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When Riccardo Tisci decamped from Milan to Paris in 2005 to become the couturier at Givenchy, he brought with him a wide-eyed enthusiasm for fashion—and 385 pairs of sneakers. That tells you something about Tisci: Clearly the basketball he played during his school days had a lasting impact on his taste in footwear. What it doesn’t reflect, however, is an early interest in men’s wear.
Far from it. When he was growing up, Tisci, now 36, never picked up a men’s fashion magazine and rarely walked into a designer men’s boutique. After graduating from Central Saint Martins in London, he showed zero interest in designing for men as he moved through stints at Puma, Antonio Berardi and Ruffo Research, then created the short-lived signature brand that attracted the attention of the world’s biggest luxury group, Givenchy parent LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
Granted, Tisci has long been picky about his Stüssy T-shirts and April 77 or Tenderloin jeans, and he appreciates the comfort zone of classic Polo Ralph Lauren sportswear. But the desire to design men’s wear was ignited only by doing it—a challenge he approached with trepidation in 2008, when Givenchy renewed his contract and extended his purview to the men’s department. “I was a little bit intimidated and a little bit, you know, scared about it,” he confesses. “I mean, you see me: I wear jeans, T-shirts.”
That the Italian designer instantly brought buzz and heat to men’s fashion—at a house that was better known for women’s wear—tells you something else: Tisci is not only a designer brimming with creative energy, he’s also one hell of a quick study.
Tisci bounds into Givenchy’s showroom—in dark jeans, a black T-shirt with white skulls ringing the neckline, a black hoodie and gleaming white tennis shoes—bursting to talk about his new passion for men’s wear, lately stoked by the fact that the brand is gaining commercial traction to go along with all the press acclaim. Givenchy men’s wear is now carried in 360 doors worldwide. A shop-in-shop is set to launch at Harvey Nichols in London in January, and Givenchy chief executive officer Fabrizio Malverdi is angling to open a freestanding men’s boutique in Paris later in the year.
“I’m enjoying men’s wear probably even more than women’s wear…because it’s new and fresh,” Tisci says, after cracking open a Diet Coke, lighting up an American Spirit and settling into a leather sofa.
From the outset, Tisci brought business savvy, as well as enthusiasm, to the task. He scanned the market for underserved niches while indulging his own penchant for hard-core fashion tinged with darkness.
He zeroed in quickly on the nether region between streetwear and couture, and targeted a fashion customer he maintains is not widely addressed: the bigger man. Not as in big-and-tall sizing, but someone distinct from the wan, androgynous and asparagus-thin male ideal that dominated most of the last decade, thanks to Hedi Slimane and Raf Simons, both of whom Tisci counts as “great friends.” Broad shouldered and a shade over 6-foot-1, Tisci is quick to express admiration for the youthful modernism his designing buddies brought to men’s wear. Still, he says, “I do want to see my man in a different way.”
If Tisci had a men’s fashion epiphany, it occurred during his first trip to Cuba, with his model friend and fashion muse Mariacarla Boscono. The pair happened upon a young man playing basketball dressed in flip-flops, elephant-leg brown pants—and a white lace shirt. “I was completely blown away,” Tisci marvels, explaining that “the way he was wearing it was so masculine….He had attitude and everything.
“He was not aware that he was wearing a lace shirt,” the designer adds. “When you come from a poor family, you sometimes use clothes from your sister before. I come from a similar situation.”
Born in Taranto, Italy, Tisci worked as a delivery boy, store clerk and carpenter to save enough money to go to fashion school abroad. His mother, widowed when he was six, had eight daughters before him and modest means.
The Latin-American male archetype—supremely confident, with such a strong masculine appeal he can get away with wearing lace—imbues Tisci’s innovative men’s wear designs. Its forms range from the black lace he introduced in his debut collection to the leopard prints he set loose for spring 2011. Cigarette trousers, slim-but-not-too-slim lapels, bibbed shirts and bomber jackets are some of the other elements the designer has claimed for Givenchy.
“Tisci brings a strong, modern and masculine vision to men’s wear,” notes Andrew Keith, president of the Hong Kong-based Lane Crawford and Joyce chains. Strip away some of the styling gimmicks used to express his show themes—religion, Morocco and gang culture among them—and what lies at the core is “razor-sharp tailoring, sophisticated fabrications and an attention to masculine, subtle detail that is unique,” Keith says.
Tom Kalendarian, executive vice president and general merchandise manager at Barneys New York, says Givenchy appeals to cutting-edge designer clients looking for fashion pieces like leather leggings but also holds strong potential as a go-to resource for suits. “Tisci infused the energy and artistry necessary to raise it to the level where it becomes an influence on the trends and style of tomorrow,” Kalendarian says.
Men’s wear represents about 30 percent of the Givenchy business, and Tisci’s design prowess fueled growth of about 20 percent in 2010, says Malverdi. The executive reckons the brand will repeat those gains this year as it zeroes in on a Givenchy men’s store. “We think now is the moment to do this. The collection is mature enough,” Malverdi says.
Tisci, who is rarely seen in a suit and tie—notwithstanding the portrait for this article—allows that his first impulse was to explore the streetwear end of men’s fashion: thus, the leggings worn under shorts, the baggy logo T-shirts, the bomber jackets and peacoats. Yet this also proved to be the most difficult part—“because I’m so picky,” he explains.
But over the last year, he’s learned to marry the street vibe more harmoniously with tailoring, the backbone of men’s wear, drawing on all that he has learned from the house’s couture ateliers about proportions and cut. Given his reputation for bringing masculine tailoring to his women’s wear, Tisci has been able to carry over much of what he’s perfected, including trompe l’oeil details, narrower-than-usual sleeves and a high button stance that nods to Neapolitan tailoring.
What Tisci appreciates about men’s wear is that he’s designing for a real client, knowing men are faithful to labels they like—for both the fit and the attitude. And what serves him well is his youthful thirst for the new. Crazy about traveling, music and clubbing, he’s subtly attuned to what people are wearing—and what they wish they might be wearing. For example, the boxy cut of Givenchy’s T-shirts is unique in the designer market. “And it’s these tiny little things that make the difference, especially in men’s wear,” he explains.
Tisci has also brought his flair for showmanship to the august French house. That meant creepy music and leather circus-freak helmets for the latest show, as well as bare, buffed torsos and crowns of thorns for his “Jesus Is Lord” effort, which came before that. He insists he’s not deliberately trying to provoke but simply expressing what he really loves, through his themes, choice of music and studied yet wild-card casting. (Strapping albino model Stephen Thompson is his latest discovery and appears in Givenchy’s spring advertising.)
“It’s funny, because when you put things together in an honest way, you get an energy,” Tisci says. “We are finding the ground to put our roots.”