He receives me in his beautiful office, at a time when face masks are still ubiquitous and most people are working from home. His loyal assistant sits next to us for the many hours we spend together, soundlessly reminding us both not to get too confidential. This is for the brand after all. He seems thoughtful and kind, and generous with his experiences and feelings – quite different from the foppish man I had expected. Much later, I find myself in the familiar position of wrangling with his people – ‘we like this,’ ‘please change that’ – and I’m reminded of the complex formations present in big business. Where does a person end, and the corporation begin?
When I started in this job I was a cultural appropriator. It’s true. I was perhaps the best one. The way I thought about creativity then was as something totally free and open. Inspiration to me was something that could be infected by anything. I’ve always been an omnivore like that, finding inspiration everywhere and picking whatever I liked. I’ve changed a lot in that respect, and the times have changed too. There’s no room today for ‘Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t know.’ The feeling now is that you must know everything, and you must care about everything. It’s like being at school. But my work is an ongoing investigation so the challenge suits me. But sometimes the limits we put on creativity can make things complicated, and being at a big company means I’m under intense scrutiny. Every day, every moment, everybody is looking at me.
When I got this job and became a public figure I was almost forty-two. I was already a man with a life. I don’t need visibility. What I want is a good life: good conversations and exchanges. Of course I want my voice to matter, because I’d like to think I have something relevant to say. But when the press started paying attention to me six years ago it was really bad. Well, good and bad. Good because people were recognising my work. And bad because I felt that people were somehow stealing my sense of self. I saw my picture everywhere and it was unsettling; I never thought my work was about me. The line between my professional and private self was quite distinct before. But being a creative director of a fashion house today is all about being a public person – sometimes I imagine it’s a bit like being a rock star in the Eighties. So I had a hard time at first with people stopping me in the street to take a picture. I never in a million years thought that would be my life.
I try not to think too much about the ‘Alessandro Michele’ I see in the magazines. I made a conscious decision not to think about my position or status in order for my work and life to continue as before. I love my life. I’m secure in myself. When I come across a bad picture of myself in a magazine, I can laugh about it. I don’t fret. But being a public figure can be really dangerous; it can be like a drug. It can completely destabilise you. I’ve met famous people who don’t see themselves as human anymore. They have become personaggios, and that scares me. You risk losing contact with the things and people that you love. I’ve had to be very transparent with myself in this respect, very straight and very honest, because when I started to encounter people who say they adore me, or think I’m some kind of god, when I started to see my own image everywhere, I had the feeling someone out there was building a parallel version of me. And I never wanted that image, the persona, to overpower the person that I am.
I’m an open person, but when I doubt I speak to my partner. His opinion means a lot. In a way doubt for me is private, but then again it’s also not. Nothing in my job is really private, not anymore. It’s more like one long therapy session. Every aspect of my inner world is on display, so doubt is always just around the corner. Always. My life and work are completely intertwined today. I think of my work like a garden: I plant something, you plant something too and it all grows together. It’s up to me to take care of the garden, to know what to prune and what to fertilise.
Once designers were like royalty; without the right name you were seen as an impostor. Today labels are more like ongoing narratives. If you’re twelve and you go on Instagram, you don’t need to get a dress, or a belt. You don’t need to buy the products to be a part of the vision or the imagination. Fashion now is a point of view, or a stage. It’s not about the clothes. When young people want to take a selfie with me, I don’t think they care about the bag; they care about the world. And the world I want to project says: be strange, be a loser, be a freak. It’s okay. Because when I was young the definition of ‘fashionable’ was very narrow: thin, white, rich, old. And when I was a little boy I was a total outsider. I needed a very special place to express myself, and for a while fashion was just that. It’s funny, I often think fashion is one of the ways we as humans have invented to forget our imminent death. It’s about ideals: perfection, dreams and fantasy. Coming up in fashion I never heard people talk about death or disease, only about what was gorgeous and fabulous. Now maybe things are a little bit different. You can show an image of a disabled person or someone diseased. But think back to fashion magazines in an earlier era: those people didn’t exist. Fashion was about beautiful hair, and a perfect body. Well that’s not the case anymore.
