci’s current renaissance? Behind the kaleidoscopic chiffon dresses, abundance of floral and animal prints, fur-lined backless loafers, oversized glasses and pussy bows, are two very Italian men who in appearance and character couldn’t possibly be more different. Bizzarri is well over 6ft tall, spectacularly bald and bespectacled, and only ever seen in black three-piece tailored suits that accentuate his stoop. Michele is significantly shorter, with a long flowing black mane and biblical beard, often dressed in worn-out jeans and white T-shirt, with multiple rings, trinkets, charms, chains, beads and bracelets adorning his neck, wrists, and every last finger. Bizzarri comes across as warm and gregarious, yet impatient, full of nervous energy, and talks at such ferocious pace that an hour’s conversation with him results in over 10,000 words of written transcript (approximately twice the average). Michele, on the other hand, is a languid and gentle soul, a little uneasy, who speaks in slow, recurring passages (possibly because his English is limited), underscored by liberal use of the words ‘love’, ‘free’ and ‘beauty’.
Left brain, right brain? Hippy and suit?
With all this in mind, System has spent the past few months observing the rapport between Alessandro Michele and Marco Bizzarri, keen to explore the dynamic that’s driving one of fashion’s biggest businesses. We met with them – both individually and together – to discuss each other, their rollercoaster past year, the future, whether freedom and empowerment are genuinely good for business, the ever-shifting industry, and how a radical change in company culture might affect Gucci’s 11,000 members of staff, the fashion industry as a whole, even society at large. And ultimately, to ask if they’re actually enjoying themselves.
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
Gucci HQ, Milan
It seems astonishing that Michele’s Autumn/Winter 2016 menswear show signals only his first anniversary as Gucci’s creative director. Such is the ubiquity of Gucci’s rebranding at his hands – and the company’s communications prowess – that for those with any interest in the brand, it feels like he’s been sending his colourful, whimsical interpretation down the catwalk for years.
The show itself is very much the reaffirmation of Michele’s overall vision for the brand, freely mixing sartorial codes and gender to create a mood befitting the times. Where Gucci was once Tom Ford’s love letter to the hedonism of Studio 45-era New York, aligning that mood with the brash and powerful sexuality of Sharon Stone’s character in the then contemporary film, Basic Instinct, Michele’s interpretation feels more like an ode to the fragile and neurotic characters in Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums. Indeed, Michele’s is a new aristocracy – the ennui-ridden sons and daughters of Ford’s impossibly glamorous go-getters – happier to jet-set in their minds than across the globe.
Forty-eight hours after the show, Alessandro is nestled in the relatively modest office he calls home when visiting Gucci’s Milan headquarters (his principal office and design studio are in his home town of Rome). Wonderfully on-brand, it’s all Persian rugs, Napoleon III furniture and flea-market finds, and although clearly experiencing post-show fatigue, he greets System with hugs and smiles.
You’d been at Gucci for over a decade when you first met Marco Bizzarri. What were your thoughts about the company at that time?
Alessandro Michele: Gucci had become soulless. I obviously knew the company very well and couldn’t believe that one of the most powerful brands in the world no longer had any meaning beyond the bags it was selling. There was no soul or story. When Marco asked to see me, I was on the verge of leaving Gucci. I don’t want to say I’d signed a contract with another company, but that was more or less the case. And because I already had one foot out the door, I didn’t feel any pressure about meeting him or presenting myself.
‘When Marco asked to see me, I was on the verge of leaving Gucci. I don’t want to say that I’d signed another contract, but that was more or less the case.’
Tell me about that first meeting.
I guess he wanted to have a conversation with me because I’d been there for a long time, and I knew about the processes within the company, the dynamic of the design team, the factory in Florence, and so on. We met in my apartment in Rome and it became immediately obvious that Marco was a super-sweet, intelligent, curious and open person. In a very natural way, we started discussing the brand and the company and the vision for the future and my point of view – a cup of coffee and a chat turned into a three-, four-, five-hour long conversation.
What did you take away from that first meeting?
That Marco respects creativity and creative people. He understands that the power of a fashion company lies in its creativity. I mean, when we talk together about fashion he often says, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know…’ But he knows very well about fashion, and understands what is needed.
And you explained your vision of what you thought Gucci could become?
Well, to be honest, my vision was quite complicated in terms of aesthetic and the way it could be put together. I explained that while I see myself as Italian, I also feel like a contaminated Italian because I’d lived in London and it had changed my perception of things. I think Marco was quite fascinated by this. We shared exactly the same vision for the brand, but I never had it in my mind that he would decide to place me as creative director of Gucci.
Do you see his decision as proof of his fearlessness?
I think he was really brave because, come on, I was basically Mr. Nobody who just worked hard at Gucci for many years. I still find it tough to come to terms with; I feel more like a child playing someone else’s role. The evening after the first men’s show, I said to Marco, ‘I think you are crazy’, and I was saying to my boyfriend, ‘They’re probably going to fire me tomorrow…’ But, you know, I had nothing to lose, and if you want to be creative, you cannot care about your position.
‘I was basically Mr. Nobody. I still find it tough coming to terms with being Gucci’s creative director; I feel more like a child playing someone else’s role.’
Considering your proposition for the brand is so different to that of your predecessor, one presumes that the working environment must have been quite stifling for you up to that point.
Yes, very difficult. As I mentioned, I was on the verge of leaving the company because I was really conscious that I was destroying my soul. What started out as a passion had become a daily job, and I began thinking to myself, ‘I don’t even want to work in fashion anymore; it’s become so oppressive’.
Do you think that was symptomatic of the industry at large, beyond Gucci?
Since the end of the 1990s up until quite recently, I think fashion became much too product-oriented, and creativity completely died. I think the first people to sense that were the consumers themselves; they clearly understood that it had all just become a trick to sell things. I’d always referred to myself as a happy slave to fashion, but even I’d had enough because fashion was no longer believable. I mean, this idea that you have to constantly change, change, change yourself, and so every single month there is a different bag, a different coat, to help this change. What’s fashionable about buying something new every month? That’s not fashion, that’s just slavery. And if something is genuinely beautiful, then surely the last thing you’d want to do is throw it away and change it for something new.
You’ve brought a new sense of fluidity, juxtaposition and ambiguity into Gucci – whether that’s expressed through gender, season, or the mix of vintage and contemporary. Are these things fundamental to your new philosophy?
I didn’t really plan those things. It was more a case of expressing romanticism or what it meant to be unique in contemporary society, or simply the idea of freedom. And I think the power of my work is that I had the courage to bring this kind of diversity together, and create a dialogue from those juxtapositions. My way of working is to put things together and create a kind of chemical reaction. I feel that by taking fragments that are apparently dead and putting them together in new ways, you create something modern and beautiful.
Because of the scale of Gucci’s presence in the market, do you think the changes you’ve initiated are proving too quick or too radical for many of your consumers to handle?
