Riccardo Tisci

MILAN First he took Manhattan.

And now Riccardo Tisci, having conquered New York Fashion Week with his poignant and buzzy spring show for Givenchy, is poised to take Milan.
Tonight, the Italian designer is to host a sprawling party at an abandoned glass factory here, marking his 10th anniversary at the helm of the Paris house and marking a major homecoming statement — a new flagship Givenchy store on the Via Sant’Andrea conceived from floor to ceiling by him.

This story first appeared in the September 25, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Word has it the event is to feature installations reflecting Tisci’s obsessions and career milestone, a live performance by Nicki Minaj and a DJ set by Seth Troxler.
“What I want to celebrate is the youth, because I left here when I was young,” said the 41-year-old, who was relatively unknown in 2004 when LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton handed him a plum post previously held by John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Julien Macdonald following the retirement of founder Hubert de Givenchy in 1995.

In a wide-ranging conversation earlier this week, Tisci talked frankly about his complicated yet tender feelings about Italy given his hard-knocks upbringing, having scrabbled his way out of poverty  to the summit of international fashion. (His mother, widowed when he was six, had eight daughters before him, the youngest five years his senior.)

Growing up in a house full of women, especially in the Eighties, Tisci was surrounded by talk of hair, nails, makeup and clothes. One of his sisters, who worked in a hair salon, would bring home fashion magazines, and they fascinated him. He would clip out looks by Azzedine Alaïa, Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler and paste them in a scrapbook.

“I was making my own bible of things I like — keeping that in a drawer,” he said.

“In the beginning, I was very shy. I only learned with my job how to become confident and express myself. As a child, I was looking for languages, ways to express myself. I was always so full of energy. I was the last to go to bed and the first one to wake up,” he recalled, seated on a sofa at his hotel puffing on American Spirit cigarettes as his balcony was pelted with rain. “I was also very into craft as a child. I was very good helping my mom to do her gardening. I was always drawing things, destroying things, making things, collecting.”

He grew up during a heady time for Italian fashion — the boom years for Versace, Armani and Valentino, supermodels like Naomi Campbell — even if he was too poor to take part in it.

He was critical of the government for doing little to help the poor, especially during his youth.

“My art teacher said, ‘In Italy, you only get a scholarship if you want to study business, or become a lawyer. So I went to the school of art and that was my big explosion.”
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. (And for coveted fashion purchases, like his first pair of Helmut Lang jeans.)

“I’ve been forced to grow up very young because of the financial situation in my family,” he said. “I couldn’t share much with other people of my age, because I was a child, of course, in my head, but I was working already for two years.”

At 16, fresh out of art school, he landed a job designing fabrics for an Italian textile firm, at which point his destiny became clear. A year later, he was at Central Saint Martins and earning British scholarships that allowed him to finish his degree.

His first work experiences were in Italy, with Stefano Guerrero, Antonio Berardi, Coccapani and Ruffo Research, while he nurtured his Riccardo Tisci label with a strong following in London. When  Ruffo went bankrupt, he went soul-searching in India, gathered up his strength, and returned to Milan and staged a show that would all but seal his employment contract at Givenchy.

Reflecting on his Italian years, he said they left a lasting impression, even though his accomplishments at Givenchy in Paris would cement his international reputation. Here, Tisci reflects on his roots, and the enduring legacy of his home country:

WWD: Did growing up in Italy spark your interest in fashion?
RT: Italy is a country of fashion, although today less because there are so many capitals of fashion. Before it used to be Düsseldorf, Paris and Milan in the Eighties and Nineties. New York and London came later. Growing up, it was the boom years in Italy. It was the moment of Valentino, Versace, supermodels. It was the moment of music and fashion.

WWD: Were you encouraged to pursue this interest?
Riccardo Tisci: The director at my school told my mom, “I think your son has got amazing hands. He should study something creative.” I was very talented at design, and quick to express myself. Once I talked to my mom and my sister over lunch, confessing that I would love to approach fashion. And the answer was different than from any other Italian mother: Not, “No, fashion is for women.” The answer was, “We don’t have the financial possibility. If you want to study, you have to work,” and so I did.

