Like any competitive industry, fashion understands the market need for a constant infusion of fresh blood and untapped talent. But among the crop of sartorial prodigies to have emerged in recent years, none has ascended from young upstart to master of the universe as rapidly as 36-year-old Italian designer Riccardo Tisci.
Setting aside the fact that his name flew about amongst the barrage of rumors this past spring over who would fill the golden shoes at Christian Dior, Tisci has become in short turn a maestro of shock and seer of chic, with a magical touch capable of blending a rebellious love of goth and the deep urban street with a refined sense of style and sexuality. It’s hard to believe that it’s been only six years since he was placed at the helm of Givenchy—a surprise appointment in 2005 for a brooding art-school graduate with only two previous collections to his name. But if the French house understood that it needed to revolutionize its rather prim mid-century image, then the risk has paid off as Tisci has unleashed surprising collection after surprising collection, mixing influences, genders, fabrics, prints, and silhouettes like he’s making his own personal mixtape. Over time—and with the addition to his portfolio of Givenchy’s notoriously buttoned-up menswear, which he took over in 2008—the mix hasn’t gotten any less diverse. (A transgender model, barking Rottweilers on T-shirts, and Jerry Lee Lewis all found their way into his recent work.) But a single Givenchy mindset has started to stick: highly sexual, almost primal, but tough-as-nails and maybe just a twinge romantic.
Tisci’s Fall 2011 women’s collection for Givenchy has all of the sleek agility of a black panther, which is its signature motif. The romance comes perhaps from Tisci’s background—a very proud Italian, the designer only took his job at Givenchy in the first place in order to support his family. In fact, the Italian in his veins is such an elemental part of his craft that it wasn’t surprising to see a hint of vintage Versace in his most recent collection. He recently spoke with one of his fashion heroes, the also proudly Italian Donatella Versace.
DONATELLA VERSACE: Let’s talk about your last collection, which I found to be very beautiful—super sexy. I would wear all of it.
RICCARDO TISCI: Brava! In fact, as I’ve been saying, it is very Donatella, because it is about a very strong woman. My inspiration comes from many sources, and one of those sources is precisely the maison Versace. You know, when I was a little boy, my family was not very well off. I had a sister who worked in a hairdressing salon. I lost my dad when I was 4 or 5 years old. I grew up with eight sisters and my mom. Nine incredible women all a little “à la Donatella Versace.” Real strong women from the South of Italy, women who had sensuality. They had a confidence in their body and in their sensuality. And it was a poor family, I am very proud to say it.
VERSACE: I find the idea of having eight sisters to be a veryjovial thing.
TISCI: Absolutely. And even if they didn’t have the financial possibilities of dressing themselves fashionably, they were women with an elegant style. The elegance of the South is a very strong elegance and it is one that I bring. It is a sexy elegance—or at least, let’s say lesschaste. It was also the late ’70s and the ’80s, which was a certain moment of Versace—especially for me with a sister who worked at a hair salon and brought home fashionmagazines on Saturdays. Of course, Versace is, in my opinion, still the flag of Italy; it represents Italy. It meant the arrival of top models, of celebrities, Gianni, Donatella, all the things that made me dream. Those early visions make a big impression.
VERSACE: The early ’90s were an especially marvelous period for fashion, because it was the peak of glamour and there were no limits as to what you could do. But I see that you haven’t stopped pushing the boundaries, pushing forward. There is always some of that in your collections, which I very much admire. There is this passion for fashion and you’ve had so much success in Paris. You are one of the most talented designers there.
VERSACE: Has your initial passion diminished at all? Is it still the same as it always was? Or are you getting used to it?
TISCI: I have to be honest: My great strength, which I very much believe in, is family. For me, family doesn’t simply mean components of DNA. I mean family in the sense of siblings. My mom and my sisters are the energy and inspiration in my life. For me, fashion is a job. I love it. It’s my passion. But the most important thing for me in general is life. I was lucky. From the time I was a little, I was always surrounded by women, and I am very attracted to the feminine world, because I love the strength and romanticism, which in the end, you can find in my style.
VERSACE: I can see in your clothing that you know the body of a woman. You know how to valorize it. End of story.
TISCI: Imagine all these sisters. Eight women of all different shapes and lifestyles. So my path was pretty peculiar. Even at the beginning when I arrived at Givenchy, there were certainly people who supported me, but not everyone loved me. They were saying, “Why an Italian who acts Gothic?” Never mind the fact that Italy is one of the main exhibitors of Gothic art in the world. But it was like, “No, Italians should only do sexy!” Sex is something I live very well, but it is something I revealed very slowly in my fashion. What I do is emotional. For me, there is a base, which is my Italian roots. It’s a strong passion for fashion, a passion for sensuality and dressing for one’s self. Then when I went to England, to Saint Martins, I was traumatized, in a positive way. It was that British sense of transgression and the dark. Then when I went to Paris, I was doing couture, which everyone was saying was finished. Bullshit! For me, in the end, it was all a mixing of ingredients.
VERSACE: Your last collection had a refined sexuality.