Sure, Gucci is big, but what we’re doing here is a reflection of what is growing and evolving in society, too, and the customers are responding in a good way. It seems strange that fashion doesn’t always have the courage to express what is happening beyond fashion.
Did this feel like a risk?
Well, Gucci was in a really bad moment about a year ago, but of course, making such a big change could be an even bigger risk.
Based on what you’ve said, it would seem more dangerous not to make significant changes.
I agree with you. Ultimately, it’s not like I made these changes to a company that wasn’t making any money. It would obviously be a lot easier to start a new company from zero, but that wasn’t the case. Making change at a company that isn’t doing well but that still generates a lot of money is particularly challenging because, you know, it’s a moving train. There’s a lot at stake. And for sure, it’s a big risk – for myself, but above all, for Marco.
‘Changing a company that’s not doing well but that still generates lots of money is particularly challenging – it’s a moving train, there’s a lot at stake.’
Do you feel responsible for him?
No, because he is light and very intelligent. He’s always made me feel at ease, saying, ‘Do what you feel is right, don’t worry about things; I don’t need to look at everything you’re doing’. Even though he understands everything that’s going on.
Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Gucci HQ, Milan
Since last week’s menswear show, Marco Bizzarri has been juggling illness with an appearance at the prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos. As the CEO of Kering’s cash cow (Gucci constitutes almost two-thirds of the group’s overall recurring operating income), the position he’s held this past year represents not only the pinnacle of his career to date, but also one the fashion industry’s most coveted roles. That’s not to say he had to beg François-Henri Pinault for the job. Having almost tripled Bottega Veneta’s revenue to €1.1 billion during his five years in charge of Kering’s leather-goods brand, Bizzarri was appointed the group’s overall CEO of Luxury – Couture & Leather Goods division in April 2014 – ‘an amazing job that I was just starting to get accustomed to’. So then to be asked to step down and take over the reigns at Gucci just eight months later presented a dilemma. ‘But you cannot say no to François-Henri Pinault,’ he says, ‘and it’s not an option to turn down Gucci.’
Bizzarri’s Milan office is as slick and minimal as Michele’s is busy and decorative, and is perhaps one of the only remnants from Gucci days gone by. Admitting he’s still feeling a little under the weather, Bizzarri proceeds to down an espresso, turn his phones to silent, and plonk his tall frame into an armchair – all in one fluid movement. Multitasking, it seems, comes naturally to Gucci’s CEO.
What was your impression of Gucci at the time François-Henri Pinault asked you to take over the company?
Marco Bizzarri: I think the work done by Patrizio [di Marco] and Frida [Giannini] was quite remarkable in terms of growing in a market that was definitely bullish. There are three things to be considered. Firstly, Gucci grew at that specific moment but it lost the market share because there were other brands growing much, much faster. Secondly, I think Gucci became a little too market-driven instead of really driving change or pushing the bounda- ries of fashion. And thirdly, to enable that change to potentially happen, an important shift in the Gucci company culture and its people needed to take place.
You say that Gucci was no longer pushing the boundaries of fashion. Did you sense a similar period of creative limbo across the other big luxury brands?
Not all brands, but I think we got too used to growth and profitability, and more growth and more profitability. That is obviously great, but ultimately profitability doesn’t always help the intangible value of the brand. So you can continue growing the business over two, three, four years, despite the fact that the brand might be losing momentum. At a certain point if the brand is no longer regarded as having value or influence by fashion’s opinion leaders, it is going to go down – not slightly or incrementally, but really go down, 20 percent or 25 percent.
‘We got too used to growth and profitability. That is obviously great, but ultimately profitability doesn’t always help the intangible value of the brand.’
So significant changes were vital to Gucci’s survival.
I don’t think it is a matter of the previous management being better or not; that’s missing the point. The reality is, at a certain point you just need fresh air to be injected into a brand, and with fresh eyes.
What was the first thing that struck you about the company once you’d taken the CEO role?
The power of this brand. You see that everything you do has immediate and worldwide visibility, so you can really change things. The power of the people who make up the Gucci company is so much stronger than I will ever be, so you need to make sure that the people follow you and support the changes you want to make. But there is no given format to what these changes should be; you just need to follow your instinct, like when I followed my instinct to appoint Alessandro. He was not even on the list of candidates, but luckily François-Henri Pinault was brave enough to support me 100 percent.
Tell me about your first meeting with Alessandro.
We met for a discussion that I thought would last half an hour and it lasted four or five hours. We were in total agreement about the main Gucci values, the objectives, the positioning and the strategy. And then I said, ‘Look, why don’t you start working on a document of images that you would want to associate with Gucci’s future’.
You say you were both in total agreement of the basic strategy of what you wanted to do with Gucci. Could you summarize the principal values that you had both identified?
Firstly, we needed to make Gucci a leader in fashion once again. Then, the Gucci fashion show needed to become the most exciting and anticipated during the fashion weeks. Then the brand needed to become more modern, and less cold and dark. And the other thing was that I wanted to create a company in which one of the most fundamental assets was respect and humility among its staff. I don’t mean that it wasn’t there before, but I really wanted to make a point of this, and to use Gucci’s power to drive changes in attitude, in and beyond the industry. Besides the fact that he’d shared these great images with me, and that we were in total agreement with the strategy, one of the reasons I decided to go for Alessandro is that he is a super normal, humble, and very respectful person. Of course he has his own opinions, but he always listens. Frankly, he is a breath of fresh air within this industry, and I felt that we needed to become examples within the company of how I expected everyone to behave: respect other people, no harassment, no authority for authority’s sake.
Were you looking to change the business model to the same extent that Alessandro was planning to reinvent the creative proposition?
I explained the strategy to François-Henri and we agreed that we would go for it; no back and forth or half-decisions. If you really want to make changes, you cannot compromise. The changes touch every function at Gucci in terms of process, people and organization, all linked to creating a streamlined structure: whether that’s fabric creation, the regions, e-commerce, retail excellence, travel retail and wholesale, the supply chain, or becoming more efficient with the locations of products in shops. We have so much information about all this that we can really drive the business, drive the collections to the shops in more efficient ways, and create an entire system that was not present at Gucci before.
‘Alessandro was not even on the list of candidates, but I followed my instincts and Monsieur Pinault was brave enough to support me 100%.’
Do you think that the consumer is almost playing catch up with the speed and the scale of the changes that you and Alessandro are putting in place?
In terms of internal business changes, they won’t really touch the consumer. As for the change in positioning, I don’t think there is a set way you can implement these things, especially in fashion. If you really want to make a blast and change the perception of something, then you need to do it super quickly. The longer it takes to alter the position, the longer it takes for the consumer to understand. So maybe you are going to have a period of time when the consumer is a little shaken and doesn’t really get it, but in that case you can increase your communication tools to help deliver a clear and consistent message – whether that’s via the website, newspaper communications, social media, etc. Sure, we are going to lose clients that we had before but we are going to gain other, younger clients, and this younger generation is going to guarantee the survival of the brand in the future.
