I’ve always been obsessed with . . . mermaids and Minotaurs, because they are trapped in an animal body. And I felt trapped in my own life. riccardo tisci
In the ’50s and ’60s, Hubert de Givenchy’s friendship with Audrey Hepburn was powerful programming—a personal and creative bond that dusted the designer’s business, from the couture shows to the department stores, with that ineffable Hollywood glitz, and swaddled the actress in the most chic airs (and, obviously, clothes) then available. All these years later, Riccardo Tisci—Givenchy’s most direct successor in this mode and, fittingly, the creative director of the house that still bears his name—has similarly forged powerful partnerships with artists, brands, and the famous faces of today to create a collaborative sum greater than its parts. Consider the label’s spring runway show on September 11, in the shadows of the newly occupied One World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan: Along with Marina Abramovic, the show’s art director, Tisci created a fashion week event with red-carpet-level hype and glamour, welcoming many of his friends and counterparts including Julia Roberts, Nicki Minaj, Erykah Badu, and Pedro Almodóvar. Also in attendance, of course, were Tisci’s close compatriots the Kardashian Wests. Tisci’s relationship with Kanye is well documented—from the singer sporting a Givenchy kilt onstage in 2012 to the designer’s work on the Watch the Throne album art. And Tisci’s relationship with Kim is no less significant. He has called her the Marilyn Monroe of today. Or, we might add, at least his Audrey Hepburn.
But lest we think his associations are all so celeby, Tisci is quick to point out that one of his main agendas as a designer is to be universally inclusive, welcoming people of all walks of life into his motley tribe. A self-described punk and revolutionary, Tisci, now 41, grew up devoutly Catholic in Como, Italy, the ninth and only male child of a single mother, from whom he says he inherited his spirit of wide embrace. At 17, Tisci left Italy, beginning a life of traveling, heading first to London, where he studied at Central Saint Martins. After launching his own label to some acclaim, Givenchy came knocking, and in a decade at the helm, Tisci has used the house as a platform to create an incredibly well-respected and recognized aesthetic. As he tells his friend, the musician and visual artist Anohni (née Antony Hegarty), it is something he always knew he had to do.
ANOHNI: Hello, Ricky.
RICCARDO TISCI: Hi, Antony.
ANOHNI: Oh, my darling, you know I changed my name to Anohni.
TISCI: I know you did. It’s difficult to remember.
ANOHNI: I am so excited to be interviewing you today. And I have so many questions. And I guess I want to start with your heart, you know. What do you think is at the root of your creative dreaming?
TISCI: I think my heart is in a very good place. And I think this is why I’m achieving what I’ve been asking to do in the universe for so long. You know my story very well. I come from a very poor family, with sisters. I never really knew my father, so I miss this strong image of a man in my life. So, even though I had a fantastic family, surrounded with all these amazing women, I always felt lonely—not lonely in the melancholic way but knowing that, to really survive, I have to do everything for myself. I had to work and study, and I was out in the street really surviving, bringing food back home.
ANOHNI: What kind of jobs were you doing as a kid?
TISCI: When I started at 9, I was working with plaster. I worked with a florist. It was a little illegal for kids to work. They would give you tips because they couldn’t really give you wages. But it was good because I was a very nice boy. I was well-educated … very Catholic family. So I was very respectful, never late at work. I was always the last one to leave. It’s always been that way in my life.
ANOHNI: And were you going to school at the same time you were working?
TISCI: I was going to school in the morning, working in the afternoon, and at night everybody would do a job, like in front of the television. At the beginning, we didn’t have a television, so we sat around the table, and me and my sisters and my mom would do these jobs, like, a penny for a piece, you know, these paper jobs. You know, what really saved me as a human today is my sisters and my mom.
ANOHNI: But there was a loneliness as well …
TISCI: There was a loneliness because kids my age had video games, tennis. They traveled. They had beautiful clothes. I was wearing my sisters’ old clothes that were adjusted on me, because we didn’t have money to buy clothes. So that really made me go deep inside on my heart, because the only things I could have with me were my heart and my brain. And this is where I got this strength for everything I do. I brought that with me when I had the courage to leave at 17 and go to England and then France. Now I’m 41, I’ve got what I want, and I’ve got the luck to express myself and to be paid and to do what I do as a creative person.
ANOHNI: What you just said about getting handed down clothes from your sisters—I mean, now you are making two of the most prestigious lines of clothing for men and women in the world. It’s an incredible relationship between that moment and this moment.
TISCI: Absolutely. Now I can give a beautiful present, and that may change the lives of people around me. But, still, anything I do, I do with my heart. This is why I sometimes get very upset or sometimes get very personal when I’m working.
ANOHNI: So when did you start to consider the lines of clothing?