TISCI: I hate vulgarity. I hate vulgarity even though it attracts me—and it attracts me very much. I love all that is transgressive or vulgar. But in my opinion, it has to reach a limit that is always a little surreal and never becomes in your face. I say to you sincerely that what I very much admire about the Versace maison, and what I am still trying to learn to do myself as I am still young, is that from day one until today, Versace is the peak of sexy but never crosses that red line into the vulgar. Many other brands that have tried to outdo Versace have crossed that line. But I think that’s what you and I have in common, Donatella, that careful balance. It makes me proud to be an Italian. In the end, I am proud to do what I do.
VERSACE: When I worked with Gianni at the end of his life, I was the person with whom he would confide and say anything. If there was something I didn’t like, I would be honest and say, “No, no, no! Do something different.” Do you have anyone like this on your team?
TISCI: Absolutely. It’s super-essential. Even though I don’t have a very big team, for me, the word muse may be démodé or not. I adore it, but I am also one, in my delirium, to be quite classical. For a designer—especially a male designer—he absolutely has to have that female voice by his side, which he listens to, he filters, he digests. It’s a huge need, because when you see through the eyes of a man, you see a woman a certain way, and how they have little tricks of their own. And like I said before, my luck has always been how I’ve had a family of women around me, and I have women who are very close to me now—for example, Mariacarla [Boscono], Carine Roitfeld, Marina Abramovic. I have different women whom I adore and value. Everyone thinks that for many years Carine Roitfeld was my stylist, which is not true. Carine was like Mariacarla to me. Yes, there are some people whom I esteem and want their opinion first, but that’s my way. Maybe that’s because I’m 36 years old, and in a while, I will slightly let go. It is difficult for me to delegate. In the end, I do have two or three people on my team who I listen to.
VERSACE: It’s unlikely you will let go, knowing your personality!
TISCI: It will be difficult because I am one who is very meridione [Southern Italian]. I am proud of this. I design everything with my team, which is fantastic and small. I design by look. For example, people always comment to me, “When you do men’s shirts, you always keep them closed on the catwalk.” That’s my thing, you know. I listen to certain opinions because those are important to me. I am a Leo, so I very much have my feet on the ground, and I know what I want, but there is also a side of me which is a little softer, still a little bit of a boy who has not grown up and who listens a lot.
VERSACE: I want to make a little note, the buttoned-up, transparent shirts on the runway this year were marvelous.
TISCI: Donatella, you are so much of a Givenchy woman! [laughs] I say it because I want the world to know. For me, aesthetically, you represent what the Italian woman is. There is always the American rock thing, the aristocratic, above-the-rest British manner, but Italy is at the heart of it. In fact, you and I have tried several times to do projects together. I would really love to see you dressed in Givenchy.
VERSACE: I would adore that. I have chosen some pieces.
TISCI: But which ones, which ones? Tell me!
VERSACE: I love the jacket with a varnish finish, a bomber. I adore the proportions, with the tight skirt, no stockings, very sexy—skirt to the knee.
TISCI: Exactly. After a long time of doing the same sort of thing, you want to break down the walls. For this season, it was the season of transgression. But I don’t love shock by itself. I do the shocking in the chic.
VERSACE: Americans really love you, but I find that you are not a designer who has an American sensibility. You are much more European, much more Italian.
TISCI: I am super-Italian, not even European—Italian. And this is very precise. It’s like houses. Over time they stabilize themselves in the terrain. I am still at the first step of a long staircase. And you know that being a creative mind, you have to examine who you are every day. I am very attracted to the United States. Why? Well, as a little kid from Southern Italy, not from a wealthy family, it was always my dream to go to the Big Apple. You know I’m not one to listen to classical music. I am very much for what is American, but I also prefer the America of the ghetto. I love the Bronx. I love hip-hop and R&B. I love electro-Latino, Latin music, that whole realm.
VERSACE: I like to work with music playing full blast.
TISCI: Yes. And I love finding new things. At the moment, I am fixated on Nicki Minaj and Antony and the Johnsons, but I’m also one who changes around in music a lot. I love the conceptual aspect of Antony Hegarty or the voices of those back in the day like Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, Ciara. I love what evokes emotion in me. We are Italian. We are all little tribes—not only in fashion, but also in music—in everything, basically. I am close friends with Marina Abamovic´ , so I love strong, very aggressive political art. She is like a mom who wants to adopt me [laughs]. I love that whole world but I also love hip-hop and R&B. People always say, “You are dark, you make dark dresses. You probably only love The Cure or Diamanda Galás.” I love Diamanda Galás, but I also love Madonna, Beyoncé, and Courtney Love. They are all from different worlds, but they all evoke emotions in me. I am someone who needs emotions and needs to transmit them. If that weren’t the case, I’d be better off changing professions.
VERSACE: Just like music evokes emotion, so can garments.
TISCI: Absolutely. At times during fittings they make my heart beat like when you first meet the person you love.
VERSACE: Your last couture collection gave me a very strong emotion. It was very beautiful, modern, super cool, but also made in the way of a great couturier.
