Riccardo Tisci:
An Oral History

The Givenchy designer—and CFDA International Award winner—through the eyes of twelve of the friends, fans, and collaborators who know him best

Published June 03, 2013
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When Riccardo Tisci took over a rudderless Givenchy in 2005, he did so as a relative unknown: an Italian-born, English-trained bat out of hell who'd been showing his own small collection off the schedule and outside the law in Milan. (Critics called him the Antichrist, and the police, he remembers, came to the first two shows.) Early observers weren't sure what to make of his gothic, Catholic-haunted collections, but time—and the devoted fandom of stars and shoppers alike—brought skeptics around. Tisci has more than merely righted the ship. He's turned the label into one of the standouts of Paris fashion week, a red-carpet favorite and so beloved by entertainers that dropping the name in rap lyrics has become practically a cliché. This year, Tisci co-chaired the Met's Costume Institute Gala, and tonight, the CFDA will present him with its International Award.

Even as he's dressed (and partied with) the likes of Madonna, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Kanye, Tisci has kept a tight-knit circle of longtime muses, collaborators, and friends close. In speaking with those who have been with him from his rise from obscurity to international fame, the word family comes up again and again. These are the women (mostly) who have supported him since his earliest days at Central Saint Martins through journeyman years in Milan to a stumbling start at Givenchy in Paris to eventual success. In honor of his award, spoke with twelve of them to sketch a kind of group portrait of a designer not overly given to discussing himself, and an oral history of his career.

* * *

Tisci was born in Cermenate in 1974. At the age of 17, he left Italy for London, to study at Central Saint Martins. While living there, he met the woman who would be his muse and a major force in his career: Mariacarla Boscono.

Mariacarla Boscono, model, muse, regular face of Givenchy: I was starting to model, but I wasn't very sure about it. He was the one to make me believe in myself. We shot a picture for his invitation for his Central Saint Martins final-exam fashion show.

After graduating, Tisci returned to his native Italy, settling in Milan. Boscono, already becoming known as a model, helped to introduce him to those in the industry.

Mariacarla Boscono: I believe strongly in his talent. And also he couldn't stop creating clothes. He was doing clothes from T-shirts and garments he bought to convert into beautiful stuff, at least in our eyes back then. And he would have me wear all of them, even to just go to the pub. I thought he was born to do that. I look up to him a bit like a strange genius, like van Gogh, and I thought I had to do something about it. I put all my small power into this. I thought such passion deserves to be known.

Luigi Murenu, hairstylist for Givenchy runway shows and campaigns: I met Riccardo probably fifteen years ago, before everything. I remember he was a very shy guy. My friend, Mariacarla, she told me, "You should meet a friend of mine, Riccardo Tisci. You will love him. He's very talented." And so I met him and I start to collaborate with him in Italy. I think I'm one of the first people to work with him, actually.

In Italy, Tisci would also meet two women who would become friends and collaborators for years to come: Lucia Medeghini, who would work with him on all of his collections, and Lea T—then known, before his transition into a woman, as Leo—who would be a friend, assistant, and fit model.

Lucia Medeghini, Givenchy consultant: I met Riccardo in Milan, right after he graduated from Saint Martins, and immediately sensed his talent. The chance to have a conversation with him opened my world of senses and [it] was a pleasure to get carried away on his trip—there was magic, speed, classicism, darkness, chaos, and creative madness…I recognized myself, and from that moment I fell in love with his vision. [Since then] we work together.

Lea T, model, former Givenchy employee: I was at my friend's house—he used to live with a really good friend of mine. He did a lookbook at Saint Martins. He had a really small collection. It was made by his mother, his sisters, and his family. He had his book on the table…When I saw these pictures, I was like, Wow, who is this? Who is doing these clothes? Because I want to buy these. I was crazy for the clothes.

After consulting for various lines, including Coccapani and Puma, Tisci began to show a collection under his own name.

