Riccardo Tisci: The Self-Made Man

Riccardo Tisci is coming into his own at the house of Givenchy.

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WWD Collections issue 04/12/2010

Plenty has changed in the five years since Riccardo Tisci, then a virtually unknown Italian designer, took up the design helm of the venerable French house of Givenchy—save for his streetwise personal style. Forever dressed in a baggy black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, the 35-year-old Tisci still exudes youthful verve, excitedly discussing his penchant for traveling, scuba diving, kickboxing, DJing and watching movies on DVD.

This story first appeared in the April 12, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.


Just back from a two-week vacation in St. Barth’s and Puerto Rico, Tisci is tanned, rested and still in an exuberant mood after staging one of the most widely praised and commercially successful collections of Paris Fashion Week, one the designer deems a linchpin moment in his brief fashion career. It was the culmination of a steep learning curve from his on-a-shoestring signature label in Milan to a couture house in dire need of rejuvenation, a process he likens to studying for an exam. It was also the broadest expression yet of his vision for the brand—clean and severe, with a touch of romance—given that his purview now spans men’s wear as well as women’s wear. Next year will be his first foray into fragrance.


“I’m starting to feel confident,” Tisci says in Italian-accented English as he puffs on American Spirit cigarettes in Givenchy’s airy couture salon on the Avenue George V in Paris. “I wanted to show the colors, the shapes, the details I’ve been working on for five years.”


As the bone-shuddering bass of a Millie & Andrea dubstep track rumbled through the Lycée Carnot, Tisci’s hot-blooded fashion vision came to life: His girls and boys marching purposefully through the chilly gymnasium in a chic and spare collection that worked a nice tension between sex appeal and sleek sportif. While it exhibited the hallmarks of Givenchy— aristocracy, chic elegance and a French spirit—it was worlds away from the prim, cliché Breakfast at Tiffany’s image of yore.


Jeffrey Kalinsky, executive vice president of designer merchandising at Nordstrom, was captivated from look number one—a boxy beige coat, cropped black pants and a high-neck white lace and chiffon blouse set off with red lips, red gloves and a red jeweled bag. “It was dazzling,” recalls Kalinsky. “Everything has come together perfectly. It’s very much his moment.”


Kalinsky describes Givenchy as a “growth vendor” for the Seattle-based retailer, and lauds the brand’s newfound energy, which it has radiated practically since the moment Tisci arrived in 2005, making Givenchy’s clothes and handbags instantly modern—and desirable.


“It’s definitely appealing to a young, fashion-forward customer, but at the same time, it appeals to someone who’s been buying luxury for a long time,” Kalinsky says. “There’s a refinement to the whole vision that makes it Givenchy, even when clothes have a more aggressive feeling or a Goth edge.”


“We at Lane Crawford knew at the beginning Riccardo Tisci was going to develop into a really great designer,” enthuses Sarah Rutson, fashion director at the Hong Kong–based fashion retailer, which today ranks Givenchy in its top 10 overall women’s designer brands. “The lace pieces in particular—along with the flashes of red tailoring and the ski-inspired knits—were extremely strong. Givenchy has a perfect blend of strong tailoring, soft blouses, dresses, great jerseys and knits—and, of course, the incredible shoes and accessories. It is a very comprehensive collection.”


“Our customers adore Givenchy. It is unique and minimal while still very feminine,” adds Marigay McKee, fashion and beauty director at Harrods in London. “[Tisci’s] dramatic, glamorous collections are powerful and eye catching.” She notes that Givenchy has been consistently posting double-digit gains and a “personalize” boutique in Harrods “has helped consolidate the business as a platform for growth and lifestyle.”


In a wide-ranging conversation, the frank and effusive Tisci notes that, unlike many young designers who enjoy press acclaim years before they gain any commercial traction, he was saddled with lukewarm—even harsh—reviews in his first years at Givenchy, even as some of the world’s top specialty stores lined up to carry the brand—and went on to build substantial businesses.


While Givenchy remains among the smaller fashion houses in the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton luxury universe—dwarfed by the likes of Louis Vuitton, Fendi or Loewe, and with revenues approaching 100 million euros, or about $135 million at current exchange, according to market sources—it is logging strong momentum, powered by Tisci’s design prowess and formidable merchandising and product teams in the background.


Fabrizio Malverdi, Givenchy’s chief executive officer, says the house registered a 30 percent bump in sales for the overall fall 2010 season across all product categories, led by women’s ready-to-wear and accessories. “The company is healthy. We are profitable,” he says, while declining to give figures. “There has been incredible work here with the teams on the product.”


Givenchy women’s wear is wholesaled to about 300 doors, with accessories found in close to 500 doors and men’s wear in 350. The handbag business continues to be fueled by its iconic Nightingale bag, unveiled on the runway in 2006 on the arm of Naomi Campbell, and the year-old, slouchy Pandora model. Before Tisci, Givenchy’s women’s accessories were centered on entry-level, mostly logo-driven bags.


