In the biggest creative upheaval for a fashion brand since the Covid-19 pandemic, Gucci announced on Wednesday that Alessandro Michele, its creative director, is leaving the company.
Mr Michele, 49, a Rome-born designer who took over the top job in 2015, was instrumental in transforming Gucci seemingly overnight from a fading symbol of noughties glamor into a purveyor of eccentric inclusivity that embodied the broader cultural dialogue of gender, sexual identity and race.
His new vision for the brand spilled over into the fashion industry, raising tens of billions of dollars for Kering, the French luxury conglomerate that owns Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, among other brands. However, it was Gucci that was responsible for the bulk of the group’s profit, generating almost €10 billion in sales in 2021 – and it was Mr Michele and Gucci’s CEO Marco Bizzarri who were credited with the success.
At least as long as it was a success. Recently, however, the once unstoppable growth has started to slow down. And although Mr. Michele had tried to expand Gucci’s reach through restaurants, the Metaverse, and collaborations with Adidas and Harry Styles, the basic offering began to draw yawns rather than desires. On Wednesday, 20 years after joining the company, Gucci confirmed this in a statement Mr. Michele resigned and would leave the company.
“There are times when we part ways because each of us has different perspectives,” Mr Michele said in a typically florid statement, which also included thanks for the Gucci staff. “Today ends for me an extraordinary journey of more than twenty years in a company to which I have tirelessly devoted all my love and creative passion.”
Kering Chairman and CEO Francois-Henri Pinault added: “The path that Gucci and Alessandro have shared over the years is unique and will remain a defining moment in the history of the house.”
The Gucci design team will continue to produce collections until a successor is announced, the statement said.
Speculations about his departure, previously reported by Women’s Wear Daily, led to an initial surge in Kering’s share price when markets opened on Wednesday, with analysts noting a new designer could help revive sales.
“Gucci suffers from brand fatigue and consumers who bought early, especially the Chinese, got bored at first,” said Luca Solca of research firm Sanford C. Bernstein in a note to investors, emphasizing China’s importance to the Western luxury market and Gucci in particular (with the country accounting for more than a third of all sales).
“In order to accelerate again, a new creative chapter has to be opened,” he said. “We should give Kering credit for knowing what they’re doing, having a history of systematically and successfully reviving faded brands.”
Mr. Michele’s tenure at Gucci is a case in point. He joined the brand as an accessories designer in 2002 and was almost completely unknown outside the company when Mr. Bizzarri appointed him creative director, which gave him full rein not only over the products but also over the stores, campaigns and communications.
Stretching freely across time, reference points, and notions of beauty, his magpie aesthetic seemed perfectly attuned to the more democratic social media age. His shows were a hodgepodge of variety – jewelry and eyewear and bags and clothing – that celebrated character over chic. His long hair and beard gave him the air of a counterculture guru (his penchant for quoting Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes in his show notes helped with that), and fashion practically treated him as such, especially when the numbers started ticking.
A year ago, he staged his first live show since the pandemic began in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard, with Gwyneth Paltrow, Dakota Johnson and Billie Eilish (who often wore Gucci in public) and Jared Leto on the runway. His latest show at Milan Fashion Week, an ode to identical twins, was one of the most heralded of the season.
But unexpected and unsentimental changes at the top have become something of a pattern at Kering. This is the third time Mr. Pinault has made a sudden switch towards his marquee brand. The first time in 2004 when he split from Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole, and the second time in 2014 when he fired designer Frida Giannini and CEO Patrizio di Marco.
He particularly shocked the fashion world when he appointed up-and-coming designer Demna as artistic director of the esteemed Balenciaga in 2015 (which turned out to be a prescient decision) and shocked them again last year when he announced Daniel Lee’s surprise departure from Bottega Veneta after a successful, albeit only a three-year run.
Mr Michele’s exit also follows renewed chairplay in the luxury fashion industry, which is still recovering from the fallout from the Covid pandemic on its sales and supply chains.
In September, Burberry announced that Mr. Lee would be its new creative director, replacing Riccardo Tisci. He, in turn, had been replaced at Bottega Veneta by its design director, rising star Matthieu Blazy. This month, Tom Ford sold his namesake brand to Estée Lauder. And then Raf Simons, the Belgian designer and co-creative director at Prada alongside Miuccia Prada, said he was closing his small but hugely influential eponymous label after 27 years, signaling the challenges facing independent names. Rumors continue to mount that Phoebe Philo, Celine’s former designer, will be launching a new brand sometime next year.
Now the focus will be on what happens next for Gucci – how many dizzying changes are coming next – and whether Mr Bizzarri will also go. The brand is expected to present its next men’s collection in Milan in January. As always, the show goes on.