How Gucci Won Big With Gender Fluidity
The Italian luxury fashion house has bet big on the changing gender attitude of young people around the world, reaping rewards that go beyond fashion
On a cold Monday afternoon in January 2015, an unusual sense of anticipation could be felt at the carpeted auditorium at Milan’s Piazza Oberdan as fashion mavens, writers and editors waited for the Gucci show at the finale of the 2015 Autumn/Winter Men’s Fashion Week. The show had been preceded by some high voltage drama at the Italian luxury fashion house.
In December, the Kering group, the French luxury conglomerate that owns Gucci, had announced the unexpected departure of Frida Giannini, the creative director of the Italian fashion brand along CEO Patrizio di Marco. Giannini was initially meant to leave her position at the end of February, but the news had just arrived in the previous week that her contract had been abruptly terminated and that the new CEO, Marco Bizzarri, had then scrapped her designs for the men’s show. He had instead asking Giannini’s long-time deputy, Alessandro Michele, to step in and design a brand new collection, giving him just a week to do this. Though Michele, who was then 42, had worked for more than a decade with the brand, rising to become Giannini’s associate and head accessories designer, he was very little known outside of Gucci. Hence the sense of uncertainty about what to expect from the collection amongst those present that afternoon at the show at Piazza Oberdan.
When the curtains finally went up, what emerged was radically different from anything that Gucci had displayed in a long time. Unlike the other men’s shows everyone had seen in the previous days where masculinity and testosterone were in full flow on the ramps, this one had a distinctly different look and feel. Gucci’s show was called Urban Romanticism, and the long-haired models that emerged seemed specially chosen for their soft, almost androgynous features. And unusually, the line-up featured a few female models as well. The clothes stood out, not just for being young, edgy and colourful, but also for blurring gender boundaries with plenty of floral prints, chiffon bows, lace shirts, silk blouses and mink-lined slippers. As Gucci said in its press handout for the show, “A dreamy ambiguity pulsates throughout. An attitude, not a silhouette; an experience, not an era — the new collection is a point of departure that blurs the masculine/feminine divide and champions the youthful energy and natural confidence of today’s urbanites. Contemporary nonconformists, modern romantics, they have hidden spots in every city and a shared intellectual curiosity that informs how they live and what they wear.”
“Dressing up can give you the possibility to express anything that you want to be,” Michele was quoted as saying, “my idea of masculinity is beauty. If you want to be the beauty, you can be beauty how you want; it doesn’t mean that you are not a man or woman.”
Big applause greeted the end of the show with Michele taking a bow, but the press reaction next day was decidedly mixed. “Perhaps inescapably, there was a sense of uncertainty to the collection,” wrote The New York Times’ fashion writer Matthew Schneier. Robert Rabensteiner, the fashion editor of L ’Uomo Vogue, was quoted as saying, “This is a different Gucci. I loved it.” Blogger Thomas James Monks was among those who were unimpressed, “Overtly feminine silhouettes, including silk and lace ‘blouses’ are not anything that will translate into sales for menswear in most markets,” he wrote.
Kering and Gucci though were clearly impressed by what Michele had created, and in less than 48 hours came the news that he has been elevated as the brand’s new Creative Director with responsibility for all of Gucci’s collections and its brand image.“The Gucci Men’s Autumn/Winter 2015-16 collection presented on January 19, which was realized thanks to a remarkable collaboration between the men’s design and production teams, is a clear indication that the brand is ready to take a new direction,” CEO Marco Bizzarri said in his press statement.
Gucci’s men’s Spring/Summer 2016 show, a few months later, was an even more forceful display of Michele’s confidence that he was indeed taking Gucci in the right direction. Gone was the overt masculine sexiness that was symbolic of the brand over the previous two decades under the creative direction of Tom Ford and Frida Giannini. Now, it was replaced by a lyrical romanticism set against choral music, in what Gucci described as a ‘new poetic horizon’. The runway with both male and female models was awash with pussy bows once again, along with floral shirts, lace blouses, embroidered robes with fur trim, silk scarves, colourful suits and diaphanous tops, all exuding vibrant, youthful energy.
