Getting To Know Gucci’s Creative Director Sabato De Sarno

Renaissance Man: The Emergence Of Sabato De Sarno At Gucci

De Sarno in his Rome apartment, which showcases his signature color, Ancora (also the name of his debut runway collection). Portrait by Anton Corbijn

Sabato De Sarno has emerged from behind the scenes to take Gucci into a whole new era. Jason Horowitz meets the designer in the spotlight.

Sabato De Sarno does not love having people over to his home. “I never host anyone,” De Sarno, the creative director of Gucci, tells me as we are seated on his living room couch across from his snoozing dapple dachshund, Luce. Colleagues aren’t invited for dinner; his husband lives in Brussels—even his parents don’t get to spend the night. “It’s my place, where I relax,” says De Sarno, a baby-faced 40 with closely cropped hair and beard, as he fidgets with the strings of his vintage Jurassic Park sweatshirt. “Where I disconnect from work.”

The walls of the apartment, on a winding street in the Renaissance quarter of Rome, are decorated with contemporary works by Jannis Kounellis, a Greek artist who scrawled words over his lithographs, and Sidival Fila, a Franciscan friar who paints canvases of sewn fabrics. There are prints of Italian icons, including one of the writer and director Pier Paolo Pasolini. (De Sarno proudly tells me the value of the latter has skyrocketed since his predecessor at Gucci, Alessandro Michele, staged a show of the print’s photographer, Paolo Di Paolo, at a Rome museum.) Beneath coffered ceilings and atop the room’s minimalist deco furniture rest fertility sculptures from Sardinia, one of which has the deep bordeaux color with which De Sarno is repainting Gucci’s bags and shoes and skirts and jackets. He gave the color, and his first runway collection last September, the name Ancora, which means “again”—in the insatiable sense, he tells me—“of when you kiss someone that you like and you don’t want to stop doing it.” That is his ambition for Gucci, too, he tells me: to imbue it with passion. “I want Gucci to touch people’s hearts,” he says.

Behind him, as he tosses a chew toy to Luce, is a monograph on Valentino, the Roman fashion house that was his home for the last 14 years and from which the fashion giant Kering plucked him to lead Gucci, its flagship brand, in January 2023. Beyond the closed doors behind us on the sofa, meanwhile, is an off-limits studio bursting with ideas for the February runway show—closets filled with works in progress and boxes he is packing as Gucci moves the company’s design operation to Milan.

Resting among the fashion and art books, including the works of Tom Ford, lining the hallway are two ceramic hands from his native Naples that one of his brothers gave him, one hand making the sign of a cuckold, the other with a middle finger in the air. “He says I don’t work,” De Sarno says with a half smile. “Maybe he’s right.”

Family is central to De Sarno. Two days earlier, he joined his mother and father and brother in the northern city of Como, where they all moved decades ago. They ate tuna pesto and squid as his mother interrogated him about Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck and all the other celebrities he dressed, and met, at Gucci’s Los Angeles County Museum of Art gala in November; he told her how he hit it off with Kirsten Dunst, and how strange it was to be treated as famous by the famous. “This is the first time that I was a celebrity, too,” De Sarno tells me, talking with some awe about Kim Kardashian coming over because she wanted to meet him, or being introduced to Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. “I’ve seen Titanic 15 times.”

He was joined at LACMA by his husband of four years, Daniele Calisti, a lawyer with the European Commission in Brussels whom he met in 2012 on the black sands of the Sicilian island Stromboli. Their first kiss, on a dance floor, is recorded on De Sarno’s art-heavy Instagram account, but in the apartment there are no pictures of his husband or his family. The only family photo is a childhood image of De Sarno himself. “This is me,” he says in the foyer, pointing at the toddler with curly blond locks seated on a mini Vespa with training wheels and wearing red pants and a mock turtleneck sweater. There are even more embarrassing ones, he says, but when I ask to see them, he declines. “Let’s not overdo it,” he says with a laugh.