TISCI: When I started, everyone said couture was finished and I was so scared. Actually I was more terrorized than scared. I was arriving from a provincial area of Italy. They called me in to do Givenchy and I just thought, Wow. The first thing I did was sign my name. But I have to be sincere, I did that because my mom was leaving our family home and that thought really upset me. In a way, I didn’t even think . . . It could have been Givenchy, it could have been anywhere, but the fact of thinking of my mother in a home for the elderly . . . I don’t have anything against homes for the elderly, but my mom, after having nine children, after all the sacrifices, living in an apartment—it gave me anxiety. Being the only male in the family, I said, “No I can’t let this happen.” Therefore I signed, because I wanted to buy a house for my mom. I started at Givenchy and the whole fashion world was saying, “Couture is finished.” No, couture is not finished. Couture has changed—thank goodness.
VERSACE: I agree with you.
TISCI: My first stage was couture. Boom. Couture. It has changed because women have evolved. Back in the day there were princesses. Today, there are still princesses, but she no longer rides around with horses and a carriage. She parties, she goes on vacation, she goes on boats. She wants to be dynamic. I understood this and I kept going. We do prêt-à-porter, men’s, and couture. When you do all of that, you want to differentiate. It is also a matter of respect. In the end, all of these women sewing and embroidering the clothes, whom are almost all my mother’s age, they’re all 70 or 80 years old, have been here for a lifetime. They spend hours on it and come up with solutions. And because it’s on a catwalk, people see if for five seconds and don’t even see the technique, the drapery. So I followed the Versace maison in this—in what you did. I prepared a couture look book.
VERSACE: It’s better to make fewer pieces but make them marvelous, because now, one can finally see what we do up close. And your samurai piece [from the Spring 2011 couture collection] I found to be genius. Hard and soft are brought together without weighing down the piece. It’s magnificent.
TISCI: Let’s say that in couture, I really show my romantic side, because in spite of the fact that everyone thinks I am very much a Rottweiler—that I am very dark and everything—I have a side that is very romantic that I show to very few people. I would only open up like this to you, Donatella. I usually don’t like to talk about myself like this. We have known each other for five or six years. I will always remember when I first met you. You were with Miuccia Prada at the dinner for Vogue Italia with Franca
[Sozzani], and we were on the stairs smoking a cigarette. You introduced yourself and I said to myself, “This woman is really ciao, is really ahead.” And from there our friendship was born.
VERSACE: I am really glad to see such a talented Italian designer in Paris, showing the entire fashion world . . . And it seems to me that your last show [men’s and women’s Fall/Winter 2011] resembled Gianni.
TISCI: You have not been the only one to tell me that. Several people have said that to me. Most little children’s obsessions are robots and Barbie dolls. My obsession as a kid was the Versace house. I used to save up my pocket money to buy Versus shirts. I was that obsessed! I still am today such a big fan. In fact, the only fashion show that I went to in my life was for Versace, when I went to the men’s show, and it gave me great pleasure that you invited me. If I am in fashion, it is really due to very few designers that I admire—not because I don’t like the rest, or that the rest are not beautiful, but because I am very selective. I adore Versace. I adore Helmut Lang, despite the fact that it’s over.
VERSACE: You are already dressing celebrities. At the Oscars, I thought Cate Blanchett’s Givenchy dress was the most elegant.
TISCI: Thank you so much. I’ll tell you, when I arrived here at Givenchy, there was a lot of confusion. Before me, there had been some great geniuses—John Galliano and Alexander McQueen are great masters. They marked history. But when I came in after Julien Macdonald, it was also a bit of a mess, because not even I could understand what the true identity of Givenchy was. Everyone thinks that it’s only Audrey Hepburn, but there is a whole other world behind it. So in the end, I closed all the doors and didn’t let anyone in so I could find it for myself. I didn’t want to dress anyone in the beginning, no celebrities. Then, very slowly I started with one, two, like that. There are some celebrities whom we dress because they are part of the family. They are women I admire. I don’t care how famous she is, if she is at the movies or in a concert.
VERSACE: Now I must ask you, do you have new ideas for Givenchy, or something new for Riccardo Tisci? I think you know what I mean. [laughs]
TISCI: Yes, I know what you mean. You mean what happened at Dior. I don’t know what will happen. Sincerely, I feel sorry for John. But for this moment I am leaving aside all the gossip of “I am going here, I am going there,” because there is a lot of gossip circulating and there always will be. I will tell you, in this moment, I am very happy at Givenchy and it is a moment in which I am bringing the game to the next level. So I tell you, I feel at home. It’s as if it were my son. I don’t know how to explain it. It would be very difficult for me to leave.
VERSACE: It’s like your child, there.
TISCI: Absolutely. Because I arrived here, with a destroyed house, with nothing. I had to do everything very slowly. And with a little team and a great president, we achieved a lot. I am happy here. For now, it is still Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci, and I think that it will be for a long time, because it will be difficult to evict me from my house. I feel good here! [laughs]
VERSACE: We will see if this is the whole truth!
TISCI: No, I would really say that, at the moment, it really is the truth. My truth is this: That I don’t know what will happen tomorrow because you can never know.
Donatella Versace is the Creative Director of Versace.