Riccardo Tisci says "I Got Killed" Because of My Friendship With Kim Kardashian

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(photo: courtesey of Mark Seliger)

Here, in a bright, airy room at the Mercer hotel in New York City, Riccardo Tisci is sitting on the couch, chain-smoking American Spirits and explaining in a pronounced Italian accent why the idea of designing menswear initially left him cold. “I mean, look at me,” the 40-year-old creative director of Givenchy says, giving his sweatshirt a tug. “I wear jeans and trainers.” Thing is, he’s embodying exactly what’s stylish at this very nanosecond: thick-soled Timberlands, gray tapered jeans, a black sweatshirt with an abstract Bauhaus-esque basketball print. “I never bought fashion for myself. The only things I was obsessed with when I was young were Helmut Lang and Versace. At Givenchy, they asked me to do the men’s for so long, but I didn’t want to do it.”

“They” are the corporate overseers at LVMH, which owns the legendary French fashion house founded in 1952 by aristocrat Hubert de Givenchy. For decades, the brand was synonymous with traditional Parisian elegance. But in the fashion world, pedigree can often read as, well, passé, and when Tisci arrived in 2005, the label was adrift. Over the past decade, Tisci has infused the clothing with his goth-inflected edge and rejuvenated the brand with cool-kid cred. He’s turned once-atypical models into bona fide celebrities (Joan Smalls, Lara Stone, Lea T) while making bona fide celebrities his actual friends (he refers to Madonna as M, vacations with Marina Abramovic, and designed Kanye West’s tux for his wedding, which he also attended). Not to suggest that he’s coasting on his influential circle. Since taking over Givenchy’s menswear arm in 2008, he’s moved the category beyond slim-fitting suits and visible ankle bones. The Rottweiler T-shirt, the spaceman Air Force 1s, the leather kilt, the razor-cut suit, and yes, the sweatshirt flaunting whatever iconography Tisci is obsessing over—Bambi, Jesus, pissed-off canines—it all projects a vision of male sexuality that reads utterly modern. “It’s about not thinking gay or not gay,” he explains in between drags. Spend some time with Tisci and you get why people feel at ease with him—when you’re with Tisci, you’re with Tisci.

DETAILS: What were you like as a teenager growing up in Como, Italy?
Tisci: I was obsessed with the Cure. Obsessed. I was, like, 15 or 16, going to art school, and I was literally full-on black makeup. Long black hair. It was funny because in Como, everyone is very bourgeois, everyone’s so chic. And I really was so obsessed with the darkness.

DETAILS: You’re very close to your mother. Did she worry about you during this phase?
Tisci: Never, because I started working when I was very young. I was a good son. She helped me make my own clothes, like leather leggings.

DETAILS: Has she ever critiqued your work?
Tisci: She’s pretty modern, to be honest. When I touch on subjects of sex or religion or darkness, she always supports me. And she never judges. When I do things she really likes, I can see it, because she tells me a few times. She repeats it a few times. When she doesn’t like it, sometimes she asks me why I do things. For example, the Rottweiler, she said, “Why? Why is it like an upset animal?” And I explained to her why. And then she gets it.

DETAILS: You’re celebrating your 10-year anniversary with Givenchy in March. What do you remember about the early days?
Tisci: I was intimidated, because I had never done a big show. It was a big house, I couldn’t realize why I was there. When I arrived, I was young, in trainers and jeans and a sweatshirt, doing dark, using, like, all the coolest, strange girls. People were very tough on me, really tough. Someone called me the anti-Christ. When you’re young and you do a collection, you’re a little insecure. You always have, like, a bit of insecurity, but I think that’s really good—it makes you push more.

DETAILS: You grew up with eight sisters. What’s your first memory of them?
Tisci: I remember sometimes going grocery shopping with my sisters—I was little, probably was, like, 7, 8. And I remember seeing my sisters being tough with everybody. They were protecting themselves. Because eight women without any men? They were warriors outside, and they come back home and were, like, the sweetest, funny Latin girls.