In what ways do you see Alessandro’s creative proposition in line with broader changes in society?
With Alessandro we wanted to express joy: we wanted something full of colour that would bring joy into the company and the fashion industry. This might sound naive, but we want to enjoy what we do. I mean, if you go into any fashion store today they’re all quite similar, and quite boring, and no one seems to be truly considering today’s retail experience. People need to start rethinking the way in which fashion is conceived and experienced – otherwise the younger generation are just going to move on to something else.
To other brands?
Above all, they could simply decide to spend their money on something else entirely: the digital world or wellness or hotels and travelling. The amount of money that you have as a consumer is always the same; you can have different consumers coming into the industry, but if the offers always remain the same, you’re going to experience some level of fatigue. Ultimately, you don’t buy fashion because you need a bag or a suit – everyone already has tons of them – you buy it because you fall in love with something; because you see something and think, ‘Oh my God, I need to have it’, but you don’t need to have it. That’s just a fact.
We’re currently a few weeks away from Gucci publishing its 2015 results and it feels as though the fashion industry, media and financial analysts are looking to make up their minds – either this is a resounding success or it’s a total failure – based on only a year’s results. Is this current desire for immediacy at odds with a long-term strategy?
Firstly, I don’t feel the pressure of the analysts. Some are amazing and I really respect them, but there are others I don’t have a clue what they are going on about. The point is, do you put in place a strategy to please the analysts? Or because you want to stay in this industry for a long time and create added value for the brand? If you are settled as a company and you have the right position, then you need to grow and you need to make cosmetic changes to maintain the budget. But when you make abrupt changes, you have a period where if you are able to drive the machine and get good profit and loss, the business is able to protect the finances. Above all, the collection only plays a small part in the first year.
What percentage of 2015’s revenue was made up by Alessandro’s collections?
Based on the supply chain in the fashion arena, Alessandro’s collections will have impacted only four to five percent of total revenue. So how can an analyst evaluate the result of a change like this in one year? It’s impossible. There are so many business activities beyond the collection itself that are able to support the business that you don’t see as an analyst: how you fill your shops, how you merchandise the products, what the visuals are like, and so on. You know, if there is a bestseller that you are not able to produce and deliver on time to the shops, that’s not Alessandro’s fault, it’s because the business people are crap.
Do you feel that the changes both you and Alessandro have been introducing are likely to have the same impact on the industry, on consumer behaviour, and on society in general that Tom Ford made during his Gucci era?
Time will tell. Obviously Tom Ford did amazing things, not just in terms of results, but also in influencing a specific moment in time. The positioning of a brand is a combination of two things, one is brand values, the second is consumer behaviour. So what Alessandro is doing in terms of gender layers and fluidity between the sexes is something that is happening beyond Gucci. We obviously couldn’t do the same thing today that Tom Ford did because the whole world has completely changed its views on sexuality.
The brand changes you’re implementing are being made quickly, society is changing quickly, you even speak extremely quickly! With this in mind, aren’t you frustrated by this period of cohabitation in which some Gucci touchpoints represent this exciting new era, while many others have yet to make the shift?
Totally frustrated! You can tell by the speed I speak that I am not patient at all. You should try listening to me when I speak in Italian! Internally, it’s easy to communicate to the store in Milan that we’re changing, but then you go into a shop in a second-tier city in China and for them nothing’s changed. And if those people look at the shows they’ll think we’ve gone crazy. So to bring everyone within the company onto the same page and reassure them that a) we are not crazy, b) we have a new direction, and c) the reason we’re changing direction is because we want to become the fashion leader again, I travelled all over the world to meet and speak with them personally.
‘It’s easy to communicate to the store in Milan that we’re changing, but you go to a store in a second-tier city in China and for them nothing’s changed.’
As far as the customer is concerned, there is very little evidence out there that the ‘classic’ Gucci loafer still exists, especially in your flagship stores which have more of Alessandro’s presence. When I found one in your Via Montenapoleone store, it almost felt like a museum piece, from another era. Are you willing to accept that that particular cash cow has had its day?
I think some of the products can keep on existing, especially the ones that reflect the history of the brand. Of course, at a certain point, looking at the overall Gucci aesthetic, there will be certain products that appear very old, at which point we’ll think about refreshing them or designing them in a more modern way, but it’s fair to say that we don’t have just one client. We are not a niche brand by any means.
Can you please everyone all the time?
No, but the customer who used to shop at Gucci wasn’t coming any more. And fashion opinion leaders really want to buy into Gucci again because they are always looking for the next thing. So we need to maintain that level of fashion innovation – otherwise they’ll simply replace Gucci with something else. But sometimes, when you tend to be less hot, that’s when you start selling a lot. When you start reducing the impact on fashion’s opinion leaders you impact broader consumers a lot more, and that’s when the financial results can really explode.
‘When you start reducing the impact on fashion opinion leaders, you impact broader consumers a lot more, and that’s when financial results can explode.’
Would you say that a company experiencing great sales but diminishing brand equity is more precarious than great brand equity and reduced financial results?
Normally, it is association work, meaning great brand equity with great sales. But you can also have a situation where brand equity goes down while sales keep going up because you can do marketing tricks, until at a certain point you realize that the brand equity will die and then the sales collapse. So it depends from brand to brand; I don’t think there is a single answer. Generally, if the brand equity is high, then sales are high and profitability is high.
Similarly, would you agree with the common opinion that while ready-to-wear sales at brands like Gucci represent less than 20 percent of total revenue, they drive more than 80 percent of total brand equity? Is that naive to think or is that a reality?
I can’t honestly tell you know how much brand equity is affected percentage-wise, but I do know that ready-to-wear certainly creates more loyal customers. Bags, for example, are quite different: people move from one bag to another, and from one brand to another. But when you get into ready-to-wear, you generally become a loyal customer to a brand like Gucci. So that is why we’re happy with the changes we’ve made: we are getting back the clients that we lost, and the people buying now are younger.
You’ve been a fashion-company CEO in a period that has seen the fashion industry go from relatively niche to just that, a huge industry…
I’m a lucky guy!
Now this might seem like an absurd question to ask a CEO, but is there a time when big becomes too big? Will the luxury industry kill the very essence of rarefied luxury? Or can it continue to grow, to reach new consumers, new markets?
Not an easy question. I think that it’s more a case of the [Kering] group needing to think in terms of a multi-brand strategy: some brands you keep niche; other brands can be the cash cow. But when you achieve €4 billion for Gucci – or €7 or 8 billion for Louis Vuitton – it is not feasible or thinkable to go back to €2 billion. It just doesn’t make any sense. Similarly, there are certain brands that in my opinion cannot grow too much, because at a certain point they’ll lose their exclusivity, their edge, their brand value, and they will collapse.
Can you give me an example of such a brand?
