Women's Fashion

A new romantic lead

How did the young Italian designer Riccardo Tisci rescue the house of Givenchy? With emotion, instinct and some help from his mother, he tells Vanessa Friedman.

March 19 2011
Vanessa Friedman

Earlier this month at the Givenchy autumn/winter 2011 womenswear show, as at every major fashion show, certain seats in the front row were reserved not for editors or critics or department-store buyers, but for “friends of the house”. This can mean celebrities and their entourages, which in Givenchy’s case might be Courtney Love and her stylist Panos Yiapanis, or Liv Tyler, or even Madonna or the artist Marina Abramovi?. In Givenchy’s case, however, it also definitely means Elmerinda Tisci, the mother of Givenchy’s designer, Riccardo Tisci; she has been in the front row of every show her little boy has done (often with some of her eight daughters, Riccardo’s elder sisters) ever since he took the reins of the fabled French house in 2005, at the age of 30.

Signora Tisci has attended couture presentations, such as the one in January that featured extraordinary, cream and butter crane-embroidered gowns, as light as the bird’s wings, with necklines made of millefeuilles of 28 layers of chiffon that opened as the wearer moved, backed with splashes of three-dimensional beading; and ready-to-wear such as last season’s, which combined leopard prints with tuxedo chic, bondage straps and trompe l’oeil zipper crosses for a subversive elegance.

And she has seen, therefore, her son do what more famous designers such as John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Julien Macdonald could not: give the house of Givenchy a new, contemporary identity – one that is slightly gothic, but with an edge of classicism – and in doing so transform it from the problem child of the LVMH fashion stable, the brand that critics said was so confused as to be unsalvageable, into one that is, says Pierre-Yves Roussel, CEO of LVMH’s fashion division, not only profitable but “growing double digits a year”.

The story of how a young designer remade an old house is not a new one, of course, especially not in the current fashion world, where Galliano revamped Dior, Tom Ford recreated Gucci, and Karl Lagerfeld reinvented Chanel. The difference between this story and those, however, is the fact that Givenchy was a more complicated proposition than Gucci or Chanel: other than its association with Audrey Hepburn, who famously wore Givenchy in almost all her films, including Sabrina and Funny Face, most people didn’t really have an image in mind when they thought of the house, and it didn’t have any obvious shorthand “codes”, such as New Look silhouettes or camellias and pearls, that a designer could build on. Not to mention the fact that Tisci was, when he took the helm, almost entirely unknown.

Thus, in many ways, the story of Givenchy’s turnaround is also a story of courage in the face of conventional wisdom, and the fact that, when it comes to fashion and consumers in the post-recession age, emotion – and instinct – matter. So, though you could start it in 1952, when Hubert de Givenchy opened the doors of the couture house that bears his name, or in 1988, when Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton bought the house from Givenchy and (in 1995) installed Galliano at the helm, Tisci himself would probably start with his mother. Because she’s the reason he decided to go to Givenchy in the first place, and, even more than that, says Sarah Rutson, fashion director of Lane Crawford, “his mother and his sisters are the reason there is a huge customer demographic he appeals to, from your hip urban cool girl to a woman in her 70s. Riccardo is a designer who truly speaks to everyone.”

Marco Gobbetti, chief executive of Céline, who was chief executive of Givenchy from 2004-08, says Tisci’s family is the reason why he “creates such balanced collections”, which can mix eye-popping dark and gothic references – crosses, skulls, chains and fringes – with the perfect white cotton shirt; or an olive-green stretch dress with black leather panels and a cross motif on the front (from the pre-fall collection, £2,200); or a little black dress, made transcendent by the thoughtful addition of oversize grommets (from the capsule collection, £660). They are the reason why Givenchy appeals to 20-something Anne Hathaway, who chose his cream, metallic-bodice couture dress as one of her many outfits at this year’s Oscars, to 30-something Zoe Saldana, who wore his giant lavender ruffled gown to the Oscars in 2010, to 40-something Cate Blanchett who chose his mauve couture “Tao” dress for this year’s ceremony, and to 60-something Carla Sozzani, of the trendsetting Milanese boutique 10 Corso Como, who says she loves “the parkas, which you can wear with T-shirts and narrow trousers – they are perfectly cut”.