De Sarno and husband Daniele Galisti. Photo courtesy of FEDERICO CIAMEI and SABATO DE SARNO

For nearly the last decade, Gucci turned overdoing it into both an ethos and a business plan. Under the maximalist, envelope-pushing vision of Michele, whose “Last Supper” look and bejeweled fingers made him a prophet of the fashion-celebrity industrial complex, sales multiplied to nearly 10 billion euros a year. But Michele, who widened the runway to make room for all walks of fashion life, was not on board with Kering’s strategy to grow that number to as high as 15 billion by shifting his design and expanding its audience beyond the young and diverse crowd of fashion fanatics to target deeper pockets and a broader constituency. When Michele left in November 2022, Kering sought a designer who, like Michele and Ford before him, could once again—ancora—transform the brand by connecting it more directly to its heritage and selling more to the kind of people who could afford to buy and wear it.

“I didn’t want a rupture—I wanted an evolution,” Kering’s chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault tells me. To achieve the brand’s potential, he says, it needed to avoid over-exposure, maintain its joyfulness, enhance its sexiness, and appeal to a “broader audience of luxury consumers” who, he says, “we’ve never tried before.”

To reach them, he turned to De Sarno, then Valentino’s fashion director of men’s and women’s ready-to-wear. De Sarno’s mission at Gucci is, in a way, to make the storied house a little bit more like his own: urbane, contemporary, and chic, with sensual hints of intrigue behind the doors.

De Sarno’s first runway show in Milan in September began with a long gray wool overcoat opened over short shorts cinched by a GG-branded belt and a tight white tank top. A taste of color came from the classic Gucci red and green in the coat’s vent and the gold from a chunky necklace, but the real flavor was supplied by the crimson—or ancora red—of the Jackie bag over the shoulder and the platform horsebit loafers that hearkened back to the early aughts, when De Sarno, then a student in Milan, first became immersed in high fashion. (If De Sarno’s Gu- cci takes off, people are going to look a lot taller this year.)

The colors were mostly muted—blacks and blues and whites, a lacy pink lingerie dress under a beige overcoat. Crystal embroidery on shirts and bras and tinseled fringes on almost shaggy-looking heels made appearances, but always as refined accents, not blurted-out declarations of self-expression.

“People have written of my fashion as minimal, quiet luxury, but to me it’s really the opposite,” De Sarno says. “My overcoat has a shape that is the result of a curating process. We tested it, we chose for wearability.” To get a more rounded effect in the silhouette, he studied the weave and warp, even the width of the thread, with fabric suppliers. “At the end, you see a gray coat, but it’s a little more than a gray coat.”

Instead of making costumes for an alternate universe, De Sarno tells me, in what seems to be a reference to his predecessor, he wants to dress people who go to work and go on dates—and he wants them to wear the smartest, sexiest, most Italian Gucci outfits he can imagine.

“I don’t want the invitees to my runways to say, Wow, wow, and then forget about it the next day,” he says. He wants people to appreciate the quality and the hidden detail of his designs; he wants them to dream about it—and then to go into the stores in four months “and buy it and wear it.”

It’s nearly noon and De Sarno, usually at the office by 9, has to get to work. On the street, he is clad in a black Gucci overcoat and carries a black leather Gucci bag with a metallic tag reading My 1st LACMA. The green and red stripes on the tongues of his white Gucci sneakers match Luce’s leash, a gift from his team for the Ancora runway show. “She loves Gucci more than I do,” he says, revealing that Luce is the inspiration for the new “bassotto,” an elongated, wiener dog version of a clutch.

De Sarno points out the places where he goes (the Fellini-esque haunt on the Piazza Farnese, where there are “different people, not just one type”) and the places he doesn’t (a wine bar where “everyone goes, and so—no”). Avoiding the Pantheon and streets clogged with tourists, he mourns the loss, in central Rome, of artisans and, with them, certain Italian traditions of craftsmanship, good taste, and quality that he wants to reinject into Gucci. “Italian-ness is know- how,” he explains. “All of the French brands—they do production in Italy. Already this is an explanation: There’s Dior, Chanel—but it’s we Italians who make this stuff, we who touch these products and make them become something. It’s our grandparents, our aunts and uncles and relatives.”