I cannot name names, even though of course I know which ones. The fact that today Kering is a big multi-brand group means we can really play with that, and at a group level give every single brand its own objective: milking the ones that are flying, resisting opening too many more stores for the jewel in the crown.
I wanted to address the debate surrounding the empowering of creativity within fashion. On one hand there is the belief that the brand should always be king, and within the brand there are movable pieces. Then there is another school of thought that says the designer – or rather, the creative director – has such power and influence that he or she can single-handedly drive both brand equity and commercial strategy. Where do you stand on all this?
The brand is king. The brand will survive any creative director or any CEO. So the brand is what we need to protect for the future. The battle for the creative director is huge because he is the one interpreting the values of the brand in a specific scenario. He is adding his own value to that specific brand, but he cannot use just his own individuality to completely change the brand perception. So for me, a brand, by definition, needs to expand and survive the people, because when I leave, Gucci will still be there, when Alessandro leaves, Gucci will still be there. I think the healthy approach to adopt is, ‘freedom within a framework’.
At Gucci yes, but not at other brands.
I am talking about how I see it. That was true when I was at Bottega and true at Stella, too. A good creative director is one who respects both the brand and the era. As far as I’m concerned, the creative director who changes the brand for his own ego is not a creative director.
‘A good creative director is one who respects the brand and the era. The creative director who changes the brand for their own ego is not a creative director.’
What are they then if they’re not a creative director?
They are [pauses] artists. They go there and decide whatever they want without thinking about the brand, the CEO, the business, the people working there. The difference between an artist and a creative director is that the creative director understands how to translate the values of the brand in the world today. Otherwise you might as well be a painter and decide to paint a shirt, but it has nothing to do with the brand. That is not a creative director.
Compared to companies such as Céline, Saint Laurent and Loewe, which have obviously experienced similar creative reinvention and reinvigorated their brand equity, do you think that Gucci’s scenario is different because of its sheer scale?
Firstly, what has been done at Céline and Saint Laurent has been impressive, I have to say that. I don’t think it is easy at any scale to change the positioning, the culture and the image of a brand. Of course, you have more possibility to do it quicker depending on your scale, not least because of the number of shops: if you have 50 shops it takes one year; if you have 500 shops it takes five years.
But do you think that the radical reinvention that has taken place at Saint Laurent is something that could be healthy within a brand of Gucci’s scale?
We hear about healthy sales: it takes a little bit of time to reach healthy sales; it takes maybe 10 months. In terms of a change of position, it is not very different to what we are doing at Gucci. The real difference for me is the number of people and the number of shops involved. When you deal with 11,000 people at Gucci compared with however many people work at YSL, or 500 Gucci shops compared with 100, then things will take longer. As for the change in image, the show, the products and so on, Gucci has done this just as quick, but on a bigger scale. Keep in mind one important thing: over the past months Gucci has incorporated both the old collection and the new collection into its stores. Now, ideally the best thing we could have done was to just throw away all the old collection and present Alessandro’s full new collection without any aesthetic compromise. But if I did that, not only would I get fired in two seconds, but the Gucci company would go from €4 billion to €1 billion. But that scenario could actually happen in a smaller company; you have the possibility of investing a bit of time and you can wait.
‘The easiest thing we could have done was to throw away the old collection and sell only the new one. But if we did that, I’d have gotten fired in two seconds.’
You have spoken before of the importance of hiring Jacopo Venturini from Valentino as Gucci’s new head of merchandising. By empowering the creative director, does the commercial and merchandising director become almost the key position right now?
It is absolutely key. If you don’t have the right person in that position you will not achieve the same results. He is the person linking business needs to product sensibility; he understands the customers and the markets, and is able to express this to a creative director who has a completely different sensibility, and they can work through any problems together to create a collection. Also, his character needs to be outstanding because he needs to deal with me, he needs to deal with Alessandro, and he is stuck in the middle when I am naturally pushing for one thing and Alessandro for something else. It is a very tricky position, and yes, he is absolutely key.
What is the key to maintaining a healthy relationship between a CEO and creative director?
I think it lies in respecting each other’s expertise and knowledge. I cannot substitute what the creative director does, and the creative director cannot do what I do. So they need to respect me and I respect them. Besides that, the CEO needs to understand how to put the creative director in the best position in order to succeed. No creative director can be truly creative if they are being screamed at, frightened, put in a corner, blamed, or being shown financial figures all the time. You provide them with the information they need, explain what the brand needs, and put them in the best possible position to create – and they have to understand that their work is not only to satisfy their own needs. They are not gods; I am not a god. So they need to understand when and how they need to be supported. Ultimately, the role of the CEO is to make sure that the creative director has the best conditions possible in which to be creative, while maintaining the best results.
Which of Alessandro’s talents are you most impressed by?
Alessandro is a very free person; he doesn’t put obstacles in his mind, so he is always receptive. He never says no; he’ll always say, OK, let me think. The fact that he has this capability of not being closed in his own small cage makes him someone who is really able to see the world with different eyes.
Does he need protecting?
Of course. Frankly, I need to protect him from François-Henri sometimes; that’s part of the game. It is too easy in a company to blame the people below you, but try blaming the people above you! That is different. So if someone comes and blames Alessandro for anything, they need to talk to me first and then I’ll deal with it – but they’ll be removed from the discussion. Always. That is my responsibility.
Friday, February 12, 2016
Gucci design studio, Rome
Alessandro Michele’s office-cum-studio is, frankly, vast. And exquisitely proportioned. Occupying two rooms that were once the chapel of the sublime Roman palazzo originally purchased and restored by his predecessor, the space has now been transformed into Michele-land. More Persian carpets, more Napoleon III furniture, floor-to-ceiling antique screens adorned with geometric and pineapple prints, and a stuffed peacock or two (last seen skateboarding through a Berlin shopping mall in Gucci’s Spring/Summer 2016 advertising campaign).
It’s only been three weeks since we last saw one another, but one gets the distinct impression that in that time, Michele’s probably conjured up more clothes, bags, shoes, images and store designs than most creative directors are required to do in an entire year. And for all the laidback persona, one Gucci insider suggests that Michele was already making key creative decisions and providing the vital link between design and supply chain long before he became creative director. Indeed, it was the fact that he was so well liked within the company and so efficient that fast-tracked him onto Bizzarri’s wish list.
‘Three weeks?’ he ponders to himself, when I mention how long it’s been since the menswear show. ‘It feels like three years.’
Do you remember the first time that someone’s style impressed you?
During the 1970s, when I was about seven years old, my auntie – my mother’s twin – was quite big in the movie and television business here in Italy. She was a film editor, and a super stylish 1970s woman with big hair. Totally obsessed with fashion, she’d spend all her money on Chanel, furs, dresses and platform shoes. I was in love with her and I guess she introduced me to the idea that you could transform yourself through clothes; before we went out together, she’d always ask me, ‘Lallo, would you prefer if I wore the blue or the red shoes?’
Was she like the eccentric version of your mother?
