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WWD Collections issue 04/15/2013

“Hope there’s someone, who’ll set my heart free,” Antony Hegarty sang, in his heartbreaking and crystalline voice, as Riccardo Tisci summoned what fashion professionals instantly recognize as a fashion moment.

This story first appeared in the April 15, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Near the tail end of the marathon of international collections, the Italian designer paraded a Givenchy collection that was as moving and bittersweet as Hegarty’s live performance, mingling biker jackets with dense floral prints; sweatshirts with gossamer, fluted skirts.

After eight years at the creative helm of the French house, Tisci proved that his signature cocktail of tough and tender—while seemingly at odds with Givenchy’s genteel image—is a combustible combination.

“You never know what to expect from me,” the Italian designer relates in his mile-a-minute parlance over the phone from Brazil, where he is vacationing for a few weeks after his triumphant show. “Today I could be very romantic, and the next season I could be very sexual.”

Chalk it up to his youth and his full-throttle approach to life and to work. At 38, Tisci has brought Givenchy back to the top of the Paris fashion agenda. His shows are pulse-pounding, theatrical events, rarely failing to deliver a strong jolt of fashion.

Told he is becoming something of the showman, the designer balked at the descriptor, insisting the term is more appropriate for the likes of the late Lee Alexander McQueen. “I don’t feel like a showman. I feel like an emotional man,” he says, explaining that his fall collection was largely autobiographical, born of twin acts of misfortune.

One was a love affair that ended last year, leaving Tisci in a wistful mood suggested by the poetry of Hegarty’s lyrics.

“In a way, it was a celebration of love, of honesty, of purity,” Tisci says of the show, which had models parading under a giant ring of light in a concrete warehouse, their hair dyed vivid colors and swirled into tight pin curls that resembled flowers. In a graceful mix of streetwise aggression and sweet femininity, they wore gypsy skirts trimmed with zippers, boyfriend jackets and molded leather bombers.

The other misfortune behind this outstanding collection was a water leak at Givenchy’s headquarters on Avenue George V that threatened its vast clothing archive. Visiting the cache to survey any damage, the Italian designer, who arrived at Givenchy after nurturing a Goth-tinged signature collection, was confronted with an impromptu retrospective of his output for the house.

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And so he decided to revisit the various shapes and themes he has brought to Givenchy, thinking of the Gypsy women of Italy—the zingare—and how they expertly recycle old garments. “They really know how to put clothing together, mixing men’s clothes, women’s clothes, trainers,” he enthuses. “For me, they have an allure that is so honest, an expression of what they really want to wear.”

Sarah Andelman, purchasing manager and creative director at Colette in Paris, was struck by how Tisci transformed his looks of yore. “I like that he’s not afraid to use touches of previous prints when other designers erase everything between each collection,” she says, summing up his appeal as “this balance between something very chic and sexy.”

Tisci’s transporting show also made a statement about female empowerment. In a handwritten note from Hegarty left on every seat, the singer made a plea for “future feminism” as a way to save the earth from ecological disaster. “Men must find the humility to retreat. Women must step forward and start to forge a new way forward for our species and for all of nature,” he wrote.

The designer, too, characterizes himself as something of a social activist, leveraging the platform his position in Paris fashion affords him to, as he puts it, “give messages,” particularly in support of women’s rights, along with acceptance for human diversity and antiracism. After all, Tisci has used a transsexual person, his friend Lea T, and a strapping albino model in ad campaigns for Givenchy.

Portraying women as powerful figures—“strong” and “sensual” are two of his favorite adjectives—is certainly a Tisci mainstay, from his first, largely panned ready-to-wear effort, which he calls the “balloon” collection for the giant white inflatable at the center of his show set.

While he now lives with all the privileges that come with being a couturier—chauffeurs, first-class travel and the like—Tisci is always up front about his modest upbringing: being the youngest and only boy among nine children, and having to work from age 12 to help his family make ends meet and to save money for art school. He worked as a delivery boy, store clerk and carpenter, scoring a job designing fabrics at a textile firm at age 16 and fueling his fashion ambitions. After attending the London fashion school Central Saint Martins, he did stints at Puma, Antonio Berardi, Coccapani and Ruffo Research while crafting his own label. At Givenchy, he was the fourth designer to helm the brand since Hubert de Givenchy retired in 1995, following in the footsteps of John Galliano, Lee Alexander McQueen and Julien Macdonald.

Today, retailers say Tisci’s place in the top ranks of international fashion is secure.

“If I had to come up with a list of the five most influential designers of our time, Riccardo would definitely be on that list,” says Jeffrey Kalinsky, executive vice president of designer merchandising at Nordstrom Inc. “He has been able to refine and elevate influences from the street, such as the fabulous sweatshirts on the fall runway. No other designer at this time seems to take inspiration from the world around him the way Riccardo does.”

“Givenchy is in our top 10 brands in ready-to-wear across women’s, men’s and accessories,” notes Sarah Rutson, fashion director at Hong Kong–based Lane Crawford. “Our customer has always responded to his aesthetic, but we have seen how much it has grown in terms of recognition and desirability for his designs. Riccardo understands women so well. He grew up surrounded by women in a matriarchal environment and has created a brand that speaks to many customers, yet it keeps a clear vision and focus.”

