Forget the "it" bags and wildly-popular t-shirts - the items the made Givenchy the moneymaking brand it is at the moment - for just a moment. Do you remember when Givenchy showed couture? Or better yet, do you remember when Riccardo Tisci created couture for the brand? I mean really showed couture – full collections in couture-specific runway shows, before Tisci's couture was shown amongst a mix of seasonal menswear looks? Seems a while ago now.
Given that the Paris-based brand is in the throes of a transition – Riccardo Tisci’s departure in February and the subsequent appointment of Clare Waight Keller a month later – paired with the fact that the house's couture presentations have been less than uniform (and for the past several years did not even occur during the specific couture weeks), it is hardly shocking that the Fall 2018 couture shows came and went without as much as a Givenchy couture lookbook.
As noted by Vogue at the time of Tisci's sucessor's appointment, Waight Keller – who has no formal couture experience, coming from Chloe – and before that – Pringle of Scotland and Gucci – will oversee couture for Givenchy. Her debut is slated for October, and will come by way of Givenchy’s women’s ready-to-wear collection.
But before we wipe clean the slate of Givenchy under the helm of Tisci, who held the role of creative director at Givenchy beginning in 2005, and put to bed the Fall 2018 couture season, in general, it seems an apt opportunity to take a retrospective journey of his couture designs, and to also take a gander at the ebbs and flows of Givenchy couture during his tenure.
From “It” Bags to Couture Creations
One of the most interesting aspects of Tisci’s Givenchy creative reign was how he thoroughly transformed the brand, which was pale in comparison, both relevance and revenue wise, before his appointment. Taking the opportunity he was given - albeit in a measured manner, as he was not necessarily welcomed entirely with open arms. "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?','" he has since said - Tisci moved away from the Givenchy aesthetic put into motion by former creative heads. In doing so, he swapped in an edgy, street-wise – sometimes Gothic, style.
In addition to injecting a heavy dose of darkness into his designs, his efforts extended beyond the runway. He publicly courted highly-visible and influential musicians and other celebrities with high-end sweatshirts covered in graphics, such as Rottweilers, Bambi, and religious iconography, for him. For her: Oft-embellished and almost always revealing looks for red carpets, for tours, and depending on the individual, for the occasional street style photo.
Tisci also introduced more accessible items, such as t-shirts and footwear, and … “it” bags – the Nightingale to begin with, the Antigona later – which Givenchy had been lacking.
These categories undeniably changed the landscape for Givenchy. During Tisci's tenure, the house upped its revenues thanks, in part, to the proliferation of such accessible wares that facilitated a more mainstream awareness of the Paris-based design house. According to market sources, Givenchy increased more than sixfold in size during the Tisci era, and its revenues are now north of 500 million euros, or $540 million at current exchange. The number of employees has risen to more than 930 from 290 in 2005.
In addition to graphic tees on rappers, the uninitiated were acquainted with Givenchy on the red carpet. Looks worn by Julianne Moore, Beyonce, Zoe Saldana, Cate Blanchett, and Rooney Mara might come to mind. We also saw it go down the aisle, most centrally when Tisci – the fourth designer (after John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and Julien Macdonald) to join the house since Hubert de Givenchy retired in 1995 – created a custom wedding gown for reality television mega-star Kim Kardashian’s wedding to rapper Kanye West in 2014.
Givenchy aficionados, however, will likely point to the development of Tisci’s couture capabilities – including demonstrations of his mastery: maybe his veiled looks or ombre, Flamenco-inspired dresses for Fall 2009 or the exquisiteness of the embellishments for Spring 2011 – as more compelling than flashy and fleeting red carpet moments.
Tisci made his couture debut for Givenchy – and otherwise – in July 2005 by way of the house’s Fall 2005 collection. Described by Vogue’s Sarah Mower as “less aggressive than McQueen and less vulgar than Macdonald,” the collection consisted of “the lanky, drifty silhouettes of [previous ready-to-wear collection], treated to a couture rendering in terms of handwork and materials.”
A year after Tisci's couture coming out, Ms. Mower put his take on the time-honored practice in context, writing: “It is a field now narrowed to a very few players, some of whom were running their own ateliers before Tisci was born, and it is not fair to compare the work of a novice with the accomplishments of masters.”
Couture was something of a slow start for Tisci, complete with hits (think: “a sure touch with dramatic dresses, like the strapless yellow chiffon veiled in black and the mushroom-hued Edwardian gown” – circa Spring 2007 or “modern tailoring and ingeniously draped spiral-cut dresses” a la Fall 2007, or still yet, “his young, modern, and urban take on chic dressing, punctuated with incisive tailoring and a flair for intense shots of decoration,” a note on Fall 2008, or “jaw dropping” to describe the use of precious skins for Spring 2012).
There were misses, too - the occasional “overcomplicated tailored pieces” or “Tisci's thought process sometimes lacks coherence,” which Sarah Mower wrote in 2009 – only to follow up that line with: “But he is still a designer bringing a much-needed sense of modernity to an old tradition.”
In a time when 16 months is all the time a designer has to turn a house around, as evidenced by Bouchra Jarrar’s impending ousting from Lanvin, it seems wild that back then – some ten years ago – designers were given time to develop (Let us not forget, though, that it likely helped that Tisci introduced the money-making Nightingale bag in 2006 – which quickly became a hot must-have for street style stars and A-Listers, alike).