Yes, my mother was quite stylish, but more bourgeois. I remember her sister – her name was Giuliana – would say, ‘Oh, why are you so sad? You must change your look’. And she’d take my mother off to her wardrobe and style her in colourful and eccentric ways before we had dinner. Giuliana was always laughing and I guess she impressed on me that dressing up could make you feel joyful and full of life.
What about you, when did you start to freely express yourself through clothes? I started very young: my mother had a lot of problems with me. When I was about 13, I dyed my hair super blond and tried to pierce my own ears because I was in love with the Sex Pistols and Sid Vicious.
‘When I was about 13, I dyed my hair super blond and tried to pierce my own ears because I was in love with the Sex Pistols and Sid Vicious.’
You were a DIY punk.
Yes, my mother was very worried every time I’d go in the bathroom because within 30 minutes anything could happen. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was obsessed with music, so I probably felt more like a rock star than a fashion designer. I have to say that my first fashion inspiration came more through music than 1980s fashion gods like Giorgio Armani. At the time, but also now, music seems a more authentic way of expressing yourself through clothes than pure fashion.
Would you consider yourself a rebel?
Not really, although when I was younger my mother would always say ‘For you, no means yes!’ I mean, I am only a rebel in that I want to be free.
What played a role in shaping your ideas about beauty?
I think the history of art. Beauty is a lot of things, way beyond the rules of fashion: it could be a painting; it could be a carpet.
You’ve often referred to your love of the past. Is there a period in history that you find particularly inspiring?
I always have the Renaissance in my mind; it feels like a state of mind, and I love the idea that you could invent something and express yourself in such a free and crazy way. I mean, nothing compares to the Medici family and that explosion of decadence and beauty in Florence. New York in the late 1970s was tame in comparison.
Tell me about your rapport with your home town of Rome.
I think Rome really expresses the joy of life and love; it possesses a unique energy, even though it’s almost impossible to live here! Rome hates me in a way and I hate her, because the city is like an old beautiful witch. But ultimately we love each other a lot and I cannot live without her.
How would you define the ‘Italianness’ of Gucci?
It is a big part of the brand. Gucci hasn’t always been a fashion brand like Yves Saint Laurent, even though it’s obviously become that. It was really born from the artisan and the culture of handcraft that is so much part of the Italian DNA. So at the heart of Gucci, you have Florence and the Renaissance and the idea of Italian beauty. This kind of chicness gets lost a bit in Italy and the Italian idea of sexiness, but I always say that I am from Rome and for me beauty is linked to symmetry: If you have a door, you have another one; if you have a window, there is another one. That is a core of Italian culture and I love it, even though I also love how Tom Ford changed the Gucci codes of beauty. Today, I am trying to open another door inside this language of beauty.
The Tom Ford era of Gucci expressed itself through hedonism and self-indulgence and sex. I was interested to know what your interpretation of those elements is at Gucci today.
Well, there are a lot of meanings to the word hedonism, you know. For example, the creation or affirmation of your personality as an individual. It feels like a return to the 1980s when things were centred around you as the individual, instead of the more 1990s feeling of the collective. I think that idea of self is something we need now because after 15 years of globalization people want to express themselves as individuals. I feel very close to Tom because I think that Tom was a pure expression of his time.
You obviously worked under Tom Ford at Gucci. What’s your impression of that time?
Right now, I am trying to work on the Tom Ford room in the Gucci museum, trying to include every powerful piece from that time. I started with something like 20 pieces and now it’s up to 75 pieces because everything is so stunning and so precise. Tom completely invented the idea that this bag company could be transformed into a fashion brand.
You’ve redefined Gucci within a set of aesthetic codes and moods, and it feels like your subsequent collections and shows have subtly refined this proposition. But I was wondering if you might ever wake up one day and think to yourself, ‘Next season, I want the collection to be…’
Exactly. I mean, this feels like such a personal tableau of references and feelings, that I can’t imagine such a radical reinvention of yourself.
Honestly, I don’t have any rules. Everything is possible. My interpretation of Gucci is based on a patchwork of different things: my experiences in the brand, my personal aesthetic, my rapport with the Italianness of Gucci, and my obsession with the idea of decoration. It feels like I’m diving into a big fresco from the Renaissance, but it’s as much the renaissance of the East End of London or Elizabeth Street in New York as it is a purely Italian idea. I mean, I love to mix and match everything, that’s what makes me who I am. I obviously put a lot of myself into the brand, but I know that I could probably change at some point in the future because I am the kind of person who has no rules.
Leonard Cohen once suggested that every artist owns one unique element, and no matter what the artist is creating, that unique element is always somehow present. Could you define your unique element?
As I just mentioned, I really love to mix and match different things: I don’t want to be just one country; I don’t only want to be punk rock; I need to be able to talk with more than one language. It just feels like I’m trying to put together different notes in music. And probably the second thing would be colour, and the power that colour possesses to affect a space or a person or the world around us. One day, I’d love to create a collection that is purely about colour.
‘I don’t want to be just one country; I don’t only want to be punk rock; I need to be able to talk with more than one language.’
Marco spoke about his desire to emphasize the sense of mutual respect within the working culture at Gucci, and to eliminate authority for authority’s sake. What are your thoughts?
For me, this is about sharing energy. Sharing is the most beautiful thing in our lives. I share a lot with Marco, and he is happy when we talk and share our vision. Sometimes I am convinced about something and if I share it, it becomes 100 percent. If something happens in your life and you are not able to share the experience, it feels less special. Sometimes I think that if my parents were still alive, everything that’s been happening to me would be different.
From a personal perspective, how have you experienced your transformation from somebody working behind the scenes at Gucci to the brand’s public persona?
I mean, when I see myself in the press I almost feel like I’m looking at someone else. But the only difference that really counts is that I can now fully express everything I feel about the world, through my vision and my creativity. It feels like I’m a kid who’s just been given a million toys to play with.
Wednesday, February 10 & Wednesday, March 2, 2016
Glen Luchford and Christopher Simmonds
If Alessandro Michele’s catwalk debut was a statement to the industry that Gucci was entering a wildly expressive new era, then his first advertising campaign (pre-Fall 2015) was a message to the world that the brand had changed aesthetic tack. As in, completely changed. Although the clothes featured in the imagery pre-dated his arrival as creative director, the mood, attitude, and presence of, yes, a Persian rug, were pure Alessandro Michele. Polish and shine were out; a twisted yet romantic realism seemed to be on its way in. Shot by British photographer Glen Luchford and art directed by fellow Brit Christopher Simmonds, the pictures signalled the start of an ongoing collaboration that has set the tone for all of Gucci’s subsequent visual communications.
Over the seasons, these have become rich and complex tableaux, layering disparate elements and ensemble casts together in the same way that Michele does with his collections and catwalk shows. Where nature and the animal kingdom run wild over the clothes and accessories – printed bumblebees, snakes, tigers, flamingos, birds, petals, vines and fanciful flora – so they are then placed in resolutely urban settings such as the Los Angeles subway or on a Berlin rooftop, creating a jarring tension that underscores the experimental mood of the Gucci studio.