TISCI: When I was a child of about 8 or 9, I couldn’t go out, of course. I was the last one of nine kids—eight girls and me last—and my sisters were going out. They were teenagers. And as they were getting ready, I would sit on the bathtub and watch them put on makeup and transform themselves—you know, putting on clothes and giggling about the boys they were going to meet and everything. So for me, that was an amazing thing—the fact of transforming themselves. And every two to three weeks, I was changing around my room. My room was made out of nothing, basically—a magazine, a little radio, a little bed—and I had the sensibility to put things together and match things in a certain way so that they were very special. And my sisters would say, “Oh, wow, your room looks so good to today.” So this compliment made me realize another level of difference. [Anohni laughs] And I was like, “Oh, my God, it’s something strange.” And then I remember that my sisters gave me this beautiful, like, empty book for Christmas. And I would draw all these beautiful women. Most of the time it was mermaids and a Minotaur: half human, half animal. I used to be obsessed with Minotaurs when I was a child. I didn’t have many friends. I was very shy … And, then, even worse, when I was 14 I became Gothic. I had long, black hair. I was going to school with makeup. Because I was trying to find my language, to scream to the world that I felt so closed in a box where I was living. So I was doing this crazy stuff, but I didn’t have friends. I had only two girlfriends. I didn’t have many friends because I was staying at home and dreaming—drawing and dreaming. I used to hate to go to school, because when it was Friday afternoon and everybody was finished school, I knew I was going to work Saturday and Sunday. Can you imagine, a 10-year-old boy? And my friends were like, “Oh, this weekend, we’re going to go shopping.” “Oh, this weekend I’m going to go to see the judo champion” … you know. And I couldn’t do anything.
my mom didn’t teach me about Marco Polo. She didn’t teach me about Napoleon . . . she did teach me how to survive and to be a good person. riccardo tisci
ANOHNI: Well, when you talk about the Minotaur, I think of a very powerful creature that’s trapped in a maze. That sounds a lot like the way you felt in relationship to the economics of your family life and your role in relationship to it.
TISCI: It’s true. And I think I’ve always been obsessed with things that are half animal and half human—like mermaids and Minotaurs—because they are trapped in an animal body. And I felt trapped in my own life. I’ve had this sensibility since I was a child. If there was a black boy in the school, I was the friend. If there was an effeminate guy, I was the friend. If there was somebody who was poor like me, I was the friend. I tried to never exclude people. I know what it means to be left out. Even today, my life has changed financially and I have a name, but I try to never forget people on my journey.
ANOHNI: That’s one of the things you’re known for—you’re known to be super-inclusive, to expand the community.
TISCI: I suffered a lot when there was, like, a birthday party and I was not invited. Not because I was ugly or stupid; I was not invited because the parents would say to the kids, “Don’t invite him, because he’s poor and he comes from the south of Italy, and he can’t give you nothing.” That is a little bit sad, but it is true. In Italy, especially in ’70s and ’80s, there was a lot of racism between north and south. And my mom immigrated from the south to the north, from Puglia, the heel of Italy. But what made me feel different was society, not my family. My mom and my sisters were amazing; they always see the good in people. My mom, she doesn’t know how to write and read much, but she’s one of the most fantastic women I’ve met in my life. When I was 12, I used to dress as a woman in the house. At the time, cross-dressing was a big taboo in Italy. It was better to have a son who was a drug addict than a cross-dresser. And my mom always said to us, “You cannot judge anybody because of the color of skin.” There were a lot of African immigrants in Italy at the time, and people would not even say hi in the street. And my mom, she would invite these people to the house. This is what I got from my mom: to not judge people because of their sexuality, their skin color, their religion, nothing.
ANOHNI: A lot of your work deals with religious imagery. And, obviously you are a part of the gay community, and yet you’ve also done work for the church. Is that a paradox?
TISCI: I know what you mean. But it’s changed a bit because of this pope. My relationship with religion is very strong because it was my hope, and it gave me two things very important in my life. It gave me the belief and it gave me a point to reach: Don’t do something bad to the people next to you. And to leave Italy at 17 without money and go to a country like England is very rare; Italians stay with the family until 30, 35. But I couldn’t stand to live in this box anymore. I was getting bigger, and the box was getting smaller. I didn’t know I was going to become a designer; I was going to become a successful person, but I really wanted to be free. But when I was far away, when I prayed every night, I felt I was very near with my heart, with my brain, to my sisters and my mom.
ANOHNI: Do you associate your sisters and your mother with an idea about the Virgin Mary or the Madonna?
TISCI: Yeah. Because we were very, very poor. One thing my mom didn’t want any of us to do was to cry or to complain about life. Every day and night, even when we didn’t have much food, we would pray together. And that for me was a beautiful moment. The fact of being poor didn’t really hurt me. This is probably why today I’m very well off but I can stay with normal people. I can do a super-luxury life, but I can do a very normal life and I’m not scared.
ANOHNI: What I love about your public persona is how vigorously you assert your origins and how vigorously you take pride in where you came from and who your family is and the truth of who you are. And the truth is that your great creativity comes from the roots of the ground. It comes from the lower class. You know, my grandparents grew up with no shoes too; they were peasants. And it’s a kind of an affirmation of the basic intelligence of people. This illusion that a lower class has less intelligence than a higher class is a complete fake-out.
