A psychedelic spin painting by Damien Hirst cuts through the romantic 18th-century master portraits and palatial furniture in the orangery at Woodside, the Windsor home of Elton John and husband David Furnish, where the past cross-pollinates with the future. “I love the Renaissance,” Alessandro Michele reflects, sparkling in a Gucci rhinestone bomber and a royal purple velvet NY Yankees baseball cap, among hundreds of antique leather-bound volumes in Elton’s library. “Can you imagine if it were possible to meet Raphael or Michelangelo? For a little guy who’s worked in fashion for a long time, to be in touch with Elton is something like this.” Bedecked in an embroidered diamanté tailcoat created by Alessandro for his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour this September, Elton has opened the gilded gates of his sprawling estate to the Gucci designer he considers a creative soul mate. “Alessandro and I are like twin brothers. I’m much older, but I’ve found someone who is exactly the same as I am: who loves beauty, collects things, has a magpie eye. And I’m so glad that he came into my life. His clothes fill my house with happiness. He fills me with happiness.”
Under the trompe-l’oeil ceiling of Elton’s orangery, where cherubs fit for Fragonard linger in a rococo blue sky, the princely singer and his court dresser look a match made in heaven. Like a rock’n’roll master and his apprentice, their mutual admiration for one another’s work has come full circle in a Gucci-fication of the signature look trademarked by Elton through four decades on stage: the oversized glasses, the ringmaster suits and all that glitters. “In some of the costumes I wore, I probably did make a fool of myself. Not to me, but other people thought, ‘That looks ridiculous.’ It’s what your idea of ridiculous is,” Elton says. “I’ve always been fearless, and that’s why I love Alessandro. He doesn’t give a fuck what people think. He doesn’t give a fuck at all.” The kindred spirits first conjoined when Jared Leto introduced them at the Vanity Fair Oscar party in 2016. To the 46-year-old designer, then a year into the Gucci job that would revolutionise fashion, it was destiny.
Michele grew up listening to Elton’s music and admiring his audacious costumes. At Gucci, the singer had long featured on the moodboards. “When you’re working in fashion there’s always a picture of him or David Bowie from the 1970s: the most flamboyant guys on earth. He changed my work a lot, because I’m such a big fan of that era. It’s a dream come true, and Elton was one of my latest and biggest dreams I didn’t plan.”
For his part, the superstar, now 71, first heard of Michele from the late Ingrid Sischy following his debut show for Gucci in January 2015. “I thought, God Almighty, it’s so out there! It’s like he’s from Mars or something. Gucci was kind of dead for a long time after Tom Ford and suddenly this man…” Elton pauses. “It was like, yes!” Alessandro sensed an immediate friendship. “Elton was like a teenager chatting to me with this beautiful, happy face,” he recalls. Indeed, later that year Michele told me about the meeting, effusing: “He’s like fireworks! He’s incredible! He’s a guard of music, of bling-bling, of everything!” A year on, Elton attended the cruise show in Florence and Gucci soon launched an ongoing capsule collection inspired by his legendary tour looks.
Outside the orangery at Woodside, two handsome rescue donkeys reside not far from a picture-perfect pond with a Monet bridge, which leads up to the big house. Sitting on a majestic sofa with his Jesus Christ Superstar beard and Bronzino bob, one of his hosts’ young sons admiring his many rings (always one on every finger), Michele looks every bit at home in the John/Furnish household. Affectionate and tactile, he has a warming effect on the slightly sterner superstar, who turns heartfelt in Michele’s presence. When Elton changes into his Gucci tour look, he adds only his own jewels. Plenty of jewels. “I’ve always loved that Louis XIV over-thetop kind of shit. I love it. If you saw Liam or Chris Hemsworth in it – two fantastic-looking, beautiful men – it wouldn’t suit them at all. But it suits me,” he says. “The more the merrier. I would wear a tiara if I could.” (“And you have two,” Alessandro notes, just back from the treasury.) “When I look at what I’ve worn throughout the years, I’ve followed my own rules and I’ve had a lot of help along the way,” Elton reminisces.
