With Gucci's spring 2018 campaign, creative director Alessandro Michele has officially proven himself to have just as much of an out-there, imaginative approach to the storied house's advertising as Tom Ford did in the '90s and early '00s—and that blatant internet-friendly weirdness (with a little help from a secret "shadow committee" of millennials) can be just as alluring as Ford's infamously carnal approach. Indeed, having tapped a group of aliens to model the brand's fall 2017 collection, it was only natural for Michele to give his medieval raver-friendly spring 2018 showing a similar advertorial treatment—like, say, on mermaids with iPhones and others surrounded by everything from owls with septum piercings to men with halos and lamb heads.
Rife with art historical references, the images were largely dreamed up by Ignasi Monreal, a Spanish artist who first started working with the brand in 2015, after Michele discovered his work—like that of so many others, including Coco Capitán, who's actually Monreal's neighbor in London—on Instagram. And while he's worked with everyone from Dior to Jonathan Anderson to FKA Twigs, the latter of which also found him on the app, Monreal was so excited about Gucci in particular that he started giving them 15 options when they commissioned him for just one, leading them to ask him to dream up around 100 more this fall for the brand's Gift Giving campaign. While home in Spain for the holidays, where he's hoping to finally get an iPad for Christmas, Monreal explained how he goes about creating museum-worthy works on just a computer or a portable tablet, here.
Do you make these paintings with actual paint, or on a computer?
It’s digital painting, so it’s all in my computer or tablet. I use PhotoShop and a stylus and a custom set of brushes, and since I’ve been doing this since I was 14, I’ve really had time to refine and create my own specific technique. I’ve had traditional training in art, but I just found digital painting more convenient when I was a teenager because you don’t have to have any materials and it’s cleaner. It’s a medium mostly used for video games and movie—let’s say on the geek side of the world, which I love and I come from. I also come from fashion, but at the same time, I’ve always liked Dungeons & Dragons and video games. I think also that’s one of the most beautiful things about this project: Combining those two worlds, which was my dream—to infiltrate the fashion world with proper geekiness. Like, actual geeks.
So you really never had to get a degree in art?
No, my teachers wanted me to, but I was a pretentious kid, so I was like no, I already know it, because I’ve taken art classes for as long as I can remember. Instead, I moved into comics, and then I did advertising and communications because I wanted to learn how to communicate visually, instead of just representing something. YouTube has been incredible—I’ve learned how to edit and use InDesign and other software. But after doing graphic design, I realized that actually not many people can draw.
It was actually the comic world that got me into fashion, because I had to research clothing to create my own characters—which is why I really love Gucci, because Alessandro really creates characters. None of my fellow geeky comic people were interested in fashion because they thought it was too girly or gay or whatever compared to superheroes, so I was alone and then there was actually a huge market for me. I moved to London when I was 22, to work for Swarovski, and from there I started working in-house or doing art direction for big companies. I’d work from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and then I’d go back home and paint my own s--- and do my own thing until 3 a.m. Eventually, it got to a point where my own commissions were more profitable, so I could stop doing the corporate life.
How long did each of the paintings in the spring campaign take to produce?
[Sighs.] Lots and lots of hours. There was a very short time limit—I only had two days to paint subjects like Ophelia, which originally took at least a year to paint. It took 14 hours or more every day to not only try to achieve that level of detail, but also to come up with the painting itself between now and late October or November. It was very intense, but it was worth it. The portable tablet I have for when I’m traveling proved to be very useful.
Do you ever go to Milan to work with the brand, or are you mostly at home in front of your computer?
Yes, I go quite often—to Milan, to Rome, and most recently to Florence, and especially lately because even before I was finished with the Gift Giving campaign, they asked me to work on the spring one. But Gift Giving was really complete freedom—they even told me that they didn’t want to tell me anything or give me any hints because they didn’t want to impact my inspiration. I was like, Not even a hint! They were like, Nope, you come up with it.
So what do you do when Gucci gives you complete freedom?
It became a great outlet for all of my crazy ideas. There was so much I had to do—in total, it was around 170 images [74 of which were used]—needed at a very fast pace, so I basically just took inspiration from literally anything around me, otherwise I wouldn’t have enough ideas. [Laughs.] It was nonstop—I had to paint one a day or in two days, so I really haven’t had a weekend since March. Some of the ideas came from my trips to their offices in Milan and Rome, so the whole project is a bit like a journal for me, because I can really tell what I was doing that day.
The one I had most fun painting is of the unicorn in the parking lot—it’s a joke because they recently changed their headquarters in Milan to somewhere quite far from the city center, so a lot of employees were having trouble commuting to the office. I was having a cigarette outside in the parking lot one day, and I just thought, wouldn’t it be convenient to have a flying horse come pick us up?
How was the spring campaign process different?
There was more direction because I was working more with Christopher Simmonds, the art director, who would then go to Alessandro. They still gave me a lot of freedom, but it was a bit more structured, because there were more requirements about how to display the product. I used a lot of reference photos because at the end of the day, it’s a campaign with an agenda and the product needs to be visible and the images can’t be misleading—they have to be faithful to what’s being sold.
Where did those reference photos come from? Was it like last season, where a big photographer like Glen Luchford shot the images first and they were then manipulated?
No no no, it was me in the studio with one light. [Laughs.] We organized a small shoot in the photo studio in their Milan headquarters with just me, a couple of people from their team, and just three or four models with no makeup or hair. It was just to represent the clothes faithfully in terms of all of the prints and embroideries and jewelry that Gucci has, so it was very casual—mostly all of us just having coffee and eating.
Wow, that’s probably the least production that’s ever gone into a Gucci shoot.
Yeah, everyone kept saying how low-key it was. It really was fun. But for me, the real work came after. Once you have the reference images, it’s like building a whole world. Because it’s the first painted campaign that I know of, and a big leap of faith from Gucci—which I’ve very thankful for, because no other brands I’ve worked with have given me this level of trust—so I wanted to use the opportunity to create kind of a love letter to painting itself, to the big masters and the works that we love.
To be honest, I wanted to make painting cool—for young people to be inspired by drawing and painting. And I want to try to help put illustration on the same level of photography and video—for brands to go back to working with illustrators, because that’s how it started in fashion, and it's a beautiful thing to go back to your origins. In the end, the images were a mix of ones that exist—like Ophelia [by John Everett Millais]—and ones that I completely made up.
Are the paintings you recreated, like Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, then, just some of your favorite artworks?
Yes, and that one in particular—it’s in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, where my mother is from and where I used to live. It’s just so breathtaking. The imagination and patience that Bosch had… I could never do what he did, so it’s kind of a love letter to Bosch.
I thought it was amazing. Again, the beauty of working with Gucci is that Alessandro takes risks. He’s not scared of trying new things, or trusting his own taste over the industry’s; he knows what he likes. I’ve never had this level of trust before in my career, and it’s okay that I encounter barriers—you know, I’m 27 and I’m Spanish. But Gucci really gave me freedom. And they’re really nice people! Maybe it’s because they’re Italian and I’m Spanish, but we get along quite well. There’s really a family vibe.
Watch: Soko Loved Gucci's Spring 2017 Hollywood Forever Cemetery