Glen Luchford: For me the crime of fashion is when people play safe in an industry where you don’t need to be. I’ve been to a lot of fashion-campaign meetings over the years in which everyone sits around the table and discusses it in an advertising vernacular, like they’re selling a car. But the minute you start strategizing and focusing on market research, you know you’re fucked because the creative process is dead already – you may as well be selling a Ford. We’ve just been through 10 years of being boring and commercial in fashion advertising – 20 bags in one image, everything retouched to death and forced to the front of the frame, and all the campaigns just blur into one another. That’s not the way forward, because nothing stands out. And if nothing stands out, then people won’t stop and look at them. It’s counterproductive. So I think that without knowing it Alessandro has kind of thumbed his nose to all that and said to himself, ‘We can do whatever we want, as long as it sells, so let’s get back to creating images in a much more organic way’.
‘The minute you start strategizing and focusing on market research, you know you’re fucked because the creative process is dead already.’
How would you characterize Alessandro?
Glen: He is very Roman – open and sweet – and you immediately feel a sense of loyalty towards him because he has such an endearing manner. He’s smart and intellectual, but not pretentious.
What did you think when Alessandro first shared his vision of Gucci with you?
Glen: I was shocked. And then I thought to myself, ‘Well, when we get on set, we’ll obviously have to rein it in’. But he actually went the other direction and the pictures became edgier, more exciting, more rewarding as we went along.
Is edgier always the right direction?
Glen: Well, in this instance I think it is. When you get someone like Alessandro who has a solid and coherent vision that he finds easy to articulate, you can really get behind that and push it. Christopher Simmonds: For the first campaign, we did a few pictures and sent them over to Marco. It was so far removed from anything they had ever done before and I remember Glen, me and Alessandro sitting there nervously eating lunch, and thinking to myself, ‘There’s no way they’re going to run this, we’re all going to get fired before we’ve even got started’. And then Alessandro got a text from Marco, and he was like, he loves it! That installs such confidence and everybody wants to keep pushing it and pushing it and pushing it. In the end, it’s the craziest things that Alessandro always goes for.
How does Alessandro’s world and personality affect your own role at Gucci?
Christopher: Because Alessandro knows exactly what he wants to do, it makes everyone else’s life a whole lot easier. Just before we started work on the campaign for his first collection, he sent us the most clearly articulated visual language document that I have ever seen in my life – and the campaigns are born out of this. Alessandro has it all mapped out in his mind. He’ll bring out a book of really beautiful 18th-century art and furniture design, portraits, paintings of people holding books, fairy tales set in English gardens with rabbits running through them, and then say, ‘This is my idea of pop culture’. It’s rare, when you consider we are normally charged with making a facsimile of an old Newton or Bourdin image.
Glen: It’s interesting to know that Alessandro’s a big collector – art, furniture, jewellery, trinkets, all sorts – and I think he collects ideas and puts them together in exactly the same way. When you look at the collections, there are lots of different stories and ideas all jumbled in there and yet they are totally coherent. So from my perspective as a photographer, when you look at the outfit – birds of prey, pineapples all over the dresses and so on – as well as the girl, the hair and make-up, it all just works.
Would you say it’s taken a lot of courage for him to do what he’s done at Gucci?
Christopher: I think it comes from a desire to do something different to everyone else. I think that because Gucci has given Alessandro the freedom to really go for it and express something that is strong and different and well articulated, that freedom to experiment trickles down to everyone around him. You sense that the design team have all been let off the leash. Everyone now feels like they are part of this big gang, working towards the same goal. It is so rare to be able to have that opportunity on a job of this scale and I think that Alessandro should be applauded for that.
Glen: He is courageous without knowing it. I’ve worked for lots of designers who spend so much time preoccupied with what the company wants, but Alessandro seems to have a nice way of navigating that, where he is able to have fun, be very creative and deliver for the company – which is rare for a corporation of Gucci’s size. You know, if you were working for Balenciaga or McQueen or someone like that, they would accept that level of creativity, but for a huge corporation like Gucci, I don’t know what their yearly turnover is… something like €1.6 billion?
…nearly €4 billion.
Glen Luchford: Just Gucci or the whole Group?
Glen: [sounding astonished] My God. So yes, normally there are a lot of restraints and control and all the rest of it. But he has won the confidence of Marco and everybody else. It’s a unique situation.
What’s the general mood there?
Glen: Energized. Everyone seems to be really behind Alessandro: from the pattern cutters to the tailors to the tea lady to Marco. It’s like playing for Man United when you’ve got a great team: everyone is excited to be on board, and you want to go and win everything.
‘Everyone’s behind Alessandro: from the pattern cutters to the tea lady to Marco. It’s like playing for Man United when you’ve got a great team.’
Friday, February 26, 2016
Gucci HQ, Milan
In the two weeks since last visiting Alessandro Michele in Rome, more significant events have taken place at Gucci (the feeling of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it has never felt so palpable). On February 19, Kering published its last quarter and full year 2015 results, the highlight of which was Gucci’s favourable turnaround, attributed to renewed vigour since Michele’s creative overhaul. Company revenue in Q4 reached €1.1bn, 4.8 percent higher than the same quarter of 2014. Analysts had expected an increase of 1.5 percent.
On the same day, François-Henri Pinault took the opportunity to release a statement concerning Kering’s views on the emerging ‘see-now, buy-now’ culture of brands such as Burberry, which is planning to consolidate its shows and make collections available for purchase immediately afterwards. ‘It negates the dream’ of luxury, said Pinault, adding that the traditional six-month period between show time and arrival in stores ‘creates desire’. As if to illustrate Pinault’s point, on February 24, Michele delivered arguably his strongest, most assured and commercially satisfying collection to date. With a total of 70 looks, the effect was an extraordinary mélange of characters, colours, layers, fabrics and silhouettes; mens- and womenswear blurred through proportion and cut; some looks sportier, others chicer; always dressy; and even an all-black, double-breasted women’s suit. It felt like the fashion equivalent of channel hopping through YouTube. Which is why Michele’s Gucci reflects the mash-up culture of our times, in which style and music tribes have interlocked, merging into an ensemble of individual parts. Not so much a gang of four, more a gang of 40.
Or 70, in this instance. Having left the dust to settle for a couple of days after the show, now seems like the fitting time to bring Alessandro and Marco together for a final chat. It’s fascinating to see how they interact in one another’s company: Alessandro is visibly more relaxed and confident, more expressive and gesticulative; Marco naturally adopts the role of the protector, his Italian alpha-male-ness more pronounced. To see this played out in the confines of Alessandro’s kooky office feels like a dress rehearsal in a particularly refined theatre set. And for the last time, it’s time to quiz them about one other, and the colourful world they inhabit at the head of Gucci.