“My mother, she gave me everything,” acknowledges Tisci, who at 37 has the look of an overgrown child – unruly dark curly hair, a big grin and a tendency to wear jeans or long shorts and plaid shirts or tees. “She gave me the belief in myself.”

Tisci was born the last of nine children, and the only boy, in Como. His father was a fruit seller, and died when Riccardo was six; Riccardo went to work to help support his family when he was 12. At 17, he told his mother he wanted to go to London and study fashion “because I was very shy, and I needed to find a way to express myself without talking. She said, ‘Of course you must go, you must follow your heart.’” He worked with Antonio Berardi and attended classes at the London College of Fashion until Berardi’s then-business partner, Priyesh Shah, told him to go to Central Saint Martins; he sold his first graduate collection to Marjan Pejoski’s Soho store Kokon To Zai. Björk bought a dress.

“But then I came back to Italy,” Tisci says, “to see my mom. I loved London; I would have stayed there, but I needed to be closer to her.” He was 25. He worked at Coccapani, then in 2004, Ruffo Research, the experimental leather goods company, hired him as creative director. A few months later, just before he was to present his first collection, it experienced financial difficulties and the project was cancelled. “I was so sad,” says Tisci, “but my mother said to me, ‘You can’t just close yourself in your room and cry; you have to live.’”

So he went to India, where a friend put an embroidery atelier at his disposal. “I was making a few pieces here, a few there, and then I realised I had a collection,” he says. He arrived back in Milan at Linate with two suitcases of clothes; when his good friend, the model Mariacarla Boscono, saw them, she convinced him to have a show, calling in favours from model pals such as Karen Elson and Liya Kebede, who told the glossy editors they worked with. It was one of Milan’s hottest tickets.

“Everyone was talking about it,” says Sozzani. “We were all standing around this warehouse, there were no seats, and there was this austere, pure show, inspired by the Middle Ages. It was very beautiful.” So beautiful it reached the ears of the LVMH talent scout, Concetta Lanciaux, and the next season Tisci was invited to Paris. Julien Macdonald’s contract was up at Givenchy, and LVMH wanted to see Tisci.

“I wasn’t interested,” says Tisci now. “Not at all. I was going to say no. But the week before, my mother called me and said to me, ‘I am going to tell you something I haven’t even told your sisters: I think I am going to sell our house, because your sisters are struggling, they’re having children, they need the money, I will go to a retirement home.’ I heard that, and it was like a knife in my heart. I felt such a failure, that my mother had to sell the house of my father whom I don’t remember. And then I went to Paris, and they showed me a contract with all these zeros on it, and it was like help from God. I thought, ‘If I sign this, my mother will never have to worry again.’ So I signed it. And the first thing I did was pay off the house, and set aside enough for my family. It was the best present I’ve ever been able to give.”

It was also a risk – on both parts. Givenchy had been losing money for some time, and though it had a very successful fragrance business, it was, as Gobbetti says, “a mess, without an identity”.

“It was a bet,” acknowledges Roussel. Tisci was young, Italian, and had a pronounced taste for the gothic, an aesthetic not normally associated with Parisian couture houses. Not to mention that he was going from a company with two employees, including himself, to one with about 300. “Oh boy, the criticism,” remembers Gobbetti. “People asking me if I only hired him because he was Italian; even people in the Group had their doubts – and justifiably; he didn’t have much of a track record.” Says Tisci: “I wondered, too. I spent the first year wondering why they had hired me.”

“We saw similarities,” says Roussel. “People tend to associate Givenchy with Hepburn, who is now an icon of elegance, but they forget that at the time she was quite a radical alternative vision of femininity, and that she was also only a moment in the house; that Givenchy stood for a very austere, aristocratic, quite tailored way of dressing, and we saw a lot of that in Riccardo. And we knew he had talent, but also courage, because clearly, taking this on takes quite a lot of courage. And he was willing to devote himself to the cause.”