Carine Roitfeld, Givenchy womenswear stylist, editor in chief of CR Fashion Book, former editor in chief of Paris Vogue: Mariacarla Boscono, who is his muse, sent me an invitation, and because I am a curious person, I went. I met Riccardo at one of his first shows in Milan—more an installation than a show. It was very refreshing after watching several shows in Milan fashion week. He is very gifted, and he has a personal world which is quite gothic. It immediately seduced me.

Lucia Medeghini: All of [the collections] are very special to me, but if I have to choose one, for sure the first Riccardo Tisci. Went to India, make a collection in one month, come back to Italy, do fittings on Lea, organize a show off of the official calendar…The goose bumps at that time! Indescribable.

Mariacarla Boscono: It was more designing from the gut. He didn't need to worry about much, because he had nothing to lose. There is that beautiful feeling of irresponsibility and carelessness when you are young and you have everything to build, and you are not sure where life will bring you. I miss that careless stage.

Carine Roitfeld: I went to meet him after the show. It was the first time I met him, his mom and his eight sisters. Marco Gobbetti, the president of Givenchy [at the time], was looking for a new designer. Immediately, I thought about Riccardo. I strongly recommended him for the position.

He was named creative director in February 2005, and only a few years out of Saint Martins, Tisci found himself, at 30, at the helm of one of the most storied French labels in fashion—and one that had cycled through several designers in recent years, including John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and, most recently, Julien Macdonald.

Lucia Medeghini: We moved to Paris and we didn't speak French.

Photos: Alessandro Garofalo / InDigital (Tisci); Marcio Madeira (Fall 2005 Couture); Monica Feudi (Fall 2011)

Lea T: For Ricky, [Paris] changed everything…It was his dream, all his life. You could see in the beginning. I remember in the beginning, when he was speaking about fashion, speaking about Mariacarla, when she was inviting him to see the shows, you could see in his eyes, I'm going to be a big designer. It was so easy to understand. I always used to tell him in the beginning, when we were in the club, when maybe we were with another designer, he'd come to me and say, "Lea, do you think I'm going to be a big designer?" And I'd always told him, "You're going to be the number one." I always. You could ask all my friends.

Mariacarla Boscono: He became incredibly busy, like everyone at that level, but he is such a perfectionist that he didn't care. He fit incredibly fast, and with such ease, into the role. It was like he was born to be there.

Lea T: He always used to try the clothes on me. I remember, even at Givenchy. They had already a fit model…I was his assistant boy. Then he used to close the door and say, "Lea, try everything on. I want to see all the clothes on you." I understood how the cut is, how the inspirations are, how to walk with these clothes. He always liked to try the clothes on me. He's still doing it sometimes.

His first collection for the house was for Fall 2005 Haute Couture.

Luigi Murenu: The first, first, first one that we did was the Couture. We did [it at] the couture atelier…He didn't want to go in a place. He wanted to stay within the zone of Givenchy, inside. So on all the different floors—literally the whole thing, the whole building—he constructed all different rooms and atmosphere. Already, there he had all the best girls. You felt already he was a star. There was a room, I remember, with Mariacarla and Natasha Poly and another girl…Mariacarla, she was taking off this huge cape, but it was reversed, and it became a beautiful gown underneath, with Natasha with the leather skirt with a beautiful shirt. It was very magic, the first presentation of the Couture.

But his first collections in ready-to-wear were met with puzzlement and mixed reviews from the press.

Lea T: In the beginning, of course it was difficult. He was so young—he was one of the youngest designers doing these big brands. He was coming from a different culture. If you see his collection of Riccardo Tisci, you can see—it was a really complicated collection. It was amazing. It was selling super well, but I would compare it with Ann Demeulemeester, Veronique Branquinho, all these Belgian designers, conceptual designers. He was in this family world. That was hard for him, arriving from this family world and jumping into this other world, which was Givenchy, which was French bourgeois. It was really complicated for him in the beginning to understand how to mix.