See the Givenchy fall 2010 review and run of show here >>


Malverdi cites “important growth” in markets such as the U.S. and Asia, while Europe and the Middle East remain key territories for the brand.


Givenchy has 14 directly operated stores in China, plus 45 men’s wear corners with partners, and continues to expand its network of franchise locations. This summer will see new units open in Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam.


According to Malverdi, Tisci has been able to galvanize and unify the image of the house by developing clear codes, such as sharp tailoring and the innovative use of lace. Some of these have flourished into successful capsule collections of romantic blouses, studded clothes and accessories, plus narrow and sexy pants, which anchor his silhouettes.


Men’s wear is the latest category to come under Tisci’s wing 18 months ago, when he renewed his contract for an undisclosed period. In terms of product, men’s remains a strategic category this year. Plans for 2011 include a new company-owned men’s wear boutique in Paris, adding to its network of three stores, and two concessions, in the French fashion capital, Malverdi says.


Asked to describe his working methods—whether he sketches or drapes, for example— Tisci instead describes “strong emotions” as the starting point for his collections, which can be evoked by anything: the color of a Parisian pastry, a stained Peruvian sweater unearthed at a flea market, the sight of underprivileged boys playing soccer in hand-me-downs from their sisters or a postcard from a friend.


“For my team, it’s very difficult to follow me because I don’t have a formula,” he explains in his off-the-cuff manner. “To do this job is a lot of work, and takes a lot of time. You have to be dedicated, like religion. You have to give yourself completely. It’s basically about emotions.”


To be sure, Tisci harbored some feelings of inadequacy when he arrived at Givenchy as an unproven 29-year-old at a stalled house and at a time when pundits were declaring couture all but dead. In meeting loyal Givenchy client Queen Rania of Jordan, the dire mood that hung around high fashion, and his own doubts, evaporated in an instant. “To see a queen that modern, beautiful and chic—it inspired me so much,” he enthuses. “I didn’t want to do a shocking couture. I wanted to do a chic couture.”


While he is clearly capable of chic, more often than not, Tisci is hailed a Goth fashion hero. It’s a description at which he doesn’t bristle, but he prefers to label himself as part of a group of designers that mine the edgier, less sunny side of things. “I’ve got a darkness inside of me,” he says, describing a strict Catholic upbringing in Italy and vivid memories of funeral processions and lighting candles in somber churches. Moreover, he is fascinated by contrasts. “I’m that kind of person: I love black and white. I usually never like gray,” he muses. “Masculine-feminine, what is light and heavy, dark and romantic— it’s part of my personality.”


The emotional springboard for Tisci’s hit fall collection was a Forties ski sweater, which he found in a vintage shop in America. Its optical red and green patterns and masculinity fascinated him, leading him into his signature play of opposites—up to and including scuba references, the deep sea being the opposite of mountain sports.


Several critics cited a distinct Nineties vibe to the collection, and nods to Helmut Lang in the coed staging and sport influences, which Tisci readily acknowledges. After all, the Vienna-born minimalist is one of his favorite designers of all time, along with Gianni Versace and Azzedine Alaïa.


Tisci also harbors great admiration for the man whose name is on the door, especially after delving into the archive and discovering some of the lesser-known, more severe and modern styles from Hubert de Givenchy. During their initial meeting, shortly after Tisci’s arrival, the retired couturier spoke little about the fashion business. “He gave me just one piece of advice in the end. He said, ‘Just be yourself. That is the only thing that is going to make you successful.’”


A self-made man, Tisci was born in Taranto, Italy, and raised in Como, where he scrabbled his way out of a family rich in love, but with meager financial means. His mother, widowed when he was six, had eight daughters before him. As an adolescent, Tisci worked as a delivery boy, store clerk and carpenter to save money for art school abroad, scoring a job designing fabrics at a textile firm at 16 and fueling his fashion ambitions.


After attending London fashion school at Central Saint Martins, he did stints at Puma, Antonio Berardi, Coccapani and Ruffo Research while nurturing a signature label he designed and crafted himself. When he arrived at Givenchy, he was the fourth designer to helm the brand since the founder’s retirement in 1995. Before him were Julien Macdonald, the late Alexander McQueen and John Galliano.


“My dream has always been to really be a designer, to express myself and to arrive at the point where people see things and think, Riccardo Tisci,” he says. “For a designer, the biggest compliment is when you are selling well. And the second thing is when people recognize your style by color, by shape, by detail.


“For me, this [fall] collection was very Givenchy, but it was very Riccardo Tisci, as well,” he adds. “I think there comes a moment where you really still have your style, because it comes from inside.”

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