But he also wants to bring a sense of “an Italian who lives in the world. I’m an Italian, but I don’t live the dolce vita. I go to Brussels, to New York—but I go as an Italian. For me, Italian-ness means bringing our qualities into the world.” In De Sarno’s Gucci, he envisions the clothes—and the stores—as envoys for his culture and heritage.

As we walk, De Sarno sidesteps the garbage and broken glass of Rome—a city, he says, “I’ve never fallen in love with.” (Compared to Milan, he says, Rome is “not at all a free city.”) He crosses the Via del Corso, says “Andiamo, Luce” with a gentle yank of the leash, and enters Gucci headquarters—where, for now at least, he is free to do whatever he likes.

De Sarno (seated) overseeing a fitting in Gucci’s Rome headquarters before the move to Milan. Photo courtesy of FEDERICO CIAMEI and SABATO DE SARNO

Until January 2023, few people outside fashion’s tightest circles had heard of De Sarno. When Michele split with Gucci, the lists circulating of potential successors included the house’s studio design director, Remo Macco, or longtime Gucci designer Davide Renne.

As Pinault tells it, though, the internal candidates were not quite seasoned enough, and so, in a rigorous recruitment process, he looked outside—breaking with a long Gucci tradition of promoting from within but keeping with the Kering practice of finding top talent from behind the scenes. That’s where De Sarno came in.

“The giant is Gucci—I am Sabato,” De Sarno tells me over a lunch of risotto under frescoes in his august office. “I’m not a singer who became a creative director or an actor who became a creative director,” he says. “I was a designer for 20 years. I have touched the clothes, I changed and modified them, I invented them. They have chosen someone who knows how to do this job—if you like it or not, that’s another story—but I surely know how to do this.”

Pinault tells me he is bowled over by De Sarno’s energy, which he saw firsthand at LACMA, but also with his maturity and patience: Rather than trying to do everything at once, De Sarno seems to be slowly but surely building on his work in successive collections. Still, despite all the market research and advertising budgets of a major brand like Gucci, fashion success remains an alchemy, not a science. When Michele asked to be put forward in 2014 for the top job, Pinault didn’t even know who he was, though his maiden—and, for many, mad—show ended up being the first unorthodox step in a wildly successful, and lucrative, journey. De Sarno might be hitting all of Kering’s buttons—luxury, sophistication, sexiness, and wearability—yet hitting the zeitgeist is another matter.

Pinault, for his part, remains confident.

“We are taking our time to make sure that everything goes perfectly at the right moment, because it’s always dangerous,” Pinault tells me. “But so far, so good.”

The eldest of three children, De Sarno grew up in a three-floor house with his parents, his uncle’s family, and his grandparents in Cicciano, a small town northeast of Naples. His mother, who learned how to embroider with her six sisters, had him at age 17. His father had followed his own father, whom Sabato is named after, into the construction business. De Sarno endured taunting over his name, which means Saturday (“Is your brother named Wednesday, Thursday?”), and, as he got older, more vicious teasing about his emerging sexuality. Instead of talking with the people around him, he sometimes drew faces on paper, “emojis before emojis,” he says—including a mouth zipped closed when he didn’t want to talk.

“As a child, it was the most beautiful place in the world; as an adolescent, the ugliest,” he says of Cicciano. Around the age of 13, he began to see Gianni Versace as a role model. “He represented what I wanted to be when I grew up: He was gay, very attached to the family, from Southern Italy, and lived in Milan.”

“I don’t want the invitees to my runways to say, Wow, wow, and then forget about it,” he says. He wants people to dream about it—” and buy it and wear it

As De Sarno became more comfortable in his own skin in high school, he led protests to (successfully) demand the return of a civics teacher who dared talk to students about sexuality. He also organized parties and nights out on the town and at 15 began hitting the local main street dressed to the nines—and studying what everyone wore (or, as he puts it, “the choices they made”). He made some interesting choices of his own: During a goth phase, he wore tight pants and flesh-colored silk shirts, painted his fingernails black, and listened to Evanescence.

When that passed, he ran with a crowd he describes as “beautiful people who liked fashion.” During a high school trip to Rome, he scored a red velvet Tom Ford jacket. While no one around him knew it was Gucci, “I did,” he says.