Joseph Altuzarra, designer, former Givenchy assistant: Riccardo—and this is one of the things I think I admire the most about him—he has this very singular vision, and he really is consistent about it. So even at the beginning, when it was taking people time to understand his world and his universe and his vernacular, he was very steadfast in his approach to the brand, and what he believed in never changed. I think that's an incredibly laudable thing for any designer, and certainly something I learned a lot from.

Lucia Medeghini: Personally, I think that the early collections were probably too much ahead of its time.

Joseph Altuzarra: I never really think it affected him. I think he believed in what he was doing, his vision for the brand, so strongly. I don't really think…he never doubted himself. To be quite honest, I don't know if he ever read bad reviews.

Luigi Murenu: One thing I have to say—this is very, very, very important—Riccardo doesn't give a damn what other people will think.

Despite resistance from critics, the collections did well with customers and Tisci remained faithful to his own dark vision—one deeply indebted to passion and faith.

Lucia Medeghini: The Latin expression patior, which means "to suffer, to endure," is omnipresent. It is this emotion, which is always the starting point and means a strong urge that takes over the entire collection, which overpowers the identity of his creation.

Luigi Murenu: I worked with all the designers in their first [jobs]…I met Nicolas Ghesquière in the beginning, Hedi Slimane, I did special [work] for YSL when he used to design the men. And Riccardo was one of them, like Nicolas, like Hedi. Very, very special. He has that something about him—his passion.

Marina Abramović, performance artist, collaborator with Tisci on the Paris Opera Ballet's new production of Boléro He's Italian. I can speak Italian, and Mediterranean culture is so much close to me, and I come from that part of Europe—except that we were Orthodox and he was Catholic, [but it's the] same idea with the guilt. You're guilty for everything you do in your life, from the moment you're born.

He is also uncompromising about his vision and willing to work tirelessly to achieve it.

Luigi Murenu: He's specific. He knows exactly what he wants. I mean, don't forget that Riccardo is a Leo. I work with lots of Leos in my life. Like, Madonna, for example, is a Leo, too.

Antony, musician and lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, performer at Givenchy's Fall '13 womenswear show: He really is hands-on. He deals with everything, you know? He's really everywhere at once. He works very, very hard. I don't know a guy who works harder…He has sharp ideas and he executes them. And he talks too much on his cell phone. He's addicted to his cell phone. But then again, everyone is now.

Joseph Altuzarra: He was definitely a workaholic. I think I literally had three weekends in the time I was there.

Photos: Courtesy of Givenchy (Lea T, de Brauw); Billy Farrell / (with Roitfeld)

Saskia de Brauw, model, former Givenchy campaign face: Once a show has started, Riccardo will stand close to where we exit to go onto the runway. He watches a screen, concentrated, very focused—it is now out of his control—often holding a bottle of water in his hands and chewing gum frantically. I always think he doesn't like it that he has no control anymore, that it is up to us, the models, to do as best as we can. But I actually never asked him what goes through his mind at those moments. I should…

But despite a desire for control, Tisci has always kept his family close—both his family by blood, his mother and eight sisters, and the family that he has created for himself of friends and collaborators.

Marina Abramović: I can't adopt him yet because his mother will not give me adoption papers, but he's really family.

Carine Roitfeld: He is a Leo, very demanding, very generous, but very faithful and loyal to his friends and family, which is very important to me. Since the day I met him with his mother and sisters, they are still at the show every time.

Marina Abramović: To me, the most touching from those Givenchy shows is his mother is sitting in the first row. She's always crying—she's so touched.

Saskia de Brauw: His loyalty and love towards his very close friends and his muses, like Mariacarla and Lea T, is something I admire. Maybe this sounds like something very normal, but I do not think this counts for everybody.

When Lea T began her transition from man to woman, Tisci was there to support her.

