Gucci’s Secret Weapon: A School For Craft, Technology And Passion

Florence, Italy, and my pristine white lab coat told the whole story as I joined the class of young workers cutting scarlet leather into heart shapes. Then I looked over my shoulder and saw that on my back were printed the words Maison de l’Amour or ‘House of Love’.

Welcome to Gucci! And to the brand’s secret weapon: A private school opened just four weeks ago inside the company’s vast fashion ‘laboratory’ on the outskirts of Florence.

While the surrounding landscape consisted of white clouds racing over a blue sky above green hills, the fashion factory was far more colourful, with vivid frescoes on the front of the building and interiors filled with accessories in luminous shades. The maximalism of the brand by Creative Director Alessandro Michele has produced purses with wild patterns, shoes in plush velvet, bamboo bag handles shaped by flaming torches, and a rainbow coalition of coloured leather.

“I still have nostalgia for going out to see and learn more – I’m not able to go as often as I would like,” said Alessandro, who was plucked from the ‘factory floor’ to become the triumphant creative source of a re-energised Gucci.

“My schools were the factories. I learned so much in their modelling departments,” Alessandro continued. “They are incredible places, where people are in touch with each other, where the older generations teach the younger, and where you can see and experience unbelievable things.”

The idea of bringing fashion creation under one vast roof, rather than dotted across the landscape with smaller groups of workers, challenges the patriarchal fashion processes so indicative of the industry in Italy.

“We wanted to create a place where people loved to work, with special values to spread happiness – diversity and inclusivity that reflect exactly what we stand for. I really believe that if you develop this kind of culture, people are happy and more productive,” Marco Bizzarri said.

For the crowd of young workers clustered around a coffee bar, this did indeed look like fashion utopia: Here a wall of bright patterns; there a picture produced by the artistic maestro as a ceramic tile.

Everywhere in the interconnected, transparent rooms there was a sense of vibrant, young energy, punctuated by old master-craftsmen meticulously stretching leather for a shoe or shaping python skin for a handbag.

In contrast to that cosy, homespun feeling, high-tech innovation was there to empower and speed up the craft processes. I watched shoes literally going through their paces as the suppleness and longevity of sneakers was tested by a digital machine.

There has been an explosion of accessories at Gucci since Alessandro Michele took over the brand, owned by the Paris-based Kering luxury group. Italian companies appear to be the best in Europe for turning art and craft into money, but such a success has reached a peak at Gucci.

Bizzarri attributes the company’s success to Alessandro. “He was exactly the person that we wanted to have in Gucci,” the executive said. “He respects people, and a leader has got to be like this. He cannot be fake. People will discover that. Everyone looks to him as the person who will be carrying the aesthetic.”

Bizzarri spends time in Florence, including the Gucci Museum and restaurant in the heart of the Renaissance city. But with the Gucci headquarters in Milan and frequent foreign travel, the Florentine hub has its own management.

The local hero is Massimo Rigucci, CEO of ArtLab and the Head of Production for Bags and Shoes and Industrial Operations. Over a cappuccino, he explained the hyper-modern idea of empowering craft through technology. The executive, 18 years at Gucci, comes from a family tradition of leather workers – his father and other relatives worked in the shoe trade.

“I was born in shoes – when I was a baby, I could screw in a heel,” he said. “But the change today is unbelievable, because Alessandro has altered the mentality and the process of the creativity – the whole methodology.”

As far as I could grasp, this transition means that the Gucci designer has brought shoes and leather goods not just under one roof, but into a single mindset with the synergy and chemistry fundamental to the change.

The new Ecole de l’Amour – which has, for example, recruited a young man who used to work on fancy cakes in a bakery – has three different aspects. The Craftsmanship School (La Scuola dei Mestieri) offers a six-month training in the Gucci ArtLab as an overall experience to reach professional standards, with the next course starting in March 2019.

The Ecole follows the ‘Factory School’, which has been running for a year and is based on training ‘production operators’, which I understand to mean a more rigorous manufacturing education.

The third training course is the Technical Academy which, as its name suggests, has a focus on high-tech with the ability to make digital technology part of the creation process.

A cynic might say that this modern hub is a factory by any other name – and a long way from a small, family business passed from father to son. I don’t have the knowledge to judge whether Gucci’s training courses are unique. But it is certain that Italy’s textile, fashion, and accessory studios are rare in Europe for creating products that are otherwise mostly developed in the Far East or elsewhere. It is one of the jewels in the nation’s crown that it still has these skills.

Jewellery is, incidentally, one of the products newly produced in this Gucci hub.

“I think ours is something unique, because I did not know that there are so many related activities,” Massimo said. “In Italy, they used to be in isolation, with shoes in totally different geographical areas – in Novara, Tuscany, Naples. And for leather goods, men’s and women’s shoes were usually separated in different areas. When Alessandro wanted to make all the leather goods together it seemed like a crazy idea. But Marco said, ‘Yes, it’s crazy – but we can try it!’”

The cascade of future plans for Gucci includes bringing the same culture of openness and engagement to Gucci’s giant clothing factory in Novara, in the northwest Italian area of Piedmont; and opening a giant tannery so that everything connected to leather is prepared under one roof.

In one breath, Alessandro explained the Gucci philosophy: “Education, through the ArtLab, is fundamental in the mastering of craftsmanship, which is based on the handing down of know-how and is the only way to secure its future.”