Before I got this job I was bored with fashion. I didn’t feel it spoke to me anymore; it was about predictable sexiness, for rich people. I was really ready to do something else. I still remember how people would react when I told them I worked in fashion – it was as if I was working on another planet. We were completely disconnected from the world. Well it worked for a while, but I was quite sure that there were others out there as bored as I was. You know, there was a point when I felt that being in fashion was like being in a bad relationship, the kind where you know you should leave but you don’t have the will power. I felt stuck making products, without considering the whole fresco. I was losing the creative attitude. Everything became about numbers, about having the right bag or shoe. There was no soul – I might as well have been working in a supermarket. So when I met Marco for the first time I really had nothing more to lose. I allowed myself complete openness and sincerity. In my head I was already moving on, leaving the relationship, so I could speak very honestly. Actually, Marco is the biggest gambler I met in my life. He was really risking something – money and position – with the decisions he made at the beginning. Me, I’m a creative person; I can be reborn a million times.
When I became creative director I really divided the audience. I remember reading some really crazy things about myself. Like what? Well that I looked like Jesus for example. Crazy! It was a coded way of saying I wasn’t fashionable, because to be fashionable is to be sophisticated. So now when I hear people say, ‘he looks Gucci,’ about someone who doesn’t look rich or glamorous but instead a bit strange, it really makes me happy. If I managed to make the freak fashionable, then I’ve really accomplished something. It means that the world is changing a little bit, and that I played a small part in that. I want to think of myself as an interloper, always. I don’t want to become a slave to the history of the company. I think being a creative director today is a bit like being a shaman: you bring to life something dead. Yesterday’s Gucci is finished, and at the same time it’s not. The brand grows in strange, unpredictable ways. It’s a form of magic really.
When I showed the Dapper Dan look on the catwalk in 2017, I didn’t understand how the cultural context would affect what, to me, was a celebration. The Black community invented the most contemporary vision of Gucci in the 1980s. What was happening in Harlem at that time was super interesting; it was a Renaissance for the company and a vision for how a brand like Gucci can be powerful in the street. I saw a picture of a look Dapper Dan made for Diane Dixon, the athlete: she was wearing this poufy jacket with huge sleeves and LV logos everywhere. And I thought, ‘This woman with a “fake” look is like the new Venus de Botticelli for the company.’ So I wanted to reference Dapper’s work and the glorification of ‘the ghetto’ in the show, and I didn’t think I needed to spell it out because it was so obvious. The next day: disaster. What can I say? I learnt. I’m learning. You must be careful with what belongs to other cultures. It doesn’t mean you can’t use it. But you have to be delicate. Not like a… how you say… colonizatore of image. There were other incidents too, and yes they made me doubt. How could my intentions have come across so wrong? Well these situations made me realise how ignorant I’ve been.
Can I tell you a little story? I live with a guy whose professional life is as far from mine as you can imagine. He’s a researcher and a scholar, he works with Native people. He lives among them, eats and sleeps together with them. Before we met, he knew nothing about fashion. So one day I came home with a beautiful fabric, oh it was just beautiful. I’m obsessed with old fabrics, I’m a collector. This piece was from the end of the 19th Century, from England. It was amazing, a masterpiece: a red toile de jouy. I was trying to decide whether to place it on our bed or on the couch, and I asked his opinion – it’s our house so I want his input too. And he told me, ‘Well for me this fabric is unacceptable.’ ‘But why?’ I asked him; ‘It’s so beautiful!’ And he made me look again. He showed me how colonialism was represented in the pattern: the stereotypes, the exoticism. I didn’t understand at first. ‘It’s not our past.’ ‘It was so long ago.’ Those were the things I was thinking. We fought about it for months. But he helped me understand that what I was seeing as a beautiful Indian man riding an elephant was in fact the image of a slave, of oppression. And afterwards, I kept asking myself: am I a racist for not seeing what he saw? I questioned myself. I felt criticised: ‘You’re just a person in fashion, all you can see is the colour, the elephant. You don’t have the skills to understand what’s really happening here.’ It was a hard lesson. It took me a long time to accept my own failure, my own ignorance.