Lea T: Ricky was one of the first persons to tell me, "Lea, I feel something different from you." He was trying to explain me, this transgender world…My first heel, my first high heel, I wore with Ricky. The day I told him, "Ricky, I am this," he was like, "Lea, I knew it, and don't worry, we're going to do it together…" In Italy, if you're transsexual, you have to be in a sexual world, you have to be a prostitute. You can't have a job. I had all these problems…I called Ricky and I spoke to him about my problem, saying, "Who's going to give me a job?" Then was like Ricky, "Don't worry, I'm going to find a way. In one week, I'm going to speak with you." And he called me back after five days. And he was like, "Lea, I know this won't solve all your problems, but maybe we can give you some money. I want you for my new campaign." And then everything happened. He did this to help me. It wasn't because I was beautiful or whatever. I'm always going to be grateful to him.

Tisci has always been a great supporter of models…and a discoverer of new talent. Many of the models who are ubiquitous today got their first chance on Tisci's runway, including Saskia de Brauw, Lara Stone, and Joan Smalls.

Saskia de Brauw: Sometimes he sees you just before you go on and a smile appears, a kiss on your cheek, a "You look beautiful, thank you for doing this"…

Joan Smalls, model, former Givenchy campaign face: It changed the course of my career completely, from being the catalog model that did all the commercial work to now being the sometimes androgynous woman that can do both and be considered versatile in fashion.

Luigi Murenu: Look at all the models: Lara Stone, Joan Smalls, Natasha Poly. Like, a lot of people! That's why I find the comparison of Gianni Versace, because he made those girls, like, his girls.

Saskia de Brauw: Riccardo's support gave me confidence to be who I am. I suddenly saw that you could play, be free and not needing to fit into a box. He has said things to me that made me believe in that. Things I did not see myself.

They, in turn, support him.

Mariacarla Boscono: I was successful before Riccardo arrived at Givenchy. Let's say that I have had some difficulty to keep my relationship with some of the houses I had worked with [before], for the reason they thought I was supportive too much to Givenchy. But the people that keep working with me are the ones that feel very strong about themselves.

Joan Smalls: One of my favorite memories was when I did a shoot in Puerto Rico for Vogue with Edward Enninful, Peter Lindbergh, and Bruno Mars. Riccardo was there with Mariacarla for vacation. Perfect timing. My parents came from Hatillo, my hometown, to see me work, and they finally met the man I have been talking about and what he has done for me. It was such a special experience having him meet my family and my father telling him thank you.

As the seasons passed, Tisci began to find his footing and enjoyed commercial successes, and in 2008 he took over the men's and accessories collections in addition to the womenswear. The street-ready attitude of menswear seemed to open him up to a new freshness in women's as well, and he had a massive hit on his hands with his graphic T-shirts, like the snarling Rottweiler prints from the Fall 2011 menswear collection.

Mariacarla Boscono: I think when he [really broke through was when he] took over the menswear, because to translate such a specific world as the women's one into a men's universe, it was almost impossible.

But Tisci's admirers insist it's misguided to look at Givenchy as a T-shirt brand, and that his real skill lies with Couture.

Luigi Murenu: I mean, Riccardo's a couturier. Even if everyone, they wear the T-shirt.

Photos: David Wolff-Patrick / WireImage (Keys); Alessandro Garofalo / InDigital (Antony) ; Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images (Smalls)

Saskia de Brauw: His Couture collections are breathtaking. The clothes demand a certain way of moving. The dress is not simply a dress, but it also comes with emotions, not always light ones. Those pieces are not to run around freely in or be jolly. They have a sacredness, the body has to obey certain restrictions. The pieces are heavy with the beaded materials. The leather strings, which make beautiful sounds when you move your arms, make you walk slower. It is an experience, as if the dress performs.

