Gucci, Reinventing a Superbrand
Alessandro Michele grew up on the outskirts of Rome. His father was a technician for Alitalia airlines and his mother was an executive assistant at a film company. He remembers his parents being happy but different. They were independent thinkers . The designer remembers one day in Florence, out with a friend, coming across his parents, who were visiting. “I told my friend, ‘look at my mum,’ and introduced my mum to this friend of mine and afterwards I told him, ‘look at my dad, there’s my dad’. And he was like, ‘Really? You’re kidding me’. The way my dad looked, super long hair, long beard and this huge straw hat during the winter. Properly free. He didn’t care when he was dying. He said we were lucky because we stayed together for a long time, a lot of springs and a lot of winters. He didn’t know my age.” He credits them with his discovery and love of a “very eclectic beauty”, combining his mother’s classic Hollywood glamour and with his fathers “crazy shaman” spiritual eclecticism.
Michele attended Rome’s Academy of Costume and Fashion, after which he joined the Italian knitwear brand Les Copains. From there, he went to work for Silvia Venturini Fendi and Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi, where he experienced significant success designing leather goods. In 2002, Michele joined Gucci alongside his predecessor, Frida Giannini. They began their work in London under Tom Ford. When sales slumped in 2004, Ford and then–CEO Domenico De Sole were ousted. Giannini was appointed creative director and Michele worked as an associate designer, executing her vision for the next eleven years. As he explains it, “I was not creative—I was more executive. My job was to more or less work quite exactly from the idea of another person. I didn’t have freedom. I just put in ten percent of my creativity.”
At the end of 2014, the former CEO Patrizio di Marco parted ways with Gucci, and Giannini, his partner in life and business, was due to leave in February. She ended up departing a month earlier, leaving Gucci without a creative leader. Marco Bizzarri from Bottega Veneta was brought in as CEO but the creative director role was left vacant. Weeks later, Gucci showed a menswear collection that had been rumored to have been created in just two weeks (Michele would later say five days). Giannini had started the work, but the designs were thrown out with her premature departure. The show was positively received and at the end the entire design team took the bow together. Two days later, Alessandro Michele was officially named creative director. His first womenswear show took place the following month.
Michele’s partnership with CEO Bizzarri had been solidified. But their potential had only begun to be unleashed. Over the next weeks, months, and years their impact on Gucci, holding company Kering, and the world of fashion would be considerable. Their highly original vision for Gucci, aesthetically and culturally, was a complete departure. They combined Michelle’s unique understanding and appreciation of the historical codes of the house with vintage and modern street style and a much faster, more connecting approach to consumer engagement and creative partnerships. Less than a year into the new Gucci, the British Fashion Council awarded Michele the International Designer Award, the CFDA awarded him the International Award “for his creative contribution to the international fashion stage,” and British GQ named him Designer of the Year. But it wasn’t just a creative renaissance the business has grown explosively. Gucci has experienced approximately 50 percent sales growth annually since 2014 while at the same time becoming the number-one Googled fashion brand globally and adding 8 million new Instagram followers in 2017.
Gucci’s aesthetic overhaul was reflected by an internal transformation of company culture, emphasizing passion and risk-taking, according to CEO Bizzarri, “moving from a culture of fear to a culture of empowerment. There is a change of aesthetic and a change of positioning in the company [which] came not from what we wanted to do, but why we wanted to do it.” This impacted Gucci’s approach to design, but also how it communicated with customers, he continued by explaining, “Connection and engagement and interaction and the way in which we approach digital and approach social make the Gucci experience today. Our culture and our way of connecting people and being authentic and passionate and joyful is really speaking to a crowd, [and] that cannot grow enough going forward.” This strategy is brought to life by standing up for their beliefs and actively collaborating with the global creative community.
This philosophy was demonstrated clearly last month when, following the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, Gucci joined the anti-gun movement by donating $500,000. For Bizzarri the decision was easy saying, “Corporate neutrality is completely finished. Today you need as a corporation and as a leader to take [a] stance.” And since they have taken over there is rarely a month that goes by without a new creative Gucci collaboration. These have ranged from working with street artists like Coco Capitan, to multiple Instagram artists, to Major League Baseball, and an upcoming project with legendary hip hop tailor Dapper Dan.
As Alessandro Michele’s explains it, “You need a lot of courage and, at a certain point, to think I don’t care, you need to do what you really want to do, otherwise you drown in this ocean of information. We are not in the 80s when there were just magazines and books. Now it’s like another world. You can’t keep using the same language, that would be like singing where everyone else is dancing. I think the thing that is helping us and our company is that mine and Marco’s way of working is really open to something different. When Gucci started, it was another age. If you bought a Gucci bag, you belonged to the jet set. The jet set doesn’t exist any more. I’m trying to speak to the world, to everyone. It’s beautiful that people go into the store but I don’t want them to feel they have to. It’s more that you can be exactly what you want to be. More than anything, fashion is an expression of a way of life, a point of view. It’s like a universal language. And if you work with empathy towards people, it’s very powerful.”
How do you reinvent a superbrand?
Do you need to spend a fortune bringing in outside talent? Buying a lot of advertisements? I think Gucci proves that while money may help, what really matters is your approach. Are you being empathetic to the desires or your customers and employees? Are you connecting, expressing and sharing your true beliefs? It seems to me that the turnarounds occur when you combine a clearly defined purpose with experienced creativity, emotional generosity, and flawless execution. Three out of four being completely intangible and emotional.
As Marco Bizzarri says, “Sometimes emotions are more important than rationality.”