Off stage he was devoted to Yves Saint Laurent, Tommy Nutter, Richard James and most famously Gianni Versace, while Bob Mackie made many of his elaborate stage costumes. Alessandro’s favourite is the white suit with the angelic plume epaulettes, captured by Terry O’Neill in 1973. “I wasn’t David Bowie. I wasn’t ultra-skinny. I was sitting at a piano. I had to have humour in my costume,” Elton explains. “There’s one thing about Elton, which I always repeat: with all his flamboyant looks in the 1970s, he was so masculine. He was always so natural and he didn’t lose any of himself,” Alessandro says. “Also, I never wore any make-up,” Elton adds. “I wasn’t glam rock. I was me being a blokey guy wearing these clothes.”
“IN ALESSANDRO, I’VE FOUND SOMEONE WHO IS EXACTLY THE SAME AS I AM: WHO LOVES BEAUTY, COLLECTS THINGS, HAS A MAGPIE EYE”
In a new age of self-expression, Gucci is dressing the defiant men for whom Elton’s early courage paved the way – from Harry Styles to Jared Leto and A$AP Rocky. “I’m almost like him,” Alessandro says, referring to Elton. “There is nothing that is forbidden for me. I was like this since I was eight years old. I bleached my hair at 10. I wanted to be blond. I’m always with my rings. If I’m surrounded with beautiful things I feel better.”
Roaming Woodside, it’s as if one artist’s imagination has materialised in the house of the other. Like the hyperhistoric, cross-cultural sensory overload Michele dreams up in his Gucci collections, Elton’s private world is a conversation between eras and art. In his driveway stands one of the oldest oak trees in England, dating back to the 16th century. The big house, built on the spot where Henry VIII’s physician once lived, is ornamented with masterpieces and artefacts everywhere you look. Behind it is a modern art gallery erected to house his contemporary collection.
“I have everything, but I always find something I don’t have. It’s eccentric, I suppose, and people say, ‘God, it’s a waste of money. You don’t need all that stuff.’ But I do need all that stuff,” Elton shrugs. “The first time I met him I thought I was in front of a mirror because I have the same attitude with objects,” Alessandro says. “He collects everything. He doesn’t care if he’s going to wear these pieces – just have it.”
Back in the orangery, the singer quizzes the designer about the similarities in their professions: the idea process, the insomnia, successes and regrets, and the inevitable envy of peers. “I can think of one or two people who’d be jealous of you,” Elton says mischievously. Alessandro looks at me: “He’s so sincere,” he laughs, avoiding a direct response. “When you’re inspired by another person, you don’t want to destroy their career. Fashion and creativity are not a place for jealousy.” The orangery is decked out like Elton’s own Petit Trianon in honour of his beloved grandmother, who once lived there and embodied that type of grandeur. A small room has become his own private chapel where marble plaques memorialise those who influenced him and died too soon, from Diana, Princess of Wales to Elizabeth Taylor and Gianni Versace. “Gianni told me there’s beauty all around you. He would take me to a church in Milan and look at the mosaic floor. He’d say, ‘Look, beauty is everywhere. Not just in a museum.’ And I think Alessandro is that sort of person,” Elton says.
“I’m obsessed with him, I’m obsessed with his clothes, I’m obsessed with what he does. For me, the only person that was like that in my life before was Gianni, and when Gianni died a part of me died. He saw everything, he loved everything, he channelled everything. Nothing was off limits with him. Alessandro is the first thing that’s happened in my life since Gianni died that I can really identify with.” Last year, when Donatella Versace relaunched her brother’s Elton John print from the early 1990s to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his death, Alessandro was watching from the front row. It was a sort of spiritual passing of the baton from one Elton John designer to another. “When I wore Gianni, I wore nothing but Gianni,” Elton says. “My life is now Gucci.”
Michele Alessandro’s designs for Gucci s/s 2018 echo Elton John’s stage gear through the decades