He chose Milan’s Carlo Secoli Institute as a fashion school because it taught more “concrete” things—and because it cost less than others. Over summers, he worked odd jobs—waiter, data entry at a provincial office, salesman at Diesel.

In the back of design classes, he made fast friends with Nel Ratnayake, a fashion student from Milan. The two cracked each other up imitating the teacher constantly telling them what they couldn’t do—but De Sarno could do lots of things: For a final exam in 2002, he designed a skirt cut in stripes that seemed black when immobile but flashed seven colors—including fabrics he incorporated from his classmates—when it moved. The piece won the school’s Golden Needle prize.

In that moment, “my dream wasn’t only a dream,” he says. “It was starting to become real.”

The skirt caught the attention of a scout for Prada, where he soon found himself working on patterns under the mentorship of Delia Coccia, the house’s master coatmaker. When Ratnayake followed him there, the two had a ball, waiting together for hours outside Gucci shows, drinking aperitivi at the ATM Bar, and partying at Club Plastic. They broke hearts—and consoled one another when their own hearts were broken—by singing Italian love songs at the top of their lungs as they pedaled bicycles home in the Milan night.

“Milan was like Disneyland,” he says. After living in a small town where his passions made him unusual—and where many looked at him askance for what he wore—he found a city where “I could love who I wanted to love; I could wear what I wanted to wear.”

But, at Prada, De Sarno wasn’t allowed to design, and so he left, and soon after jumped at an opportunity to join Dolce & Gabbana, where he worked on knitwear. A bad breakup prompted him to leave Milan at around the same time as he was approached about joining the design team at Valentino. He left the Golden Needle award in his ex’s place and, at age 26, moved to Rome.

Pierpaolo Piccioli, then one of the two creative directors at Valentino, saw in him a sharp intelligence softened by a lightness of being. He laughed as De Sarno broke the ice at meetings and appreciated the way he refused to wallow after a setback. Piccioli soon became the sole creative director of Valentino, as well as De Sarno’s mentor and friend, recognizing in his protégé the hunger of an outsider who, like him, grew up far from the fashion capitals.

“He slowly became my right-hand man,” Piccioli says in his spectacular office off the Spanish Steps—decorated, like De Sarno’s home, with a Sidival Fila canvas—only minutes after lunching with De Sarno at the nearby Gucci offices. Piccioli adds that he was delighted to see De Sarno realizing his own vision at the Ancora show, which made a crisp break with the ornate and over-the-top style of Michele’s Gucci. This new Gucci, he says, was “without tricks,” but also not banal, with a “minimalism that was, for me, a disruptive element.”

De Sarno’s rise to the throne was both sudden and unexpected. One Friday night in late 2022, he was venting to his husband about work as they drove to their vacation home a few hours east of Rome in Amandola when a message appeared on his phone from an official at Kering. He soon began the interview process—for just what job he wasn’t sure. At the end of November, when news broke of Michele’s departure, he overslept and woke to nearly a dozen missed calls and messages asking if he was interested in Gucci.

Both De Sarno and Pinault described a grueling gauntlet of tests, including producing a large-scale project involving sketches of silhouettes to convey a new vision for the brand, over what the CEO said was only eight days. (“Four days,” De Sarno clarified, holding his finger in the air. “Between Christmas and New Year’s.”) The final two candidates met with Pinault in Paris. “I was shaking,” De Sarno recalled, adding that even talking about it hiked his blood pressure. They spoke for hours, with Pinault wanting to know about De Sarno’s favorite books and movies, the Lucio Fontana paintings that he loved, the decoration of his home.

The new Gucci I want, ’De Sarno said, is about ‘freedom and exhilarationI just want to have fun‘

When he got the job, De Sarno broke the news to his boss and mentor in his Valentino office. The meeting—between two friends who had worked side by side and gotten to know each other’s families—was emotional. “We’re not at Miss Universe with the sashes,” Piccioli says, smiling, but they were both moved by De Sarno’s big break. “It was two people who have shared a journey and who will continue to share it in another way.” De Sarno also wrote a message to Michele, whom he knew professionally in the small world of Rome fashion, thanking him for leaving behind a company with values that he shared. When he returned to Cicciano for his 40th birthday, banners proclaimed him the pride of the town.

