"It was like a love affair," says fashion's designer du jour, Alessandro Michele, of having just five days to throw together his first Gucci show and collection when he took over the label, in January.

"I was in love and I'm still in love. If someone gives you the opportunity to express something so beautiful in a very natural way, it's the best thing in the world. I didn't feel the pressure; I was not scared. The only mission was to make something beautiful that came with honesty."

Michele's revival of Gucci has been compelling. Ever since that menswear autumn-winter 2015 show, his stewardship has been a wonderful flurry of romance and eccentric maximalism: vivid colours and a fresh, quirky style created with playful retro codes. Jaunty berets, nerdy glasses, pleated skirts, silky blouses with bows tied at the neck, rich floral prints, lingerie, lamé and accessories that have become immediately iconic - namely, fur-lined slippers. The fashion set has fallen in love with his work hook, line and sinker.

Michele's own look is part bohemian artist, part 1970s flower child. His long dark hair is loose and he's wearing a silky, patterned neckerchief, a red and white striped top and rings from his vast antique collection on almost every finger. He's beaming and chatting passionately at speed with Italian flourish. There's something innocent and playful about this bearded 42-year-old.

The designer is in Shanghai. As he speaks, he glances out of the window of his Puli Hotel suite at the structures of glass and metal changing colour as the sun starts to set over Jingan, the city's commercial centre. It's been three years since his last visit, says Michele.

"There is something in Shanghai that is very exciting and alive - the idea of a city with two different souls, one from today and another from a long time ago is amazing. Here you have a fruit salad of every kind of architecture; it's really unique, all together it makes for something unbelievable.

"And Hong Kong, wow, that's completely another world."

He and the Gucci team are in China for the opening of an exhibition called "No Longer/Not Yet" at Shanghai's Minsheng Art Museum (which will run until December 16). Curated by Michele and Katie Grand, editor of Love magazine and stylist extraordinaire, the exhibition presents the work of artists such as China's Cao Fei, American Jenny Holzer and the Briton known simply as Unskilled Worker, as well as fashion photographer Glen Luchford, who shot Gucci's latest campaign. All have explored the concept of "the contemporary".

TAKING ON GUCCIWAS NEVER going to be easy. When creative director Frida Giannini left the Italian house last December, her partner, then chief executive Patrizio di Marco, abruptly followed suit. Speculation about who would be trusted to take on one of fashion's most famous brands mounted.

When the new chief executive, Marco Bizzarri, invited the brand's head of accessories to helm the ship, Michele was thinking of exiting Gucci. Asked if he could do a show in one week, "I said, 'Why not?'" If it went badly, Michele thought, he could always leave.

"When I came out of the men's show [for the bow], I didn't understand or expect what was happening."

The audience was charmed by the debut. He had managed to make a statement and a significant departure from the past. The confidence and sophistication of Michele's following collections cemented Gucci as the industry's hot button.

The brand has a habit of tapping existing employees for the top job and, although not a big industry name, Michele, having joined in 2002, had worked under both Tom Ford and Giannini.

"Tom revived Gucci from an old Italian leather bag brand. He was really about the hedonism of the 90s and I loved that; it was completely contemporary," he says. "Frida did it more around the product and she tried to replicate Tom in a certain kind of way. I feel more connected with Tom just because I'm trying to do something that is about my vision."

Although Giannini managed some very pretty and commercial collections, she never projected the power Ford did during his tenure. The new vision for the label had to be a radical departure from her safe approach; it had to be a statement that captured people's imaginations.

The contemporary world is all about freedom, says Michele, and that translates into his flowing, feminine silhouettes and mix/match attitude to fashion. In an orgy of bright colours and layers, romantic prints such as Victorian wallpaper florals have been mashed up with tattoo-like snake and bee drawings. His generous, more-is-more aesthetic goes a long way without being too opulent or grandiose.

Michele's vision is eccentric, at times bordering on high-school nerd. Also coming through is a confident androgyny befitting 70s-referencing, flares-wearing, long-haired hippies and rock stars. Michele has not just created covetable outfits but a whole Gucci universe of unexpected relationships and contrast.

With so much focus on the bottom line these days, who can blame him for wanting to bring back fantasy and romance?

"If the industry stopped thinking that fashion is just a product, that would be much better," says Michele. "Because that's something that has happened in the past 10 years … and it can destroy fashion."

Like him, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, of Valentino, and Mulberry's Johnny Coca are designers with an accessories background who have made it to the top of a big fashion brand, and, Michele believes, it is an innate love of objects that translates well into a unique, sophisticated way of working with clothes.

BORN AND RAISED IN ROME, Michele's mother and her twin sister worked in the movie industry, and he initially wanted to be a costume designer for films.