WWD: Do you ever have to have to pinch yourself about how far you’ve come?
R.T.: It’s so funny because all the people that made me dream about fashion — Madonna, Prince, Courtney Love, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss — now they are people I work with.
Also, you can imagine living in a home with nine women, all the things they were talking about: The new lips, the new things, new celebrities, Brooke Shields, Julia Roberts. And it’s so funny that I actually met all those people. I remember the first time I saw vinyl boots on a girl, it was Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” And I was like, “Wow, what a powerful image: The girl with the boots!” And it’s so funny, after 20 years we became very close, actually I can say a friend.

WWD: Was the New York show a big moment?
R.T.: What happened in New York for me was many things: Where I’m from and where I am today. My sister sent me this beautiful text message in Whatsapp. She said, “I still remember the day you were sitting on the bath and looking at me putting on makeup before I went clubbing.” And that killed me. You know, I needed to express myself and I couldn’t find the way.

WWD: Your first work experiences were in Italy, correct?
R.T.: After school finished, I won an internship to at a company in Como to design textiles. It made fabrics for Prada, Missoni, Paloma Picasso. It was supposed to be two months, but the owner said, “I want you to work with me.” So I stayed for six months. The first time I put my feet outside of my country was when he brought me to a textile fair in Dusseldorf. That opened up another world in my head. I said to myself, “Okay, Italy is not enough for me.” I came back, in three months I gave notice and then I went to England. And there, it all started.

WWD: Do you think your Italian-ness remains part of your design aesthetic?
R.T.: I’m very proud to be Italian, but I’m thankful that karma or destiny brought me to England, then to India and then to Paris. I think it’s a perfection of coincidences. Because thank God I didn’t study in Italy. I think I couldn’t develop and bring out the part of my darkness, my craziness, my extravagance. It all came out thanks to England and Central Saint Martins. They brought out, not so much my darkness, but they taught me to do something different than other people.

WWD: Can you talk about your experiences in London?
R.T.: In England, I discovered so many things, sharing an apartment, discovering the club scene, not being scared to go in pajamas to buy milk in the morning. So many things that my culture didn’t give to me, actually blocked me from doing. I became closer to the young generation. So I discovered a new world and found people similar to me.

WWD: Did it make you rebellious?
R.T.: After I graduated from Central Saint Martins, I found myself thinking, “No, I don’t want to work for a big house.” That became my rebellion. I wanted to work for a young designer, which is something a young Italian designer would never do. So I decided to work with an Italian designer, a young one named Stefano Guerrero. I was the only assistant and it was a fantastic experience. But it was strange because I was getting so much press because I was making clothes and sending them to the shop Kokon to Zai in London.

WWD: You went to Coccapani next. Can you talk about that?
R.T.: I got called by Coccapani, which was this old house and it was fantastic. Because it was the worst Italian label ever and in three seasons it started to have a life and Marilyn Manson asked me to do his stage costumes. And I began getting attention.
WWD: And then you went to the Tuscan-based leather goods company Ruffo Research, which had guest designers like Véronique Branquinho and Raf Simons.
R.T.: I got a call saying that the owner of Ruffo wants to meet you and Ruffo was a big thing. So again I was so proud of my country, when they called me I was so excited to meet this gentleman, Giacomo Corsi. He said to me, “We would like you to be the first Italian to do Ruffo Research.” I was so proud to do it as the first Italian. I did it, I said goodbye to everyone. I went to work for Ruffo and after three months working on the collection, it went bankrupt. That was the first really dark moment of my life.

WWD: Did working in Italy have an impact on how you approach fashion?
R.T.: Oh, absolutely. Now I’m more comfortable in my style, and I see the Italian side when I do things. Even the stranger things I design have a sensuality. And that’s very Italian for me. I think elegance is more French; extravagance more English, while the Italians have more the sensuality. The fact of manufacturing is very Italian, too, the quality. I always make everyone crazy because of my obsession with quality, the finishing. I think that’s very Italian. Because I think that’s part of the culture. There’s also this sensibility of merchandising. I think Italians have a big sensibility to merchandising and selling. And at the same time the craftsmanship.

