To understand what makes Riccardo Tisci tick there are only two things you need to know. He is deeply religious and his family means everything to him. These are the twin pillars on which the 36 year old designer has built a solid creative foundation. One that has helped him transform the floundering Givenchy brand into a white hot luxury label with a cult following.
And with such high flying fashion fame comes the inundation of requests for interviews, speaking gigs, side projects and in person appearances. As one of the few designers in the industry to design both the ready to wear and menswear collections for his house as well as its haute couture, accessories and not to mention a nascent perfume line, Mr. Tisci is a hard man to pin down.
But when Visionaire, the ultra hip art and fashion publication, approached Mr. Tisci and asked him to guest edited its latest limited edition tome, the theme of which is religion, the designer felt he couldn’t say no.
“It was a long time that we have wanted to do something together but I just never felt ready,” said Mr. Tisci “I want to give one hundred percent to special projects like this and a Visionaire project is a very challenging thing.”
This will mark the sixtieth Visionarie issue to be produced since the “couture magazine” was launched in 1991 by Stephen Gan, Cecilia Dean, and James Kaliardos. And it amply fills the high expectations that Visionarie has cultivated over the past twenty years. Past publications, with themes like Japan, Where? and Blue which came respectively encased in a Louis Vuitton Plexiglas trunk, a custom Hermes box and swathed in a Levis denim jacket, became instant collectors items. Religion will no doubt follow in their footsteps with a leather wrapped hard bound book inspired by a church altar piece.
“I really wanted to give a positive message” says the designer passionately. “For me religion means a lot. But it is not only about being a Buddhist or having a Catholic belief it is also an energy. It is very organic, very abstract. Like the sun could be a religion, it gives energy and life or even the love of a child to his mother, like my family is my religion.”
Once Mr. Tisci had decided to take on the highly sensitive issue of religion he did it with zeal. Turning to his close knit band of friends – whom he sees as an extension of his family – and artists whose work he has admired and asked them to depict religion as something bigger than just the different practices of faith. Taking the idea to another level where religion became more a state of mind and being rather than a system of rules and regulations.
Breaking rules and listening to his inner voice has been a major element in Mr. Tisci’s growing success at Givenchy. From the beginning he forged ahead with a new vision for the brand, never looking back at the archives or codes of the past but rather creating a new path for the house to follow. One in which religious and sexuality have had central roles to play and continuously create an under current of tension to his collections.
His catholic upbringing permeates all of his fashion designs, appearing in everything from the swirling heads of barking rottweilers which, from a distance, look like baroque church embellishments to gilded embroidery on dresses that were inspired by the patter of a cape adorning a Virgin Mary statue or the robes of a pope. More literally it can be see in crosses made from lace that are subtly inserted into the side of an haute couture dress or a golden crown of thorns worn as a necklace and a t-shirt stating “Jesus is Lord” that were included in a recent menswear collection. But the designer’s strong religious imagery has always been balanced by the magnetism of bold animals prints, form fitting clothing and judicious use of transparency.
“My sexuality is never vulgar,” says the designer. “When you look back through history many religions have nudity in their paintings, drawings and sculptures. I would say that the sexuality in my clothes is more like a sensuality because I can do a naked look but it can never be vulgar because that is ugly.”
Part of the challenge that Mr. Tisci put forth to friends working on the Visionaire project was to collaborate with someone from his entourage that they had never worked with in the past. “Sometimes our brains get lazy and I wanted to people to give the best of themselves, to challenge themselves and by putting together people who have not worked together before, it gave them an injection of energy,” said the designer.
So the artist Berlinde de Bruyckere teamed up with the photographer Mario Testino for a group of nude images, Italian Vogues editor in chief Franca Sozzani is re-imagined as a saint by the artist Paolo Canevari and Jefferson Hack edited Polariods shot by the singer Patti Smith.
It is hard for Mr. Tisci to choose between all of the different entries that made it into the book and to try and pick the one that moves him the most. He mentions his personal collaboration with Marina Abramovic to create a piece she entitled “The Contract” as a highlight for him. In it Mr. Tisci models for the artist in a La Pietà setting with Ms. Abramovic holding him in her arms.
But the clean and straightforward submission by Helumut Lang, who the designer has long admired but does not know personally, seemed to have stuck a particular cord. “It was so simple but so real for religion,” says Mr. Tisci. “It is on a white double page and on one side he wrote ‘top’ and on the other side he wrote ‘bottom’. It could have many different meaning. But for me it is God, any kind of God, and the earth. And for me is what religion is- it can be anything.”
Mr. Tisci went as far as digging through his personal collection of religious artifacts, boxed up and held for safe keeping at his mother’s house, and sending photos of the selected relics to act as inspiration for different shoots. “I wanted them all to receive something from me, energy from me,” says the designer.
He purposefully wanted the book to include only black and white images and to be free of the trappings of traditional fashion magazines. “I made a bible for myself before I contacted people with a list of things I wanted for this book,” states the designer matter-of-factly. This meant no credits on the pages, no recognizable designer clothing and no color. The only hue being the ten gold pages scattered amongst the artwork which are meant to represent the designer’s nine older sisters and his mother; the family to whom the book has been dedicated. And there is one black page that acts like a physical acknowledgment of the designer’s father who passed away when Mr. Tisci was just a child but who continues to impact his life.
“I lost my father when I was a baby, I never really met him,” said the designer stoically “My father in a way is like my God because I never met him but I have a strong image of him in my head. I painted my father in my head in the way I would paint a God because my mom and my sisters and people who knew him told me stories about him.”
Clearly Mr. Tisci’s world is imbued with the magic and emotion of religion. The team behind Visionaire perhaps got more than they bargained for when they asked him to curate their sixtieth publication. But if the book provokes open discussions about religion and moves people to see faith in a new light then Mr. Tisci will feel all his hard work will have been more than worth it.