"My mum was obsessed with dress … so, in my house, there was always the obsession about aesthetics. She was obsessed with the idea that a beautiful movie is the one where you're so involved you won't go to the toilet during it or you'll fall asleep with your make-up on after."

After studying at the Accademia di Costume e di Moda, in the Italian capital, Michele was looking for work in an opera costume department when he received a job offer from Bologna, in the north of the country.

"There, I started to work in fashion just because I needed a job; it was the 90s and a super glamorous period of fashion in [nearby] Milan. I was very excited."

Soon he was making accessories at Fendi, where he worked under Karl Lagerfeld and began to understand how "fashion was a big expression of the aesthetic world".

The world of make believe and a cinematic sensibility learned in childhood inspire Michele's shows - from the expressive styling of each outfit to the music, space and interior of the venue. But, although his mother favoured classic perfection - those Hollywood movie stars of the 50s - he has embraced the notion that the most beautiful things come when rules are broken, hence the gender ambiguity introduced to the brand: men wearing floral bows and blouses with their hair long; women in tuxedos and boxy boyfriend jackets.

"There is something special about the beauty in the unclear, the ambiguity, the in between that you can't totally recognise," Michele says. "It's not just about blurring genders, it's when things are not exactly what you think. Who wants rules now? Nobody! Especially not women."

Having lived in Rome for most of his life, it's little wonder Michele is a champion of the romantic and historical. The city's imposing beauty moves even the most stoic of artists. There is something about the symmetry of the buildings and the influence of symmetry in European art that resonates deeply, he says.

"I grew up with this kind of language. I kept the idea that everything is possible, like in a Fellini movie; if you have something that's in your dream, it could become real or just stay a fantasy. The idea of my fashion shows is that you can't understand where you are, it's something surreal."

This partly explains how so many people have called Michele's Gucci "fresh" and "radical", despite much of his design language being infused with retro codes. How can parts that are so familiar create something so contemporary?

"It's not easy to explain," he says. "I use some codes from the past. I'm not interested about the rules. I'm not interested to talk about the future, because it doesn't exist yet. Sometimes, in design, people are obsessed with the future and what is 'modern'. Modern for me is a vintage world, because modernity is a really old way to look at the future."

It's beginning to get dark and Michele is on a roll, becoming impassioned with his discourse about modernity, temporality and the nature of "now". He is insistent that he makes the distinction between what is considered modernist and governed by rules, and what he views as contemporary - a playground where past and present, here and there, can intermingle.

"I think that in fashion, people are sometimes really scared to say that they are inspired by something that came from the past or another culture, because they're afraid that they are not modern enough."

At Gucci, these theories have resulted in subversive geek chic with almost grandmotherly cardigans and mid-shin skirts rubbing up alongside scandalous slip dresses made entirely of lace. A model appears almost naked but will be styled in 60s cat-eye glasses and a woollen hat or headband. Sex appeal at Gucci no longer takes the form of the aggressive raciness we've come to expect.

"I love sexiness but in a different way. I love the body of women. The bodies of women are a masterpiece the way they are. I'm not scared about naked women because the paintings of Botticelli are naked, it just depends how you [present them]."

Michele then goes off on a tangent, discussing a Eurasian model from Paris that he was obsessed with when she was in his show, before admitting he also has a thing for blondes ("probably because I'm Italian!"). Beauty is about soul, not just perfect proportions, he says.

High fashion has traditionally come with a reverence of the designer, up in their ivory tower. That approach has helped to build the perceived infallibility of luxury labels. To Michele, though, that is "an old way of seeing the world".

"I need to be happy in life and if I love to talk with people, I wanna talk," he says. "I can't express nothing if I can't talk to people."

After the New York presentation of Gucci's Cruise 2016 show in June, Michele invited all 300 audience members back to the dressing room areas for breakfast. There was no cordoned off VIP area or protective entourage; he was running around speaking to press, clients and industry friends for hours.

"Maybe it's a new attitude," he shrugs, "but it's just me. I don't want to work with something that doesn't represent me. It's easier if you are just yourself. I want to connect. Who loves to stay alone?

"If Obama is not like this, and the Pope is not like this, can designers really be like this? I don't think so. I love this Pope because you can see he's really a person, and there's nothing more beautiful in the world than that.

"This is something about love. I don't want to force myself to be another way. I don't need to be a celebrity, I'm not a celebrity. I am a person who works in fashion and that's it."

In an industry known for stressful, stereotypical bitchiness and uptight attitudes (whether real or imagined), Michele's natural serenity seems otherworldly. How does the man stay so calm in the midst of such a powerful storm?

"Well, [an open, friendly approach] is easier; for me also," he laughs, "maybe that's why I don't feel the same kind of pressure."