After a career spent behind the scenes, though, De Sarno learned quickly how lonely it can be out in front. At Gucci, no one dropped by his office—or even came to his floor. To break the ice, he organized a bash on the Tiber River, inviting everyone in the company, including the security guards. Far from being a recluse in the VIP section, he was found mostly out on the dance floor. “I was sweatier than them, drunker than them,” he tells me, adding that the staff seemed pleasantly surprised.

“He has the same energy now as he did 20 years ago,” says Ratnayake, who went on to work at Burberry and Victoria Beckham and Pangaia, and who has remained one of De Sarno’s best friends. “It’s fresh, it’s pure—it’s an inextinguishable fire for life.”

He soon started building his own team. In New York, he hit it off with the photographer Tyrell Hampton, who says De Sarno told him how he loved the intimate, stripped-down way he shot friends and celebrities. “The new Gucci I want,” De Sarno told him, is about “freedom and exhilaration—I just want to have fun.” At the after-party of the September Ancora show, De Sarno sang along to Rihanna and danced with Gucci ambassadors Paul Mescal and Julia Garner.

Crucially, though, he also stays grounded. During the same show, Hanni, a member of the K-pop girl-group NewJeans and a Gucci global ambassador who grew up drawn to the youthfulness of the brand, admired the new direction. “I loved the way he toned it down,” she says. “It makes the brand look even more sophisticated than it already is—it’s so simple.”

Backstage, Hanni watched as De Sarno excused himself from taking pictures with celebrities to embrace his family. “They were all hugging him and congratulating him—it made me feel very, very happy that he has that kind of comfort around him.” (Soon after taking charge of Gucci, De Sarno learned that his taciturn father, who rarely asked about his work and was uneasy about attending his wedding celebration in Rome, boasted about his son’s exploits at the local café. “Your father,” the barista there confided to him, “only talks about you.”)

The company’s impending move, De Sarno says, seems even more important after Renne, the longtime Gucci designer, died at age 46 only days into his new job as the creative director of Moschino. (When I saw De Sarno walking with Luce at the airport in Brussels in November, rushing back for Renne’s funeral, his eyes were reddened. “Brutal,” he said. “I didn’t know him as Gucci—I knew him as Davide.”) Renne’s death, he says, put things in perspective, and the move to Milan, an hour-and-a-half flight from Brussels and half an hour away from his family in Como, would provide “a reset.” As it is now, he sees his husband on weekends in Brussels, in Milan, or at their home in Amandola. But he wanted to be closer to him, and to his family, he says, adding that he has started thinking of building a family of his own—even if it meant moving to another country to avoid strong opposition to surrogacy by Italy’s hard-right government. “I would like children.”

For now, he is the paterfamilias of an Italian empire. In the airy rotunda of the Gucci palace at the beginning of November, De Sarno sits next to Macco, the studio design director, in a chair set before the mosaic of a Roman god, and tilts his head at the models walking toward him in platform loafers, red micro miniskirts, black skorts, and trim jackets as he puts together the pre-fall collection.

“Super nice,” he says, in English, when he likes something a lot. “Molto Sabato,” he says with a self-deprecating chuckle when one of the crystal fringes he sewed on to a faux-fur coat fell onto the black carpet. It shimmered next to tables of Gucci purses, necklaces, belts, sunglasses, and a row of pink, yellow, green, and orange shoes lined up like Starbursts. The handle of one of the new alligator bags, he says, grabbing it, “will be gold, and cost as much as my house in Milan.”

On the other side of the room, a selection of sparkling embroidery drips from ski sweaters, as if they had been hit by a blingy hailstorm, as De Sarno stitches blue patches of interlocking GG monogram fabrics on to the black collar of a jacket (“Picture,” he says, by way of approval), draping another in a brocaded lime-green print and reaching for matching shoes that glisten with tassels. “Stupenda.” Another outfit is amended to make it “a little more bourgeois,” another more “lady.” He kneels on the mosaic face of Mercury to tie a strap to another model’s brown sandal. “I find it a little more sexy like this,” he says, spinning back to his seat and interlacing his hands behind his head. “I want,” he says, “to do only this.”

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