NEW YORK — Designer Alessandro Michele of Gucci was as surprised as anyone to see his red, white and blue A-line coat, with its rows of feline buttons, become one of the more memorable — and mocked — visuals from the Trump inauguration. But there it was on that gray January day: Kellyanne Conway wearing his $3,600 coat — a signature look from Gucci’s Resort 2017 collection — with a bright red hat and raspberry-colored gloves and handbag. She called the ensemble “Trump revolutionary wear,” and she looked pleased as punch with her fashion battle cry.
While Michele, Gucci’s creative director since 2015, has had a hand in dressing many of the Hollywood celebrities seen wearing the brand, he had not worked with Conway. She purchased the coat off the rack. “We have all kinds of customers,” Michele says. “Everybody is free to do what they want.”
But for a designer who espouses diversity, inclusiveness and a reach-across-borders worldview, the moment was a test of temperament and diplomacy. “To be against something or someone, it’s a dangerous thing,” Michele says. “It’s easy to be against your enemy, but if you give them a big hug . . . . ” And his words drift off into a fog of there’s-really-no-optimal-response.
Michele’s work at Gucci has put him in the center of a conversation about gender definitions, beauty norms and the ways cultures intersect — all of which collide in a creative explosion that has enticed everyone from liberal pop-culture heavyweights such as Beyoncé and Jared Leto to Melania Trump and Conway, two of the most famous faces in an administration built on a populist, buy-American, build-a-wall platform. There is, it seems, common ground in Michele’s freewheeling, romantic mishmash of cultural conviviality.
In the past two years, Michele has reworked Gucci’s once-polished, sexually provocative aesthetic into a chaotic collage of past and present. He mixes Renaissance references with rave culture. He blurs gender lines with lace shirts and floral prints for men. He favors feminine-looking male models and handsome female ones. Elegance and garishness meet in a single ensemble.
Many design houses draw inspiration from different eras and parts of the world. Michele puts all those influences on the runway at the same time — sometimes on a single model.
“The more you are different, the more interesting. The more you are not like me, the more I want to get to know more about you,” Michele says. “I’m very curious. I feel more comfortable surrounded by people not like me.”
Those are potent words at a time when people seem more inclined to hunker down with like-minded citizens and folks who look like themselves. Michele is, instead, embracing a kind of inclusiveness that is, in some ways, the antithesis of his childhood in Rome in the 1970s and early ’80s, where tourism was practically the only source of diversity. Today, he is delighted that his 10-year-old nephew Tommaso described a friend without ever mentioning that she is black. “When I was really young, it was a point to start with skin tone,” he says.
“Diversity in Europe was not a big discussion. It’s a problem that still exists. We’re in a very different moment when you think about Italy and [refugees from] Syria. It’s not just something you read in the newspaper,” he says. “It’s in your life.”
He adds: “We’re in a position where you can’t just sit. You have to react. It’s a really big moment for this discussion.”
Tucked into a sitting room in Soho’s Crosby Street Hotel, Michele periodically pauses in conversation to get a quick Italian-to-English translation from colleagues. Within a 36-hour span, he will walk the celebrity-drenched red carpet at the Costume Institute gala and celebrate the launch of his first fragrance, Bloom. His riotous use of color and pattern have been particularly lucrative for Gucci. Already a $5 billion brand, Gucci saw its revenue increase by nearly 13 percent last year. Consumers aren’t just buying Gucci products, according to the company’s annual report, they’re purchasing a lot of them, and at full price. Even those fickle millennials have fallen under its spell.
Michele is the best advertisement for his version of luxury, which looks more like an explosion in the best vintage shop ever than ruthlessly edited elitism. The diminutive designer is wearing jeans, a plaid work shirt and a baseball jacket. His thick, dark mop of hair is partially hidden under a trucker hat. The beard? Scruffy.
His clothes are a reflection of society, Michele says. Rocker T-shirts meet heirloom dresses meet class blazers. On the street, “sometimes [people] look like they’re dressed in Gucci and they are not. And that’s okay. . . . You can be in the tribe. Just go on the Instagram and put some likes. You don’t need a Gucci shirt.”
Michele’s runway shows have been a parade of quirky models who are removed from the classic beauty ideal. They are skinny — as models tend to be — but often have a look of slack-jawed, awkward adolescence. He has pushed the idea that gender is not a matter of either-or with models who are not easily categorized at a glance. He has cast the 80-year-old actress Vanessa Redgrave in his advertisements.
Bloom, for instance, will be represented by actress Dakota Johnson, the photographer and model Petra Collins, and model Hari Nef. Although the trio is not racially diverse, the women are offbeat beauties, rather than dazzling ones. Collins resembles a bookish Jane Austen spinster. Nef is transgender and has emerged as an activist on the subject.
“I wanted to say more about different faces of beauty. Beauty has no boundaries, no rules, no colors,” Michele says. “Beauty is like a religion. You can include everything inside it.”
Gucci’s pre-fall advertising campaign, “Soul Scene,” has drawn attention with its all-black cast of models dancing in a makeshift nightclub. Michele was inspired after seeing the exhibition “Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity” in a London gallery, which explored the tension between the visibility of black men’s often-copied fashion sense and their heightened social vulnerability. In particular, he was moved by the work of Malick Sidibe, the Malian photographer whose black-and-white pictures captured youth culture in 1960s and ’70s Mali.
“I wanted to talk about . . . the way that black people are so [attentive to] the way they look,” he says. “Everything was perfect: the hair, the details of the dress.”
He was enamored with the photo subjects’ rule-breaking, with their ability to turn their personal dress into an art project. “I’m attracted to the black culture because of the freedom,” he says. “You see it in a lot of singers. A$AP Rocky, he’s the result of what I’m talking about. He loves to look different.”
But the campaign also drew critics who viewed it as cultural appropriation or its kissing cousin — “soul as drag,” as the writer R. Eric Thomas described it. Michele defends his intentions.
“The appropriation can be the beginning of a new story. I know we want to keep everything [for ourselves], everything that is beautiful in [our] culture. I didn’t want to steal nothing,” Michele says. “Culture is something that is fluid. You can’t put culture in a box.”
For a designer working in the topsy-turvy realm of fashion, Michele finds these times especially invigorating — at least creatively. The politics of the day have “been the engine of something completely the opposite,” he says. “In England, when you had Margaret Thatcher, it was one of the most creative moments.”
“We have to use our voice. I don’t want to just talk about dress,” Michele says. “The way you think is important.”