DETAILS: Did you ever long for a brother?
Tisci: No, not really. I wouldn’t be who I am today without having such a big family. If I were an only child, I would be an alcoholic or a drug addict.

Related: New York Fashion Week And the “Kanye Effect”

DETAILS: You often post #family along with your Instagram photos of famous friends. How do you forge authentic friendships with them?
Tisci: They feel that I’m not there to dress a celebrity. I dress people even when they don’t have an Oscar nomination or they don’t have an album out. If they’re my friends, I respect them to the end. And you need to feel people stay with you because they love you, not only as an artist, but also as a human being. Look at Kanye and Kim—at the beginning, I was the only one.

DETAILS: Kim wasn’t always accepted in the fashion community.
Tisci: By nobody. And she’s a sweet girl. And Kanye and me, we did it together. Every designer is dying to dress her now. I didn’t care what people thought about Kim. In the beginning, I met her because of my respect for Kanye, and then I liked her a lot and we became friends. I got killed because of this. But I didn’t care. That is a friend, you see. And this is why, when they got married, they asked me to dress them. They say, “You’ve always been with us. You’ve been a real friend.” If I like somebody, I like somebody. If I don’t like somebody, I don’t like somebody.

DETAILS: As the creative director for Jay-Z and Kanye’s 2011 “Watch the Throne” tour, did you have any hesitations about designing clothes for two of rap’s biggest icons?
Tisci: When they asked me, of course I was honored, but I was scared. I was like, “Oh fuck, what am I going to do?” I said, “Are you ready to really break down this barrier?” Because for me, rap until then was about gloss and diamonds and the chain and fur, girls in swimsuits. And they were like, “Yes, we’re ready.”

DETAILS: Did Kanye have reservations about the leather kilt?
Tisci: For a second, he was a little bit doubting. Then he really trusted me. That’s when you understand when a friend is a friend. He knew it was not that I just wanted to sell my clothes. I didn’t care. I thought it was very punk for him to break down all these boundaries. I haven’t invented it. But it’s more serious, the way I do it. It’s darker, and it’s made with beautiful tailoring, fabric. And we sell a lot. Doesn’t matter if I put them in a show or not.

DETAILS: You made your longtime friend Lea T, a transsexual model, the face of Givenchy’s 2010 ad campaign. What made you want to face the inevitable controversy that would follow?
Tisci: When Lea told her family [she wanted to have the operation], their reaction was not good. So she called me one day at six in the morning, and she was destroyed. Destroyed. And she said, “I want to prostitute myself. I want to go to the street because I don’t have money to do it, my family doesn’t give me the money, and I don’t care what I have to do for it. For once in my life, I understand what I want to be, and nobody is going to stop me.” The fact that she told me that she wanted to be a prostitute, it killed me. I decided to do the campaign for two reasons. To help Lea financially, and because who says so that a transsexual cannot be a top model? Even when I called the photographers, they were like, “A transsexual?” And I was like, “Yeah, a transsexual. She’s a beautiful girl, you guys are going to meet her, she’s amazing.”

DETAILS: Did you expect the outpouring of support that came after the Lea T ad was out?
Tisci: No. We did it in a really honest way. You know, very naïve. Like two friends loving each other. And in the end, it turned out to be this big thing, which is amazing.

DETAILS: The male models you generally use don’t necessarily fit the industry standard either. They’re usually burly and dripping with sexual confidence—very Magic Mike.
Tisci: Because I do a lot of street casting. You know, it’s funny, in the fashion business, they call it the G boy or Givenchy boy. In the beginning, when I started, everybody was skinny and beautiful, and I’m very good friends with Hedi Slimane, so I will never touch his territory in any way. But I’m a big man, and I want to make clothes [for a bigger man].

DETAILS: What do you say when you approach a potential G boy?
Tisci: A lot of people I find in the clubs. Usually, I’m really shy, I send somebody. Because people will recognize me, and I don’t like giving them hope and then after it doesn’t happen. But to me, street casting is very important because I come from the street. I got this chance in my life, why can’t other people have this chance?

By Candice Rainey

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