By  on July 6, 2005

PARIS — Riccardo Tisci, the new 30-year-old couturier at Givenchy, says he was "shocked" — in a good way — when he discovered the vast archive of house founder Hubert de Givenchy."He did so many amazing things," Tisci said in an interview, his first since joining the house last March and on the eve of his couture debut Thursday. "After I went to the archive, I was happier than before."A frank and pensive young man partial to skateboard clothes, Tisci confessed his knowledge of Givenchy's fashion legacy was meager, limited to the one book he studied at Central Saint Martins fashion school in London. And, like most people, his mind immediately went to the late actress Audrey Hepburn, still the ultimate icon for the house.But Tisci figures it's high time to move on. "Audrey, I love it, but Givenchy is not only that for me," he said. "It's much more."To illustrate his point, Tisci produced photos of rarely seen Givenchy looks from the early Fifties that would have been radical then and still could be seen as edgy today. These include a white head scarf printed with trompe l'oeil hair braids, a cape with a dramatic hood and a strapless black cocktail dress with a train exploding out of the bustier."Very clean and severe, with a touch of romance" is how he described these Givenchy looks — and his own fashion sensibility. Tisci's pre-spring collection for Givenchy, being shown to buyers here this week, certainly suggests an edgier, slightly darker and unapologetically modern mood. Mostly in black, with butter and sage tones for relief, the collection leans to minimal sportswear with unusual details. Key looks include jersey dresses with transformable necklines; lean pants, occasionally with built-in corsets, and soft jackets with zippered lapels revealing a ruff — a wink to Givenchy's famous "rose" jacket.Givenchy chief executive Marco Gobbetti said initial trade reaction to the new direction has been positive, and he predicted an immediate uptick in wholesale distribution in the U.S. and Europe, which to date has been spotty. For example, Givenchy women's ready-to-wear only can be found in America in its New York flagship on Madison Avenue and in "a handful" of independent boutiques."The key for us is to reposition the women's department," Gobbetti said. "We are now targeting department stores and specialty stores."At present, women's rtw represents only about 20 percent of direct revenues, versus 40 percent for men.The new fashion direction will be announced via a fall campaign, shot by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. It features Tisci's muse and favorite model, Maria Carla Boscono, in a voluminous chiffon outfit he created especially for the shoot.A relatively unknown designer, Italian-born Tisci was seen as a surprising choice for a plum couture post at LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. He's aware there are legions doubtful of his readiness for couture and his ability to lead a sleepy and unprofitable brand out of fashion's doldrums.In response, Tisci described himself as a self-made man, who scrabbled his way out of a large family with plenty of love, but meager financial means. (His mother, widowed when he was six, had eight daughters before him.)Tisci started supporting himself at the age of 12, working as a delivery boy, florist's assistant, store clerk and carpenter to save money for art school abroad. At 16, he landed a job designing fabrics for an Italian textile firm, at which point his destiny became clear. A year later, he was at Saint Martins and earning British scholarships that allowed him to finish his degree.While his resume shows stints at Antonio Berardi, Coccapani and Ruffo Research, Tisci has long had an eponymous label — suspended for the time being — that is essentially a one-man operation. "I've always been doing stuff by myself, with my hands," he explained. "I know how to make a pattern and how to sew."Tisci is the fourth designer to helm Givenchy since the 1995 retirement of its founder, following in the footsteps of John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Julien Macdonald. And although the house has failed to ignite a critical or commercial renaissance a la Gucci, Dior or Chloe, Tisci said past struggles represent no impediment to him. "I just really want to respect the past, but do Givenchy for 2005," he said. "I'm here to try and make this work as a style."And what are its hallmarks? Tisci threw out the words elegant, aristocratic, chic and French, but with a touch of irony or a "twist of craziness."Tisci declined to preview any couture looks, eager not to diminish the surprise factor. For inspiration, his mind went to the film "Beauty and the Beast" by Jean Cocteau and the iconic work of Federico Fellini. Still, the Givenchy archive from 1951 to 1995 remains the essential reference, with Tisci promising to show a range of clothes from day to evening.He described the couture collection as "very matte," mostly in black and white but with a hint of glitter and subtle color. As for silhouettes, he described them as soft and fluid, even for tailored ensembles.Having already created some looks for three couture clients, Tisci said he senses a need for more "relaxed and easy" clothes, which, while still spectacular, are meant for an active life.Tisci's recent presentations in Milan for his own line have had a strong theatrical and artistic bent. Last March, he had models strolling through an incense-choked warehouse and posing in front of a wooden cross. His Givenchy presentation Thursday will not be a standard runway show, but more of an installation where guests, possibly standing, will mingle with the models.Still, the designer insists commercial success is a big priority for him, pointing out that his first job out of fashion school was with the activewear giant Puma. "You can make dreams all you want, but fashion needs to sell," he said. "It's much more modern right now."In his spare time, Tisci indulges an interest in contemporary and modern art and music from opera to rhythm and blues. He's also an avid collector of bird and animal bones and skulls, religious paraphernalia and photographs, especially Polaroids."I like things that give me emotion," he explained. "It's something important for me to get and give back as a person."To be sure, Tisci's emotions will be running high Thursday. His mother and six of his eight sisters are slated to attend his Paris fashion debut.

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