TISCI: You know, my mom didn’t teach me about Marco Polo. She didn’t teach me about Napoleon. She didn’t teach me about any of that. But she did teach me how to survive and to be a good person. And you need to be a strong woman to do that. She’s the biggest person in my life. She’s my Virgin Maria. That’s why I love religion so much.
ANOHNI: That’s so cool. So, then, as a young man in London, was part of your impulse to design a response to the fact that you couldn’t find clothes that you wanted to wear?
TISCI: Yes. Of course, I didn’t invent hot water. But when I approach menswear, I do it in a very honest way. And my menswear and womenswear are very similar, in the sense that I put men in leggings and lace shirts, for instance. I brought a lot of the codification of womenswear to menswear. Why? Because when I was a child, I was wearing women’s clothes adjusted to me. And then, with time, I traveled the world. When I went to Cuba, it was beautiful to see a kid playing basketball, very heterosexual, but with the little lace shirt from his sister, like I was when I was a child. People’s wardrobes in history are something that society and culture imposed. But sexuality is not about the way you dress.
ANOHNI: Right. But there is also a codification around economics. Because what you’re saying is that the androgyny in your clothing is inspired by the fact that poor people can’t always afford to buy gender-specific clothing. Which is actually kind of fucking genius.
TISCI: I think it’s amazing. When you go to India or Africa, that is all mixed. The aborigines in Australia, the way they dress is very honest; it’s not about: “Oh, you wear a skirt, you’re gay.” You know, in the beginning I didn’t want to do a menswear collection. It felt a little forced. And then I found that it was an amazing world. I started to draw and design clothes that I couldn’t find, because everything was all luxury, fashion clothes or very straight. So I mixed all of that together: Who says I can’t put a man in a skirt? Who says that a man can’t wear lace? Who says that men can’t wear Swarovski? Who says that men can’t wear makeup? You know what I’m like; for me, straight, gay, women, men, trans, we’re all the same. I don’t see difference. This was the big message Marina and I wanted to give in New York in September—which was very dangerous—you know, that religion and love don’t have a price, don’t have a gender, a skin color, nothing. We are all on the same plate. And that is fantastic for me because, no matter how much people in fashion think we’re so cool and avant-garde, for most fashion people, creativity is quite taboo.
ANOHNI: You talked about experiencing prejudice between northerners and southerners in Italy, which is a different kind of prejudice than people in America can probably fathom. But I wanted to tell you that when I wear one of your pieces on the street, the people who talk to me are African-American working-class boys and girls. It shocked me when it started, a whole group of people on the street who had never acknowledged me before would call me out and say, “I fucking love your shirt. I love your shoes.” It just stunned me the extent to which your work, even as inaccessible as it is to purchase for people with not much money, represents the point of view and the values of the working class in America.
TISCI: I know. In the beginning, I was very punk. I was very revolutionary. When they asked me to do Givenchy, I didn’t want to do it. My friends pushed me. But the situation with my family was so bad financially. I really did it because, when they told me how much they would pay me, I saw that my sisters and my mom could have a better life. I was doing my own label and really doing something for myself. At the beginning, I didn’t see what Givenchy could give my career. It was like, “Okay, I’ll do it for the money for a few years to help my mom and my sisters.” I came from nothing, so I got a little bit of culture shock at the beginning, because everything changed. I was 30. And, basically, for the first year and a half, I was trying to pleasure only what the market was asking me. Couture was only for rich people. Givenchy was for rich people. A bag cost 5,000 euro; a coat cost 10,000 euro. In the beginning, I couldn’t react. I was just working like a machine, because I wanted to make the house happy. That is the Catholic education. But after a few years, I stopped. Givenchy was starting to get an identity, and I would go to Italy, and my niece and nephew were like, “Oh, Dio, we love the sweatshirt, but my God, it’s so expensive. We love Givenchy, but we don’t have money.” So I said, “Wait a second. Stop.” Okay, I have to make a dress of 300,000 euro for rich people, but I need to have a niche collection: a sweatshirt, trainers, a T-shirt in an entry price for the people who want to be part of my journey. Which took me back to my childhood, when I was saving money to buy stuff that I liked to wear. My obsession when I was kid, from ’85 into the ’90s, was Gianni Versace. It was Helmut Lang. It was Margiela. So I said, “I cannot have Givenchy only as a luxury house; I’m going to introduce products for everybody, things that are reachable.” I did the panther and the rottweiler, and it was a huge success straight away. And the merchandising people were like, “Wow, this is a new story.” And this is why I decided to work with Nike, too, because it is even more mass-market than Givenchy and could make entry-price shoes and make people dream to be part of the journey. And everything I’m doing with Kanye West and Jay Z-the album I designed … a really special piece but it had to be entry price. I want the people to buy, because people have to collect. I always think about the streets because that’s where I come from and that’s where I’m going to die one day. That is my life.
ANOHNI (NEE ANTONY HEGARTY) IS A MUSICIAN AND VISUAL ARTIST BEST KNOWN AS THE SINGER OF THE BAND ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS.