Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci’s edgy fall collection has the fashion world buzzing. But he has always staked his career on punking the status quo — challenging notions of sexual identity and class bias with the cut of a skirt.
I just witnessed my first fashion moment. A fashion moment, to paraphrase Diana Vreeland, is a sudden, shared intoxication, when watchers are offered a perfect release from the ordinary. I’ve been to a number of fashion shows before, enjoying the spectacle, the happy tribalism of the fashion world and the hungry passion of the paparazzi. I’ve attended the parties and heard the Oh My God talk about this season’s unmissable, life-changing thing. But I’d never before stood beside a woman completely dressed in yellow as she wept into her BlackBerry. “I can’t. I can’t speak. It’s amazing. Like, totally amazing,” she said.
The crowd was packed into the Halle Freyssinet, near the Quai d’Austerlitz, like Champagne in a dusty cellar, arranged in rows according to our label or our vintage. The space had gone dark, and Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons, backed by a full orchestra, began to sing a haunting song. Then the fall collection for Givenchy, designed by Riccardo Tisci, unfolded in a very elevating and emotional parade, part gypsy, part Victoriana, with zippers, Bambi sweatshirts, paisley patterns and deconstructed biker jackets.
I could finish by saying the crowd went wild and the rest is history. (They did. And it is.) But the subversive tracings in Tisci’s collection will connect him to fashion history in a different way next month, when he co-hosts the Costume Institute Benefit to open the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s landmark show “Punk: Chaos to Couture.” I’ve loved punk since I was a kid and have always felt drawn to its ribald, cheeky and rather powerful habit of lighting into our complacencies. If you were around in the 1970s and remember how mundane everything was, how mired in self-importance and gray authority, then you might welcome punk’s very necessary spirit at any time. The Met show is bound to open up some excellent arguments, not least about whether the Americans or the British arrived first with punk. But that hardly matters. What matters is whether this brilliantly scabrous, inventive and politically questioning movement is still a relevant life force in the culture today. The answer, if you believe in the influence of Tisci, is yes.
When I turned up to meet Tisci at the Givenchy offices on the Avenue George V, where he has been creative director since 2005, I found him to be pleasingly conspiratorial and fun, naughty as an old school pal who knows why you dumped your homework. He even had the cigarettes, American Spirit, which he smoked quickly, stubbing them out each time he made a fresh point. Tisci is brown-eyed, roughly handsome and gesticulating — an engine of dark intensity, like the chief troublemaker in a film by Luchino Visconti, with a secret shyness. Basking in the afterglow of that week’s triumph, he was keen to share his distaste for conformity and his ideas for change.
“I know I can make beautiful clothes on the runway,” he said, “but why not give people something to think about at the same time? For me, that is punk. Punk is an attitude — it is being free, it is being honest. When I was young, I felt punk was like me dreaming. I was attracted to all these sounds and to the look of these people. I felt that I had something to say that people didn’t understand. Emotions come from reality, not fakeness.”
Before talking about his own childhood he lit another cigarette and waved the smoke away. “My story is intense,” he said, “and if I was born again I would ask God to give me the same story.” He was born in Cermenate, Italy, to working-class parents who had eight girls before they had him. “My father wanted a boy. And then he died when I was young. I went through suffering but it informed both the head and the heart, making me who I am. We had no money and I grew up amongst these women: they are my greatest inspiration and my biggest fans.” He tells a story of difficult teenage years coming to terms with his own creativity in the strong macho culture of Italy. “I grew my hair long and did my face white. My mother was clever: she never stopped me. I looked like a real freak but I was reading a lot, and that, too, made me dream. It was London and New York I dreamt about.”
Tisci, now an international star, feels he owes no debt of thanks to his native country. He feels let down by its attitude to him, but, more than that, he objects to the chaotic authoritarianism of Italy’s church and state, and you see such rebellion in his work: “I have been killed so many times in my career for saying things. When I touch on sex and religion — I love sex, and I pray every night — that makes me a bad and a dangerous person in some eyes. But I went for it. I was ready to be criticized.”
The punk legacy adopted by Tisci leads him toward new kinds of emotional and political engagement. He cares about femininity and its attackers and many of his design ideas stem from that. “I want to break down the legend of Italian men being macho, you know, the whole thing: Italian women and their large breasts, the football and the pizza, the women always dominated by the men.”
Givenchy not only has a dreamer as its head, but in Tisci it has a thinker and an activist, too. This, for me, is where the punk ethos, however far it has flown from its origins, comes home to roost: an international luxury goods company has a chief designer who cares about the rights of the people he is selling to. And that is not nothing. He loves the industry — loves fabulousness, loves success — but he also sees it as the vehicle for a new upgrade in gender equality. “When you get to a place like Givenchy, you get power,” he said. “I hate to use this word, but, yes, you get power. And you get followers because you are making people beautiful, you are changing people. I can sell more bags, I can sell more beautiful shoes, but, next to that, you have the power to give a good message to people. I had this friend called Leo who was transgender. I helped her through her journey and eventually we used her in our advertising campaign. Everyone was against it, but we did it.”
It must seem far off to many people, Givenchy, high fashion, the Avenue George V, the Met. But Tisci feels that everything he does comes not only from the little streets of his childhood but also from the little streets of today. “It’s actually the beginning of my inspiration,” he said. “I make sure that in every collection there is stuff for kids with less money. They might have to save up but it is reachable. My sisters still work in factories, and why shouldn’t normal people have the chance to dream, to wear the Givenchy label? I want my sister, my nephew, my niece to be able to go to a Givenchy store and buy something, not just a princess, you know?”
I think I do. When I was growing up, the soul of punk was to be found in a safety pin that you could fix to your school blazer as a way of giving the finger to the headmaster. It wasn’t much, yet it was everything, a way of finding your own voice with a small articulation of the word “no.” And if punk has a creative potential across decades, it was always going to be that, even though, in Riccardo Tisci’s case, the articulation is anything but small: it is phenomenal, powerful, classy and moral.
One imagines that Tisci’s involvement in the Met Ball is something of a consummation for the boy from southern Italy who once whitened his face and mangled his jeans. “A lot of the established designers, they don’t really care about the relationship between creativity and social change. That is why I love some of the younger people like Christopher Kane and Rodarte.” He smiled at the world beyond his clear Paris windows. “They really care,” he said, “and it blows me away with happiness.”