The drama that was characteristic of Gucci ramp shows of the past was now replaced by designs that were gender fluid but made to look wearable. Unlike in the past, when androgyny in clothing was treated as a spectacle, almost like a third gender, Michele’s approach was different — one of ignoring the gender lines altogether. He had the famous transgender model Hari Nef walk the ramp in the Gucci Men’s Fall-Winter 2016 show, and last year had Harris Reed, the androgynous model and designer, walk Gucci Women’s Cruise 2019 show. “Dressing up can give you the possibility to express anything that you want to be,” Michele was quoted as saying, “My idea of masculinity is beauty. If you want to be the beauty, you can be beauty how you want; it doesn’t mean that you are not a man or woman.”
As the first of the Michele designed clothes started trickling into Gucci stores worldwide in late 2015 and early 2016, the buyer response was more than overwhelming. And it only got better with every passing year. Where Gucci sales were struggling towards the end of Frida Giannini’s tenure, in 2016, the first full year of the impact of Michele’s new designs, sales rose by 12.7%, soaring up by 44% in 2017, and 36% last year. What Michele and Gucci had done over the previous seasons had obviously struck a deep chord with the millennials who were now driving the sales of the luxury brand. Michele, it turns out, knew more about their changing attitude towards fashion and gender than most fashion watchers and experts around the world, including much of the global fashion press.
Michele’s sharp insight into the minds of the millennials was validated by Gucci’s own survey of the changing thinking amongst young people around the world. In 2013 Gucci had founded Chime for Change, a global campaign to strengthen the voice of a new generation of leaders speaking for gender equality and to encourage conversation and action on the subject across the world. Spearheaded by the likes of Beyoncé and Salma Hayek Pinault, the campaign raised more than $15 million that has funded 430 projects and advocacy in 89 countries. One of the critical aspects of this campaign now is a bi-annual Irregular Report of the changing attitudes amongst Gen Z ( young people in the age group of 15 to 25 years), done in association with Irregular Lab, a global think tank that researches and tracks young people.
The findings of the most recent of these reports which explored gender fluidity corroborate Michele’s prescient thinking about young people and their attitudes. Twenty-five per cent of the surveyed youngsters said that they expected their gender identification to change throughout their life, while 45% of these expect their gender identity to change at least two or three times. Other interesting numbers include: only 44% of Gen Z define ‘male’ as an individual’s assigned gender at birth; 41% say being ‘female’ is determined by how an individual chooses to identify; 55% say how they dress is an essential element for expressing their identity; 53% believe that being female and being feminine are different things.
Michele collaborated with Italian visual artist MP5 to provide the Chime for Change campaign with an identity featuring silhouettes of human figures standing together, but unidentifiable by gender or other labels.
When asked in the report about what one piece of advice they would give to the older generation about the fluid state of gender, 22-year old Ann from New York says, “Your confusion about gender is based on irrational fear. Fear that we are entering a world where nothing is defined. Shed your idea that everything needs to be put in a box. Understand that gender, and most things were constructed by society to make a profit off the insecurities it feeds us. Don’t just read the news, read the stories driven by the emotions and hardships of people and talk to Gen Z!” While 18-year old Margherita from Milan says, “The idea of gender has changed so much in so little time, that for older people it is impossible to understand. The best thing to do is to let everyone live as they want. Not stress about other people’s sexuality.”
The Gen Z’s changing attitude towards gender above has since been turned into a short film by Gucci. ‘The Future is Fluid’ made by Jade Jackman and Irregular Labs, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film explores what gender means for young people in Brazil, Canada, India, Italy, Singapore, South Africa, the UAE, the United Kingdom and the United States. Alessandro Michele also collaborated with Italian visual artist MP5 to provide the Chime for Change campaign with an identity featuring silhouettes of human figures standing together, but unidentifiable by gender or other labels. These silhouettes were revealed on specially set up Gucci’s ArtWalls in London, Milan, New York, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
For Gucci, the work that is done as part of Chime for Change, as well as Michele’s own path-breaking designs that ignore gender boundaries, is part of something more substantial. It is part of the fashion house’s ongoing effort towards promoting equality, inclusivity and diversity around the world. It is an expression of fashion stretching its influence beyond its traditional area of expertise in designing clothes and accessories.