Indeed, Tisci’s only conditions were that he be left alone to rethink the house: no interviews, no dinner parties, no events. He moved to Paris, and starting going through the archives, showing up every day in the office at 6am and leaving at midnight. His first couture show was also his début, in July 2005.

“That was when I knew it would be OK,” he says. “Not because the press loved it” – they didn’t – “but because we had hired all these women to dress the girls – one woman per look. And the day before the show, the head of the atelier came to me, and said the petites mains – the women who had worked on each dress – wanted to dress the girls themselves, in the dresses they had worked on, which is the way it used to be, but which they had not done for a designer at the house since Mr de Givenchy left. But with me, they saw I was going to fight for the name. When they said that, I cried.”

One of the hallmarks of Tisci is his willingness to talk about feelings, and when he wants to praise something, he says it gives him “emotion”. He says he gets so attached to his designs that when he has to cancel the production of a shirt or a dress, it takes him two days, because he feels so much pain. He tends to surround himself with friends he thinks of as his family, and he talks of Gobbetti as a “father figure”.

As for the clothes themselves, when retailers talk about why his clothes are so successful, they cite his ability to transform how the woman inside a garment feels about herself. “Riccardo has built a massively loyal following season after season; you could almost say he has an army of skinny jean, shoe-boot and military-style-jacket-clad females,” says Marigay McKee, fashion and beauty director of Harrods. “They are confident, they are warriors, but they are also immensely chic and feminine, and it’s this juxtaposition of style, grace and attitude that has won them over.”

Last summer, when Marina Abramovic did her performance art piece The Artist Is Present at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Tisci hosted a dinner to celebrate the end of the show, and created a spiral-cut dress in black jersey with a black snakeskin jacket for her; she says it made her feel “in charge of space, time and self – but also super sexy. I think it’s because he has eight sisters, so he knows women in his veins.” Retailers understood this from the beginning; today, says Rutson of Lane Crawford, “it’s retail gold. It’s a huge business for us – it does very significant revenue in China and Hong Kong.” At Harrods, McKee says sales have increased by double digits every year since 2006-7; last year womenswear volumes doubled, and the store created a new boutique for the brand. Sozzani says Givenchy is the top-selling accessories brand at the Corso Como branch in Seoul.

All of which has increased Tisci’s profile, and power. After the first few seasons, he says, he felt confident enough to begin to come out as the face of the brand, and in 2008, when he re-signed his contract, LVMH added responsibilities for menswear, which had previously been designed separately by Ozwald Boateng, and store design. The brand became profitable in 2007 – “three years before we thought it would”, says Tisci.

Two and a half years ago, Gobbetti moved to Céline and was replaced by Fabrizio Malverdi, and although Tisci felt the loss of his father figure, he nevertheless felt “ready to handle everything: the business side as well as the creative”. Last year, for example, Tisci decided that big couture shows didn’t make sense any more, and he wanted to transform them into an experience based on “human contact”, partly to reinforce the human hours (up to 5,000) that go into making those dresses, and so started holding one-on-one presentations. Though the LVMH executives were worried that the media would assume this meant the house was in trouble, they agreed – and couture sales increased by 10 per cent (they have increased by about 80 per cent since he joined the house). Now Tisci is secure enough at Givenchy to have started working on side projects – he designed the cover for Jay Z and Kanye West’s recent single H.A.M., featuring crowns, stars and rottweilers – and in the not far distant future, he says, would like to think about launching his own line again. No wonder, at the time of going to press, there are rumours he might take over from John Galliano at Dior.

“It’s a strange time in fashion,” Tisci says. “Everything has got so big, everything moves so fast, there is so much copying, it’s hard for people to understand. We can get very insular, the fashion tribe – we think we’re a lot of people, but we’re actually very small – but my mother, my sisters don’t understand fashion now, which is how I realised what the final consumer feels.”

Which is?

“They don’t want to buy image, they want to buy substance. It has nothing to do with fashion. It has to do with feeling.” And, in this case at least, family.