Navigating creative freedom and political correctness isn’t always easy. It’s a delicate process, and sometimes it’s frustrating. Cultural appropriation is such an ambiguous word. I love art history, and it’s full of what we would today call cultural appropriation. It used to be that as a creative person, you had access to everything in order to create work that was powerful, to get a conversation going. I worry sometimes that we today are too much in the political attitude that it’s one against the other. The mind set has changed and we all have to adapt. When I realised I needed help, I was also worried that I’d be inhibited, or too self-conscious to be free in my creativity. So we devised a way. In the studio I work in a very free way, no one controls what I do there. But once my work is done, we now talk about whether what we made in the studio might be perceived differently to what we intended. Everything we do gets discussed in this way. Screening things is normal now; not doing it is just too dangerous. On the catwalk or in a campaign, things can get reduced or simplified. The whole story isn’t always apparent. And anyway working with limits can be quite a good challenge; you have to push yourself more. It’s funny really – just five years ago a designer could use whatever references he wanted. Five years ago I couldn’t have imagined changing my work for social or political reasons. Never. My creativity was sacred. But I see it differently now. You have to think carefully about the impact of what you’re saying.
There’s a lot of talk now about whether a brand is authentic when they try to move away from the elitism or exclusivity aspect of fashion. ‘You talk about diversity, but do you really mean it?’ or ‘You’re only doing it because you have to.’ I think those arguments are a bit beside the point. Even if you ‘have to,’ it’s a good thing no? We learn from repeating what we have to. Think of a child told again and again by his mother, ‘you must learn to be careful.’ Well some things we have to be forced to learn. I don’t like to be political when I work, but I’ve understood that fashion really is political. It used to be confined to boutiques and rich people in ivory towers but now it touches everyone. I’ve been approached by eleven-year-olds who know everything about Gucci. Can you imagine?
I still question a lot of the practices we have in the fashion industry. Our system hasn’t been renewed in a long time, not really – in many ways it’s as if we’re still doing the job that Monsieur Dior did years and years ago. Like why are we still doing shows using the same structure and rules? Where’s the innovation? Where’s the risk? The rules have become so homogenous: you have to use the ‘right’ models, the ‘right’ light, the ‘right’ stylist. Fashion can be so… come si dice… autoreferenziale. Self-referential? It’s crazy to me that a creative director should use a stylist for example. That’s my job! It’s time to challenge those old rules. Imagine, in twenty-five years of working in fashion I only once interviewed a black design applicant, and she was American. Can you imagine? I think I’ve seen hundreds of white, Western designers over the years, but diversity is still really rare. Why? On what level are we failing? Is it about access to education, or about class or is it about bias on behalf of head hunters? Or the brands themselves? Traditionally fashion has been an exceptionally racist industry; being black meant exoticism, bananas and Josephine Baker. We know better now, but systems take a long time to change.
There was a time when the company didn’t want to sell the GG logo cap to the ‘wrong’ customer. In the New York shop, the cap wasn’t available. So when I became creative director I immediately wanted to open up a dialogue with the people who worked with Gucci ‘fakes.’ To me that was powerful. Fakes are not bad. I mean, what is a ‘fake’ anyway? ‘GG’ is a pop symbol, and today, like Warhol said, pop symbols have power. Labels give value to an object. Is my jacket Gucci without the label? If I put a Gucci label into a vintage piece, does it make it Gucci? Is it more Gucci because I’m the creative director? I was thinking about those things when I worked on the Dapper jacket: am I fake and Dapper Dan real, or is it the other way around? Or are we both fake? These terms are so loaded, and how you value them depends on the time, context and also just your individual point of view. I’m just a guy from a faraway quarter of Rome, I wasn’t born in a rich family, my surname isn’t Gucci. Maybe I’m here just by chance. So what makes you think I’m the real one? [Laughs] I remember the first time I was invited to a really high class dinner; I didn’t know how to manage the wine glasses and I felt so uncomfortable. Now I think I’m lucky not to know, because it means that I’m not oppressed by rules. I am what I am.
The idea of ‘good taste’ is dying. Sophistication or Western ideals of elegance are being challenged. That’s what I want my work to do. I love bad taste. In the awkward or strange you can find the most beautiful things. As designers one of the most important things we can do is to challenge what style or good taste is or can be. That’s why I try to be as unfashionable as possible. I hate when designers talk about being ‘inspired’ by this or that. To me that sounds like someone stuck in their ivory tower and using binoculars to look at the world down below. I imagine a European or American in an elegant Moroccan boutique hotel sipping a spritz by the pool, and telling journalists later that he was ‘inspired’ by Morocco. That way of working is completely irrelevant now. I prefer walking down the street, or just having a nice conversation with someone.
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj’s Editor-in-Chief and Founder
This article was originally published in Vestoj ‘On Doubt,’ available for purchase here.