Once he got into his couture grove, so to speak, it was always interesting to see Tisci's jumping between the Gothic aesthetic for which he is best known and the "purity, lightness, fragility" of other collections, such as Fall 2011, which consisted of ten looks that were uniformly white. "It was a little bit of a step up for me, to challenge myself to use color," Tisci said of his earlier Spring 2009 collection when he also opted for lighter hues.
Then, of course, there was the ever-expected intricacy and intensity of the atelier’s handiwork under Tisci's watch. It was not uncommon for single garments to take thousands of hours. A standout Swarovski crystal skeleton from Tisci’s Fall 2010 couture collection took 1,600 hours to create. For Spring 2011, one look required 2,000 hours of cutting and 4,000 hours of sewing. A single pair of trousers consisted of 90 meters of plissé.
Coming hand-in-hand with such intricacies was his preference for various tribal and ethic themes, which was often most visible in jewelry (recall the ornate nose rings and doorknocker-size hoops, as well as the models' arms stacked with bracelets for Fall 2009 and their heads topped with spiked headbands). As for garments, very early on, for his Fall 2006 couture collection, Tisci looked to Bosnia, India, Africa, and Indonesia for inspiration. This was followed by gold embroidery with a Middle Eastern influence for Fall 2009, odes to "Morocco, Berber tribespeople" that season, as well, and the facial embellishments, which translated to his ready-to-wear runways, as well.
The Business of Couture
Allowing Tisci the luxury of developing his couture capabilities paid off – at least in terms of talent – for Tisci. He undeniably hit his stride after a few seasons. Almost any critic will tell you that.
Speaking in January 2010, when Vogue proclaimed Tisci was well on his way to “proving himself” as a couturier, Tisci reflected on his work, saying: "I was scared of couture at the beginning, and reacted by staying away from looking at the past at all. But now I'm more confident, I started looking into the archive, and found the idea of this strong, erotic phase of Parisian women I related to."
As for the bottom line, it is less clear cut. The sole purpose of a couture business is not the bottom line, of course. As Pierre Bergé, the original business partner of Yves Saint Laurent, notably said in 1987: “We don’t make a profit from couture. But it’s not a problem. It’s our advertising budget.”
That does not mean it necessarily makes sense to stage an over-the-top show each season, at least not according to Givenchy, which began scaling back in 2010. The format of the house’s couture shows shifted from couture-specific runway shows to showing looks in a presentation setting, and the number of looks presented in each collection were fewer and fewer each season.
Then, in late 2012, the Paris-based design house announced that it would not show a couture collection for Spring/Summer 2013, after failing to show the season prior, initially citing the busy schedule of Tisci (he was co-hosting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala that year). Additionally, a spokesman for the house stated that Tisci would be taking a break from couture activity.
According to a statement from the brand, Tisci would continue to produce one-off couture dresses for clients, "special projects" and high-profile red carpet events, such as the Met Gala, while continuing to concentrate on Givenchy’s ready-to-wear line. The announcement was “somewhat unexpected,” according to British Vogue, considering Tisci’s fervent interest in the couture arm of the business.
So, what did Tisci's "one-off couture dresses for clients and 'special projects'" come to look like? Well, he created looks for each consecutive Met Gala, for the Oscars, and other red carpet events, as promised. The gowns for clients included a gown for stylist/consultant Vanessa Traina Snow's 2012 wedding, for instance, and as for "special events,” this category certainly encompasses the costumes Tisci created for the Paris Palais Garnier de l'Opéra National's production of Maurice Ravel's Le Boléro ballet in 2013. And not to be overlooked, the tour costumes for Rihanna and Beyoncé, among others.
The Much-Awaited Return
Then … on the heels of the Versace couture show in January 2015, Riccardo Tisci, who was in attendance, revealed that he would return to formally designing and showing couture for Givenchy after his several-year hiatus. That reintroduction took place during Givenchy’s Spring/Summer 2016 menswear show, which saw Tisci sending 11 couture looks – from his trademark feathered frocks to embellished overalls and embellished tuxedo jackets (paired with nothing more than a bra and underwear if you were Naomi Campbell, who closed the show) – down the runway.
Tisci followed this up with even more menswear shows – and one womenswear show (the brand’s sojourn to New York for Spring/Summer 2016, in which he put previously shown Givenchy couture looks on the runway) – featuring his couture creations. The last of such shows took place in January 2017 – the brand’s Fall/Winter 2017 menswear show – which turned out to be last for Givenchy.
It is currently unclear as to what his next move will look like. For some time, there was intense speculation that he would land at Versace – another couture-showing brand. However, Tisci, who left Givenchy in January after a 12-year tenure, is said to be currently unable to take up the creative director position at Versace as a result of an iron-clad agreement with Givenchy.
Nonetheless, if he were to land at Versace – which showed 19 couture looks as part of its Atelier Versace collection this past week – this could prove an impeccable fit. As noted by Dazed, “The designer’s next move is rumored to be to Versace, a seemingly ideal, very Italian fit – no designer has put more crucifixes or religious iconography on the runway, post-Gianni [Versace] himself’s heyday.”
For the selfish among us, this would also be a wonderful move, as it would result in even more couture, which is arguably – or not – Tisci’s greatest strength and his most longstanding contribution not only to Givenchy but to fashion, in general.