It’s clear that this season is being defined by the debate surrounding the role of the fashion show itself. In light of François-Henri Pinault’s comments, what are your own thoughts about how Gucci will present its collections moving forward?
Alessandro: From my point of view, I love fashion shows: they’re the moment when you can give soul to the clothes. Otherwise, it is just a skirt. Fashion is about the dream and without the dream fashion doesn’t exist anymore. So I believe more and more in the fashion show, and I think that fashion needs to be more fashionable than ever before. Over the past few years we’ve talked a lot about products, but fashion is also about giving you the dream and a vision. I mean, how can I give you the vision without the show?
Marco: They are called shows for a reason, exactly as Alessandro was saying. The show for me is the pinnacle of creativity. How could I ask a talented creative director like Alessandro to do a show and present it after six months? It makes no sense. Moving forward, if you want to stay away from fast fashion, I think personally we need to go in a completely opposite direction with what is being talked about. Of course, I am not judging anybody; everybody is free to make their own goals and decisions. But from what I see, there is a lot of marketing talk, and everybody is questioning everything. And I think it’s just creating a lot of mess for the consumer, which isn’t going to benefit the industry.
From a CEO perspective, how important is the show?
Marco: From a branding standpoint, the show represents only a tiny part of our business, and the impact you actually have on the consumer is super, super tiny. I mean, what about the pre-collection? That is just as important as the show. So let us use the show to tell a story, and then if we need to do something to be closer to the consumer, let’s make sure that the shops today are no longer these mausoleums where you are afraid to enter. We need to create an atmosphere in the shop where there is energy, passion, smiles, where it is joyful and colourful, where you want to actually enter the shop.
How do you feel about the customer wanting immediacy in the shopping experience?
Marco: I don’t think the customer today really cares about having ‘see-now, buy-now’. If they want that they can do it every single week with fast fashion. Have we actually asked the customer if they want to have something available after the show? You hear that three bags are going to be released tomorrow in five shops, so you produce 15 bags. How many customers are you going to satisfy with that? 15! What are they talking about? I think that after the show the thing we should be concentrating on most is making sure that this product is going to be produced perfectly, or even better than the one that was presented in the show. And I think that the customer is more than happy to wait for the period of time required by the supply chain to create that beautiful product. So never will the CEO or creative director of Gucci go that way; as a luxury brand we should be going in the opposite direction! Now, perhaps another question we should ask ourselves is: should we or should we not present menswear and womenswear together? From Alessandro’s very first show, the new wave of Gucci’s aesthetic was very much about blending the genders. So do we really need two shows? That is in more doubt.
Alessandro: I totally agree with Marco. It is impossible to do this with our collections because the quality level of the pieces – every single piece of embroidery, every single bag and lining – is so high. If you want something for tomorrow, the product becomes nothing.
Marco: Again, the way I think that we should focus as an industry on getting closer to the consumer is at the point of sale. We talk a lot about the customer, but the reality is, if you go into most fashion stores today, the products are hidden away from the customer. I mean, you try to enter and there is a security guard staring at you! This is exactly what we didn’t do with the shop in Via Montenapoleone, conceived by Alessandro. We looked to really connect with the customer: you go in the store and you want to touch things…
Alessandro: It is like an old department store; you are very close to the product.
Marco: This brings us to the part that I’d discussed with you before: the education of the Gucci shop staff. These people need to be warm, knowledgeable, happy to talk to you and connect with you. That of course is the biggest challenge that we have today, because managing the Via Montenapoleone shop, which is 500 metres from here, is easy, but the shop in Sydney is going to take a little bit longer.
‘I don’t think customers today really care about having see-now, buy-now. If they want that they can do it every single week with fast fashion.’
How do you educate the people who work in the stores?
Marco Bizzarri: It is very, very difficult; there isn’t one single answer. For these people, it is a change in mentality, and a cultural change, that is the most difficult thing. Across the world, with 11,000 people working for Gucci, we have very different people, from different cultures and with different experiences. So the only way this would work was for me to go and see all of them, and say, ‘I tell you what we want to do, you see me, this is the leadership style. I respect people; I don’t want to be harassing people; I don’t want to fire anybody. But if you are not comfortable with this new idea of respect and warmth, then it is better if you leave. There are lots of other companies. Why stay at Gucci?’
We’ve talked before about the cohabitation of Alessandro’s collections with those from Frida Giannini. How long will this phasing out period take to complete?
Marco: For Alessandro’s collection to be fully in the shops is going to take at least two years. As I’ve mentioned to you before, we couldn’t afford to take out all the old collection, so we need to phase in and phase out properly. Still now, we have 50 to 55 percent of the collections from the previous creative director. They clash with each other because they are so different, but we agreed to compromise like that to maintain a level of business. I need to do my job, then in two years’ time we will have Alessandro’s collections and the business will boom.
Alessandro, how do you feel about this cohabitation from a creative perspective?
Alessandro: From the creative point of view, if you create a collection, you need a box in which to present it, and you need everything in that box to be perfect. Because if you put my dresses and my collection in the wrong space they just won’t work, so I really appreciate that Marco pushed to change the stores so quickly, especially Via Montenapoleone.
Marco: We took a risk with Montenapoleone. Of course, being in Milan, it is the flagship of the brand, so we decided to make this big investment, but we didn’t have the contract signed for this space; it is actually going to expire two years from now. I don’t have the contract signed yet, meaning that if tomorrow the landlord says, ‘No Marco, I prefer to have someone else in there’, then we need to leave and write off all the investment. But we took the risk in order to communicate this message in Milan as quickly as possible. Now, every single day we are doing plus 100 percent at the shop, so that helps.
Marco, in one of my conversations with Alessandro, I asked him whether he considered himself to be rebellious as a child. What about you?
Marco: No, I was the most homogeneous boy of my generation. I only became rebellious later on in life!
Do you acknowledge that taking risks was always part of your character?
Marco: Always. Making choices for work, choices for life, always, and I am super impatient – I get bored two seconds after I start things.
When I interviewed Yves Carcelle, he said that he was a natural born entrepreneur, already selling marbles at school. What about you?
Marco: No, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. Even now I don’t know if being a CEO is exactly what I want to do! Planning to become something was never in my thoughts, it just happened. It was something that I liked more than other things in my careers, but certain decisions brought me here, and much by chance. I mean, most people prefer to have something stable, but I like being able to move. I just realized over the years that I was very good at working with people. I think I understand people a lot. For me, that is the basis of everything.
‘Even now I don’t know if being a CEO is exactly what I want to do! Planning to become something was never in my thoughts, it just happened.’
Are there strategic decisions that you have made in the last 18 months that with hindsight, you might have done differently had you had the luxury of more time?
