There is such a big change in masculinity,” says Alessandro Michele, creative director of Gucci. He’s talking about the Fashioning Masculinities exhibition at the V&A, which recently opened and for which Gucci is a partner, but he could be talking about his own designs. Since Michele took the reins at Gucci in 2015, questioning what masculinity means has become a signature theme for the Italian luxury fashion giant, with the designer making suits in rainbow-bright colors and graphic prints and dressing men in feather boas and skirts.
“I like the word flamboyant because it means being super alive, especially in this time,” he continues. A recent picture of the Spider-Man actor Andrew Garfield, resplendent in a pink Gucci satin suit adorned with outsize fabric flowers, springs to mind. The actor had never looked happier, beaming from ear to ear. Other fans include Idris Elba, Jared Leto and Tyler, the Creator, with this more flamboyant mood in menswear even filtering down to the mainstream. These days you are as likely to see an Essex boy wearing a pink suit jacket as an A-lister. “This is about freedom,” Michele reiterates.
The exhibition is the V&A’s first dedicated solely to menswear and, following the museum’s recent sell-out fashion shows including Dior and McQueen, is set to be summer’s hot ticket. Images of influential male fashion pin-ups through the ages from the 16th-century prince Alessandro Farnese to David Bowie will feature, as well as creations by other designers redefining masculinity. “There is such a big change in the way that people think a man should look,” Michele says.
Alessandro Michele’s design philosophy underlines a maximalism where he has mixed men’s and women’s pieces; Getty Images
When fluidity and genderless flatter form
For the exhibition’s grand finale, Gucci has lent a custom dress, made for Harry Styles, that he wore on the cover of US Vogue in December 2020. The pop star’s disregard for gender constrictions in his wardrobe has been lent a chic seriousness by his brand association with Michele’s Gucci. “We are friends,” says the designer. “It’s meaningful because for Harry it is about freedom.” Indeed, men in skirts were once considered an act of wilful cultural insurrection. A national identity meltdown over David Beckham wearing a sarong is still only two decades old. Yet, in 2022, boys in slip dresses constitute standard-issue metropolitan club-wear. “If Harry, an established pop star, can do it, then young people feel like they are OK to do it,” Michele says.
The designer, 49, is talking from the new Gucci design studio in Rome. He is wearing a Breton striped jumper, outsize spectacle frames and an elaborate 18th-century necklace in Neapolitan coral adorned with the faces of goddesses. At the nape of his neck he is a Bacchante icon, a priestess in thrall to Bacchus. “She is a goddess of insanity. It’s amazing! Sometimes I like to dream about the story of the things that I wear.” His conversational meter of him is one of unguarded enthusiasm. He is a highly likeable man.
“From very recent times, men have been scared to show who they are,” he elaborates. “And sometimes, you know, it’s about power. We invented the idea of ’man power’ in the 20th century and now we are destroying ‘man power’. It means that you are free. You are free to cry, to laugh, to hug another man because you are friends. The condition of masculinity has changed.”
Alessandro Michele’s exuberant designs for Gucci blur gender boundaries; Harry Styles (left) and Jared Leto in Gucci (Right) (Getty Images)
back to the roots
Originally from Rome, Michele had a glamorous upbringing: his mother, an assistant to a film executive, was part of the Italian movie business, while his father worked for the airline Alitalia. After fashion school Michele worked at Fendi before moving to Gucci, where he assisted Frida Giannini, the then creative director. But from the moment he took over, the house’s aesthetic changed; his “more is more” philosophy ushered in a new age of maximalism and he mixed men’s and women’s pieces from the outset. “People think I am the inventor of fluidity, genderless, I don’t know what?” he says, smiling. He sees his Gucci from him as part of wider history, citing Henry VIII and the Renaissance as obvious examples of the male instinct for extravagant, embellished costume. “It’s about my way of living. It’s about the person that I am.” Sales figures from Kering, the parent company, indicate that his approach is working, with revenues rising from £3 billion in 2015 to more than £8 billion in 2021.
Part of Michele’s complete rebrand of Gucci was physical, shifting the design studios to Rome, the city he grew up in and where he is also now based. Freedom of thought followed the move. His partner of him is an academic who, Michele says, “knew nothing about fashion when we first met”. The other shift was ideology. Out went the Tom Ford years of high glamour, the Gucci logo shaved into pubic hair on advertisements, women in sleek cocktail dresses and men with American Gigolo chest cleavage. In de ella came sequin jackets, embroidered bomber jackets and Seventies-style flares for her and for him.
“It’s like I want to give to all the people in the past who were my freaks, my strange people,” he says. He does not think about “man” or “woman” when designing, he says, but about “humanity”. “I see something more fluid.” Surely he must consider bodies in all this? “When I start to work I look at faces and intentions.”
Michele’s version of Gucci has been equally pro women’s rights. In the 2020 Cruise collection, Michele embroidered uterus motifs on to long-sleeved gowns and “22.05.1978” on a cape, the abortion date became protected by the Italian legislature.
The music for Michele’s shows is always deftly chosen, most recently Small Town Boy, Bronski Beat’s timeless outsider classic. This was the soundtrack to Michele’s preteen life in Catholic Rome, just before he reconciled himself to his sexuality. “Fashion is about things that happen in your life,” he says. “That song, oh my gosh, that was me discovering myself as a gay boy, in that moment.”
When he was young he would sometimes feel the constrictions of what being a man meant and the clothes that were supposed to signify it. “When I was young, for sure, yes. I felt a little uncomfortable at times. But I didn’t care. Because I discovered from the first day of my life that there are two ways that I could follow: live or die. I chose to live.”
He is delighted to have lived through a time when his own gayness has become visibly accepted. “When I was almost a teenager, when I was 11,” he says, “I discovered that this was he time to show to yourself who you really are. It was little steps and it was very hard. But we have to work because there are a lot of things that we still have to change.”
Still, there are some traditions that aren’t going anywhere—the classic men’s suit being one of them. “There’s something so fascinating, the idea of the men’s suit,” he says. “It’s so attractive, in a way that you can interpret it in a million ways. Because women adore men’s suits and men feel so secure in one. It builds this bridge between men and women.” Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, until November. To book, go to vam.ac.uk
Courtesy The Sunday Times (UK)
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