Alicia Keys, musician, Tisci's date to the 2011 Met Gala: I did this special tour for the tenth anniversary of my first album. We did four shows, called Piano & I—just me and the piano. It was such a monumental moment for me. He made me—I can't even describe what this beautiful piece looked like. It was pants, but it was so detailed and couture. It was this black jeweling that he did. First of all, they weighed like 20 pounds each—it was so heavy, because of the amount of jeweling. And it was all hand-done; every single piece was done by hand. It was so beautiful. Museum quality. And I'll never forget, performing in Paris like that, with Givenchy on—this beautiful, perfect piece. That's a super, in-the-books memory. I don't even know how anyone paid attention to me.

In January 2013, the label announced that it would no longer show Couture to the press, focusing instead on private clients and celebrity dressing.

Luigi Murenu: I wish I could convince him to do more Couture. I can't. I tried. Me and Pat McGrath, we always tell him, "We want that little dream!"

Meanwhile, his ready-to-wear shows have gone from the off-calendar guerrilla affairs he once staged in Milan to some of the most elaborate spectacles in Paris.

Alicia Keys: I think he has such a rock 'n' roll edge to him, [the shows] do feel a bit like a concert. It's not over-the-top in a way that is obnoxious. It's just enough pizzazz to make you totally get into it, but at the same time you're super grounded and focused on what you love. The whole time, you're like, I want that, I want that!

Saskia de Brauw: The first show I walked, I was extremely nervous—I still am every time I walk a show. But Givenchy shows, with the intense music, the clear choices in the decor that have a certain conceptual idea or simplicity, they are always charged, as if something really important just happened.

Mariacarla Boscono: It still is magical, his world, just more adult, and most of all, organized.

The showmanship reached a new height with the Fall 2013 show, where Tisci's friend Antony performed live while models walked in a circle.

Antony: I've performed maybe for one or two fashion events over the years, and it never felt…it never felt like the right thing to do. I was very hesitant to perform for Riccardo, and we talked about it for several years before we agreed to do it because he knew that it would work, but I just felt like sometimes it doesn't work to have a live musician. It's kind of a visual competition. Inevitably, one thing suffers—either the musician gets neglected or vice versa. I think that's why typically people don't have musicians. But Riccardo, he staged it so beautifully.

Amanda Seyfried, actress, Givenchy campaign face: The whole show was intense and inspired. I'm a fan of Antony and the Johnsons and I was so thrilled he was performing.

Saskia de Brauw: It was a very beautiful experience, walking this show. Later on I heard that many people from the audience cried. I saw a few models cry too…I am thankful to be able to be part of things like that. They are really unique moments, not easily forgotten.

Carine Roitfeld: My favorite collection is always the last one. I can never wait for the next one.

Shortly after, Tisci was a co-chair of the Met Costume Institute's annual gala, for the Punk exhibition. As his date, he brought Amanda Seyfried, the star of his Fall '13 ad campaign.

Amanda Seyfried: I [had] first met him in Paris, before the Spring Paris fashion week show this year. We were having our first fitting for the Met Ball…Riccardo seemed pretty glad the night had arrived. He's an extremely attractive, lovely man, and you could feel the positive energy fixed in his direction all night. It was quite celebratory.

On Monday, the CFDA will honor him with its International Award, previously won by the likes of Miuccia Prada, Alber Elbaz, and Rei Kawakubo, confirming his place in the upper echelon of European designers. His oldest friends acknowledge that success brings with it some new complications…

Mariacarla Boscono: He is very much a busy man, so he's not much more available—[or] let's say, I don't have the luck to have him in my house for days and days, without knowing when he will leave, like we used to do a decade ago.

Lucia Medeghini: The designs didn't change, but when Riccardo started he was very young, and like everybody, he has grown up, he makes an evolution. If you don't evolve, you die.

…But the inner circle insists that despite his runaway success, not much has changed.

Luigi Murenu: You know what is amazing? It's like, for me, Riccardo is exactly the same.

Lucia Medeghini: Riccardo is Riccardo.

Carine Roitfeld: The only thing that has changed is that his French is better. He is very true to himself.

Photos: Courtesy of Givenchy (fitting); Neil Rasmus / (Seyfried)
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