Marco Bizzarri: I will never look back. I will never say if I’d had more time, because this is life. Luckily I met Alessandro, luckily he took the job, luckily we have fun. Often you can have a super success, going forward and whatever, but the point is we have a lot of fun, people like to work with us. Gucci has once again become a brand that is often at the top of the market in terms of fashion. It is working well. Could I have made different choices? Of course. But am I happy with those choices I made? Yes! Absolutely.
Alessandro: The other day, the Italian press was asking me about Marco, and I said that I think he has an extraordinary talent. And the first sign of his talent was when he put his faith in me, because if I was him a year ago, I would never have chosen me for this job! [Laughs]
In the collection notes from Wednesday’s show, there was a phrase, ‘Each dress portrays very different sign systems…’ There were 70 different looks and it felt like you were broadening the Gucci fashion proposition, allowing more people to discover pieces that relate to their individual identity or lifestyle.
Alessandro: Yes, because it is about thinking about where the world is going. I can spend a few hours on the Internet and find 100 different things, because the world is obviously not one-dimensional. I want to be free to choose many different aesthetics. Of course, I have set ideas but within the framing of these ideas I want to try many different expressions. I want to be honest with people, and what I think is exactly what I choose to show. If I think of a flower motif, then why can I not also play with geometry in the same collection? It just depends if there is harmony or an aesthetic idea around this.
Marco, you’d mentioned to me before that one of your responsibilities is to protect Alessandro, to allow him to work in the most harmonious environment. Do you feel that creative directors need to be protected from the industry itself?
Marco: I knew Alessandro was the right person for this job, and protecting him was more a case of letting him grow in confidence and become the creative director that he is now. The first quarter of 2015 was bad for us: down seven or eight percent. But how many of Alessandro’s products were in the shops? Zero. And this journalist said the new change in Gucci was not performing. What were they talking about? So I needed to make sure that Alessandro was left in peace and not feeling pressurized at all by these outside forces. The more he’s grown in confidence, the more you see the growth in expression, from show to show and from collection to collection. Maybe he should be the one protecting me! Ultimately, we’ve seen that this industry is, to a certain extent, a stupid industry: it can burn people’s talent out after just five or six months, because there is no patience to allow people to grow.
‘We’ve seen that this industry is stupid: it can burn people’s talent out after just six months, because there is no patience to allow people to grow.’
There seems to be so much debate in the industry right now, and it all seems to be quite negative and unhealthy. As the heads of one of the biggest luxury fashion houses in the world, how does it feel to hear these things?
Marco: Listen, everyone is free to do or say whatever they want, but I think everyone should just focus on achieving the best creativity, the best product, the best quality. All the rest is statements and gossip. I mean, if you want to change something, don’t talk about it, just do it. And do it now.
Alessandro: The best thing you can do is just keep moving and changing. There have been moments here when I’ve hesitated about making a decision and when I call Marco to discuss it, he’ll always says, ‘You have to do it, and you have to do it now’. That sense of freedom to make decisions feels right for now. If I’m happy doing something and Marco likes it, then we are both happy. The happier we become, the more love there is,no?
Marco: I believe a lot in that, and you cannot put limits or constraints on creativity. All the changes in the shop were Alessandro’s responsibility; all the images are his vision right up to the end. On the other hand, if he has doubts, you need to be completely supportive and empower him. Why would you not? I remember the first time he showed me the collection looks – you know, he was really pushing the limits of the Gucci aesthetics – and I could sense he was quite nervous and tired. He presented the looks to me and he asked me which ones I preferred…
Alessandro: He ended up picking out the most complicated looks! And I was thinking, ‘Oh my God!’ Once he’d left the room, I was talking with one of the guys from the design team, and I said, ‘This is an odd CEO, he’s just selected the most complicated, quirkiest and craziest looks’. But, if I didn’t have a person like Marco, nothing would have been possible, nothing.
You have worked with a lot of different creative people, Marco. What would you say sets creatives apart from yourself, even though you do a lot of creative business thinking?
Marco: I have always been touched by the emotional side of creativity; you can sense the love for the work in the eyes of creative people. That doesn’t mean I don’t care, but I appreciate it a bit less than them. The great creative individual is able to construct a full picture in his head, and this can touch anything within the branding of a huge company like Gucci. I’ve come to understand that for Alessandro all the different touchpoints make perfect sense; most people cannot see this at the beginning, but gradually you see that he was right all along, through his overall vision. And when you see that come together, it is stunning.
Lastly, against the current industry backdrop of uncertainty and confusion, the one thing I’ve sensed over these past few weeks is that you both seem to be enjoying yourselves.
Alessandro: Yes, a lot.
Marco: A lot. Without that enjoyment you wouldn’t have seen the collections that Alessandro is creating, and secondly you wouldn’t be able feel the energy that we have put in the company today. I think the reason the two of us get along so well is because we are very similar. We both respect people; we both love to talk and to create together; and we’re both very easy-going. As I think I’ve made clear to you throughout our conversations, for Alessandro to have such a great talent and to also be so humble is why I wanted to work with him. When I started here I set out to create a culture at Gucci of respect and the support of creativity.
You both seem like ambassadors for this.
Marco: If we weren’t, it wouldn’t work. Alessandro and I, we walk, we smile, we say hello to everybody, we enjoy ourselves. It will take a little time for this new behaviour and mood to take effect, but everybody here at Gucci will eventually mirror it, and the ones that don’t will not find their place in this new culture. Life moves quicker than ever before, and we all have to move with it.
Only time will tell how Gucci, Bizzarri and Michele will fare. Naysayers will perhaps question the long-term prospects of a global luxury fashion brand anchored in ‘vintage chic’. That said, Hedi Slimane’s remarkable commercial success during his four-year reign at Saint Laurent was anchored in the same premise: updating and ‘luxing up’ thriftstore finds, sold through the prism of the heavily branded experience.
One ex-Gucci insider highlighted the notion of ‘generational fashion’: the fact that Tom Ford’s fully formed vision for the brand in 1994 took 20 years – an entire consumer generation – to finally play itself out of fashion (although the skinny tailoring and rock’n’roll vernacular that Slimane introduced at the turn of the millennium – arguably the biggest trend since Ford’s Gucci – isn’t showing any signs of slowing down). Will Michele’s Gucci become a ‘thing’ for the foreseeable future? Or can he evolve significantly and take the brand with him? Will the commercial boom that Bizzarri predicts will hit in two year’s time – once Michele’s work hits the entire Gucci retail network – trigger a broader consumer wave of desirability? Or will society simply move on to other fashion trends, other interests, other causes, in the ephemeral way of music or YouTube phenomena? And will Bizzarri be able to protect Michele when he’s faced with the inevitable backlash that comes from fashion’s fickle opinion leaders?
It’s all as uncertain or as perfectly self-assured as the fashion industry itself. It simply depends on who you want to believe.
One thing, though, that is without question, and that so desperately needs to be championed in our current moment, is that, alongside the empowerment and creative freedom, the coherent strategy and creative/commercial alignment, Bizzarri and Michele also seem to be doing that least fashionable of things – having fun.