Barbara Atkin, vice president of fashion direction at Canada’s Holt Renfrew, says Tisci has moved Givenchy “light years away” from the prim, now cliché Breakfast at Tiffany’s image of yore. And that’s a very good thing. “Riccardo has invigorated the brand with his ability to tap into the zeitgeist and understand the influences of hip-hop-inspired urban streetwear on pop culture. He has almost single-handedly turned the sweatshirt and baseball jacket into some of the most coveted fashion items, and his Rottweiler T-shirts are among the most sought-after images in the fashion world today.”

In her estimation, Givenchy’s appeal today is that it is “dark, mysterious, erotic and surreal, along with a rebellious spirit.” That’s what “makes the Givenchy label so attractive to the next generation,” Atkin says. “Stand at any street corner, or visit any school yard around the globe, and you’ll witness the intersection of Riccardo Tisci with urban youth style.”

Tisci says it’s exciting for him to see his fashion propositions—whether it’s his quirky dog prints or his fetish bomber jackets—make it from the runway to the streets. “When I see it in reality, whether I’m taking a flight or going to a club, that’s what inspires me to keep creating,” he says. “Today, I know who I’m talking to. Before, it was just imagination.”

Indeed, the edge Tisci brought to French fashion is today tempered with growing sophistication. For his most recent men’s collection, for example, the designer stripped away the tribal jewelry and the man skirts to focus on innovative tailoring and sportswear that bristled with modernity and subtle sensuality.

“I’m maturing,” he allows. “I’ve learned so much at Givenchy, about creating, about how to make clothes, how to express myself.”

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This year Tisci renewed his contract with Givenchy, signaling that he feels “at home” at the house and reflecting his ambitions to continue fueling its strong growth vector.

Sebastian Suhl, chief executive officer at Givenchy, declined to discuss numbers but called 2012 a “record year in terms of both top- and bottom-line growth” and cited “high-double-digit growth” for fall collections.

While Givenchy remains one of the smaller fashion houses in the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton luxury universe—dwarfed by the likes of Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Céline—market sources estimate the brand is on track to surpass revenues of 200 million euros, or about $255 million at current exchange, this year.

Growing the brand’s nascent retail business—Givenchy has only about 20 directly operated stores—is a key development thrust.

“We’re planning to open 10 stores a year for the next couple of years,” Suhl says, listing an Avenue Montaigne flagship in Paris, several Hong Kong locations and about five boutiques in Mainland China among openings slated for 2013.

Givenchy also boasts about 40 franchised boutiques around the world and about 800 wholesale doors. “We want to have a significant percentage of our business done with retail between now and 2015,” he says.

The company is also investing significantly in its infrastructure, assembling a strong team of retail professionals, enlarging its design staff, plus reinforcing its supply chain and industrial supports. “The company has exploded in a very short time,” Suhl notes, crediting Tisci’s creative muscle.

“He’s really provided the house with a contemporary identity,” the executive says. And that extends across all product lines, with the men’s wear business—which he only took over in 2008—already as large as women’s rtw. “We’re one of the few houses in the world that is able to go from a very strong luxury street influence all the way up to serious tailoring for a fashionable man,” Suhl asserts.

To be sure, 2013 is shaping up to be a big year for Givenchy, and for Tisci. On May 6, he will cochair the annual Costume Institute benefit gala as the Metropolitan Museum of Art stages “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” the institute’s big spring exhibition. The designer is to return to New York on June 3 for the 2013 CFDA Fashion Awards, where he will be honored with the International Award, recognition that has also been granted to the likes of Rei Kawakubo, Phoebe Philo, Christopher Bailey and Dries Van Noten.

“It takes a few years to learn what is really the essence of the house,” he says of Givenchy, founded in 1952 and a watchword for chic elegance and a French spirit. To those attributes, Tisci has added dark romance, and an urban edge, lacing his collections with undercurrents of danger, rebellion and eroticism.

According to the designer, it’s crucial to remember the times we live in are far removed from society in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, when founder Hubert de Givenchy was causing a sensation. Tisci points out, for example, how Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have transformed the way people interact and communicate in the past two or three years.

With the company’s rapid growth, Tisci is now facing the need to delegate—“I’m quite young. I do the casting myself,” he notes—and build the right structures. “The success went a little faster than the organization. I’m trying to do a lot.”

Asked about his future ambitions, Tisci says he hopes to see Givenchy expand its retail footprint, and he would love to celebrate its heritage with a retrospective exhibition featuring the world of de Givenchy—“He really deserves it,” he stresses—and some of his “incredible” successors, notably Galliano and McQueen.

Meanwhile, he continues to rack up influential collaborations with his “gang,” an eclectic group of cultural shape-shifters, from Beyoncé, Madonna and Rihanna to performance artist Marina Abramovic. “We don’t pay celebrities,” Tisci stresses. “We just collaborate with people. I need to respect and relate to the person. I don’t change them and they don’t change me.”

What’s the common denominator uniting his famous friends? “Confidence, intelligence and a strong point of view,” Tisci says.

Not to mention influence. Holt Renfrew’s Atkin recently attended the Toronto stop of Rihanna’s Diamonds World Tour, with each of the singer’s six outfits designed by Tisci for Givenchy. “Thousands of screaming, look-alike fans were there, shooting videos and broadcasting Rihanna’s music, production and style via social networks such as Twitter and Instagram,” Atkin marvels. “The influence of Riccardo Tisci is revitalizing Givenchy, laying the foundation for a true power brand of the future.”