WWD: Do you work with a lot of Italians at Givenchy?
R.T.: In the couture, we have lot more French. We have a lot of Italians in ready-to-wear, as well as Japanese, Germans and a few Chinese. In public relations, they’re all French. Shoes and bags are Italian. I think they are the best for bringing out the quality. All the men’s team is British. But you always have an Italian everywhere.
WWD: Are your fashion heroes all Italian?
R.T.: My big fashion icons have always been Azzedine Alaïa, Versace, Yohji Yamamoto and Helmut Lang because they are people who always related something very strongly to the heart and beauty and for sex appeal as well. Yohji, too, because for a Japanese designer, his clothes are quite sexy.

WWD: Would you say your Catholic upbringing is a bit part of your Italian-ness?
R.T.: When somebody from another country comes to Italy and sees this opulence of religion, you are attracted because you see these beautiful works of art, paintings, crosses, there is so much deepness inside that. When I grew up though, I was scared of it, and then my fear became love, and then hope, and then it became obsession. Religion has been a big part of my life. Don’t forget we have the Vatican here so, we breathe, we eat, we grow up in the religion everyday. At the end, it is true that Italians have this in their blood, and they got inspiration from that.

WWD: You have many Italian friends, from models to designers. Do they influence your work?
R.T.: Absolutely, Mariacarla Boscono and Ornella Muti influence me a lot. Antonio Berardi, Donatella Versace, Franca Sozzani are Italian. You know, it is the Italian lifestyle, the drama, the celebration of every second, the exaggeration of things, the opulence at the same time, the culture. We Italians have this Baroque way to live. Every Italian. Talking about fashion, Donatella and Miuccia Prada, they are such different women with such different styles, but yet they have so much in common. They are both obsessed with jewelry, opulence, art, albeit in two completely different ways.
WWD: How do you see Milan changing?
R.T.: Milan was not very developed in the Seventies. Everything was concentrated in Rome, and I was living in Milan. Milan right now is more powerful. Italy in the last 20 years changed a lot. I don’t come back to Milan that often. I come back often to Como. From the airport, I go directly to mom to spend time with her and my sisters.

WWD: Italians must be proud of your accomplishments.
R.T.: I think Italians are very proud of me, as they are proud of other Italians, not only because I have been successful abroad, in England and France, but because I gave a new cut, a new era for the Italian fashion, a new way to see fashion.  And this is because I am Italian, but I grew up in England, and then in France. I am much more open. If you think about it, never in history have Italian designers ever tried darkness, Gothic-ness, never worked in this kind of scene. It was always about good taste, sexiness and fantasy.

WWD: How does it feel to have a Givenchy store in Milan, designed by you and full of your creations?
R.T.: It’s amazing being in Milan on such a street, and seeing all the other fashion stores which I used to see when I was a boy. Versus was there, when I was saving money to buy their jeans. It’s very emotional. And I’m so happy to go back to my country and do something that is openly my style. That is why I came to celebrate and even if usually we don’t do celebrations for shops. I think this is a special celebration because it is me coming back to my country, which is fantastic.
WWD: Was that your first big purchase?
R.T.: It was so funny because it was the Paninari moment and all my friends were wearing Moncler, Emporio Armani, Timberland. And only me and a few little people knew Helmut Lang and I was so obsessed because of the sensuality and everything. I remember saving money to buy his jeans. They used to put prices outside the store, and I was passing by and checking two or three times to make sure I had enough money. And there was this same moment where Versace was doing all the Baroque print shirts. I couldn’t afford Versace so I bought a black Versus shirt with little flowers — pink, green, yellow, something like that.

WWD: What was the idea behind the aquarium in your Milan boutique?
R.T.: I saw a movie from the Seventies. I don’t remember the name. It does not even have famous actors in it, but there is this scene of a guy entering a changing room, a beautiful changing room that is an aquarium on the side and it is so chic. So I just thought of doing the same. And at the beginning it was difficult because of the weight, but then of course I found a solution, which is great.

WWD: What can you tell us about the party?
R.T.: It’s going to have the same title as New York: The Power of Love. There are going to be a lot of people there like my family, my friends, random people, a lot of Italian celebrities like singers Gianna Nannini, Renato Zero, which I love. I’m so happy to know my country supports me and there are going to be so many young people, and I brought some friends from Berlin and New York and it’s going to have good vibes. I hope the police doesn’t shut us down.

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