Riccardo Tisci is both an unlikely and a logical choice to host the opening gala for this year's Costume Institute exhibition, Punk: Chaos to Couture. Unlikely because he was a mere infant when punk was born. In fact, Tisci himself initially thought the honor should go to an English designer. But in another way, the role fits him. He jokes that he is now "the good boy of LVMH," and he has the commercial success and recently renewed contract to prove it, but he was for many years the luxury group's dark prince, whose radical reinvention of the house of Givenchy brought cries of sacrilege from the critics. If punk is above all an attitude, Tisci has that to spare. Our interview took place in a room at The Mercer hotel in Soho. In person, he is at once shy, articulate, sweet, wickedly funny, and possessed of the charm that has drawn everyone from hip-hop superstars to transsexual supermodels into his gang. The only open sign of rebellion was the rapidly depleting pack of American Spirits that sat, along with an untouched electronic cigarette, on the table by the open window.
DS: You were, what, 3 years old in 1977? So when did you first become aware of punk?
RT: I got nearer punk when I was 17. I left Italy to go to England, which was very punk for me to do, coming from where I come from. I didn't want to live under the situation in Italy at that moment, political and social. I wanted to express myself, and I went to England and made my life…. You could still feel the attitude of punk in England, you still feel it a lot today, and I think the English, they're very punk in their DNA.
You say punk's an attitude. Can you define it?
Oh, yes. It's fighting for your rights. Not being scared of opinion. Freedom.
Do you think it still exists?
I think still in England it's very like that. I lived there for eight years, and you do have a feeling of freedom…. I'm Italian. I've lived in France. I come to America a lot. In Italian, French, and American society—and for many reasons: societal, political reasons, cultural and different things—you think too much before you really say what you think. To not upset anybody. In England, you feel like you have the right to say it straight away, which is great. That's what really changed my way. That's why I had a lot of problems when I started as a designer, because it's very difficult for Italians to be edgy or to be revolutionary. In my own little way, I did it when I did my own collection and when I arrived at Givenchy. That, I think, is all a testament to England, because even [when] I started at Saint Martins, the experience was very punk. The teachers were arriving late, sometimes the teachers weren't even coming. They would give you a critique. You felt that you were lost in the middle of many ways to think, but then you learned a lot, because it was all about independence. This is why I think the English in general have a big power in the world.
So what you did at Givenchy was a sort of punk approach to an old house?
Not aesthetically [but] my own way to be punk, yes…. I didn't know why I was there. I didn't know why people chose me, because I had been doing [my own collections] in Milan in the punk way—I had been doing shows in a garage, talking about a vision of sexuality, being criticized, being stopped by the Italian government. The police came during my first two shows. All that because I was doing it off calendar, because I was doing it in an illegal place. So I understand darkness, goth. Today, even in a housewife magazine, there is a trend of goth, but nine years ago, when I started, it was a little bit [less accepted]. I remember my first year at Givenchy some people wrote in a review that I was Antichrist, and I'm the most Catholic person in the world…. But what I did at the beginning, it was very punk because I didn't really respect very much the DNA. In the same way punks: They weren't respecting their own blood of England, going against the government, the politics. I respected what Hubert de Givenchy had done, but I did my own interpretation, and my own honest interpretation was very dark. To not do couture anymore as, like, big ballroom dresses and queens arriving with horses, but working on the construction and destroying and experimenting with fabrics and making languid shapes, not stiff in a very old couture way. Doing the womenswear not like a [traditional] runway show, but doing a very slow, emotional performance…. I'm very shocked myself today looking back nine years ago. I don't know if it was very emotional or very honest or what it was, but I really didn't care about anybody. I got criticized a lot at the beginning, and it didn't scare me, because I would really believe that I was there for a reason.
Do you think there's anything similar in what's happening with Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent now?
I think it could be, because I really appreciate what Hedi does, and I'm probably going to get in trouble for what I'm saying, but it's true. I think Hedi, he wrote [his first chapter] in a capital of fashion, and then he took his time off, and then he started from the same page. It's like when you go to bed and you're reading a book: You do the little corner, and then the night after you start from the same page. And the aesthetic that he does really belongs to him…. For sure, it is something that doesn't look like anybody else, and that's what I like…. Sometimes people say, "Oh, this person is a genius," and you just see that what that person's doing is something that's been done two years before by somebody else. That, for me, is what I'm really against in fashion. And I think Hedi's doing a great job. I like his aesthetic anyway.
You mentioned your Catholic faith. It's interesting because—coming back to punk—you might think that you were rebelling against your religious upbringing. But when you describe it, it doesn't sound like that's the way you see religion. I mean, do you think you were rebelling against religion?
No, certainly not. It was a rebellion at the society that was being put on me, like being Italian, and the Vatican there. It was very intense. Sometimes people forget that we have the Vatican. So you've grown up in a different way. But religion for me was actually the strength of my life…. I was poor and I started working as a kid and I could see that the world around was different from mine. I was 9. I was working. Everybody else at 9 was going to school and doing other things. And I remember always my mom would say, "You have God, and you have Jesus Christ…. This is what is going to be driving you in your life, and you should believe in it." And I did, and still today, I'm 38 and I've got so much…. I never forget in the morning and the night to say thank you to God.
But you separate that from the institutional side of religion?
It's not anything to do with the church and the Vatican. I very rarely go to church. Religion, for me, is Jesus Christ and God. For somebody else it's Buddha. And for somebody else, light and life is the sun. It's important you have religion. I don't believe in not having a religion. There are different shapes and names, but I think you should have a point in life. Especially these days in society.
Talking of society these days, you just started an Instagram account.
[Laughs] Six days ago…. And I like the fact that there's a lot of people that discover a new Riccardo Tisci through Instagram. Because sometimes I've got this problem because of the intensity of my style. People are not always used to it…. People, after meeting me, they're like, "Oh, my God, you're very nice. You talk. You smile. You joke." And in the beginning I couldn't understand why, and then with time I understand, because what for me is beautiful is dark…but for somebody else it can be scary. But then when they meet me, they know the purpose is positive. And so my way with Instagram [is] to really show my emotion of the day…. I always say to my assistant, somebody that worked for me for fifteen years, "The moment that you feel and you see that I'm not giving emotion, just say, "Ricky, go."
Maybe emotion is punk rock, in a way. It's the last taboo. No one likes to show emotion.
People are so scared of emotion, and it's a big part of life. Especially when you are creating in public. This is why I support a lot of artists that are not scared to show emotion, like Marina Abramovic, Rihanna, or Carine Roitfeld. People that don't—not in a bad way—but they don't give a shit. They don't give a fuck.
Do you think that digital developments, whether Instagram or Twitter, have made it more difficult for revolutions like punk to happen? Because now it seems that whenever anything starts, it immediately goes across the whole world, and, in a way, the power can dissipate.
Yeah, that's for sure. It's related to people being scared to share emotion. Punk is like a revolution—revolutionary emotion. [Today] people are scared of reality. They don't want to fight. Everybody became selfish, everybody is looking out for their own happiness, which is sad because [anything] that is beautiful, that is historic, that is emotional is all because a group of people shared things and fought for it. And today it seems like everybody is on their own…. It probably sounds pretentious now I'm telling you, but when I used a transsexual for a campaign [the model Lea T], when I did other things, like using an albino for a campaign, I give a little. In my own way, I'm a person who can be followed by the young generation, or even more mature people. A designer does have this power, and I want to use the power not only to sell clothes and bags. I want to use my little power—or big, whatever people think it is—to give a message as well.
Coming back to the exhibit, do you have any favorite pieces in the show?
I got goose bumps to be next to Gianni Versace ['s designs], because, you know, I'm Italian, I'm very proud of Versace as a house…. So being next to the famous safety-pin dress of Gianni was very emotional for me…. I like Comme [des Garçons]. I think [Rei Kawakubo] is one of the punkest still today. And I think a lot of people should take an example from her, not only aesthetically but what she did as a way to approach fashion and a way to be free and not involved in the politics of fashion. And I love some of the McQueen that I had never seen in life. I think it was very beautiful. Vivienne [Westwood] is very classic. I mean, it's the beginning of it. It's the real roots of it. And Margiela I think is great. And then I think they managed to get Josephus Thimister…. For me, punk is not really safety pins and studs. Punk is also somebody that really did change the vision and the approach of fashion, and Josephus Thimister was, for me, one of the punkest persons.
There's been some criticism of the show. Is it OK to take something like punk and then translate it into high fashion? Does it somehow lose the power?
I think that's valid [but] the title is punk couture. I'm a couturier, even if I don't like it when people call me a couturier because I'm 38 and I think it makes me sound so old…. But I do couture, and if you do couture properly in the very, very respectful way, you're doing one-offs for clients. You do it on the body. You measure on the body. You're doing it with a lot of craftsmanship…. And punk is the same. It's about craftsmanship. Each person would make his own look. They made it on their body, they fitted it on their own body, and it's basically the same way you do couture. For me, it was amazing to really see the comparison. Two different approaches, but the same concept.
Will you be making some special pieces we haven't seen before for your guests at the gala?
Absolutely. Completely new things. Only one is an interpretation…. Actually, it's a little bit bigger than [a] couture [show] because it's going to be a little bit more than ten looks…and it's going to be very interesting because people are going to understand how these people are punk for me.
I think what's interesting is you've managed to bring all these people into your orbit, and they're all from very different places, and yet somehow it all makes sense.
It's collaboration. A lot of people have said that, and I'm very happy because of that…. I'm very open-minded. I like darkness, but I don't like only goth music. No, I love everything. I love Antony and the Johnsons. I love Rihanna. Beyoncé. I love Courtney Love. But like I said, anything can give me emotion. Sometimes it's even a cheap song or a very random group from Greece or anywhere. I really respect people's originality. It's the most important thing today. Because you see so much copying around—we live on that, and we shouldn't live on that, especially fashion. It should be evolving. It should be what changes.