Riccardo Tisci is having his moment.
Givenchy's creative director just co-chaired the annual Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute Gala Benefit in New York, with Anna Wintour, Rooney Mara and Beyonce Knowles. He is also celebrating eight fruitful years at the French fashion house with collections lauded by critics and customers alike. The fashion industry is full-blown, head-over-heels enamoured with the designer.
But most importantly, Tisci is in love.
"One thing about my work is that it comes naturally from my heart," says the handsome Italian, dressed in casual white T-shirt under a checked button-up shirt, and sitting in a grandiose white lounge in Givenchy's Avenue George V couture atelier in Paris.
It is two days after his emotive autumn-winter 2013 show at Paris Fashion Week, and Tisci appears relaxed, convivial and down to earth - in contrast to the sexy, brooding magazine portraits of him.
During his moments of intensity, you glimpse the creative power behind one of Paris' coolest fashion houses. According to Tisci, he can design a full collection, even couture, in just two days.
"You can read from my collections if I am happy or going through a tough moment in life, because my style completely changes," Tisci says, cigarette in hand, as it always seems to be. "In one collection, I was really upset and angry with love and with someone I was loving. This season you can see that it is light and romantic, because I am really in love."
He won't say with whom.
The industry darling insists he doesn't live in the fashion world. Ongoing music and cinema projects keep him inspired, he says, and he'd rather go clubbing than pore over show reviews or fashion magazines.
He respects and likes a few fellow designers - Azzedine Alaia, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto and Rick Owens; and among the young designers he is a fan of Christopher Kane and the Rodarte sisters - but, "I am not contaminated by the fashion world in a way. Sometimes it's like a big train, one going after the other. I think every designer should have his own way … I never want to be a trendsetter."
But set trends he has. Tisci reinvented the gothic woman in high fashion, making her modern and sensual. The Givenchy brand's identity is strong and instantly recognisable, and the label has achieved a cult status. Furthermore, that cult is expanding, and moving into Asia in a big way. The store that just launched in IFC Mall is one of many opening in the region this year, including one in Elements, Kowloon (which will be Hong Kong's third), and 10 branches in the mainland.
Then you have his much-copied prints, featuring birds of paradise, orchids and Rottweilers.
"It was a very emotional collection," says Tisci, of his Paris show. "I'm 38 and a lot of positive things are happening in my private life. I want to celebrate eight years of what I am doing. I've looked into the Givenchy archives before but I've never looked into my Givenchy archives. It was kind of like a retrospective for myself."
At fashion week, supermodels Natalia Vodianova, Liu Wen, Ming Xi and Saskia de Brauw walked the huge circular catwalk to the haunting voice of Antony Hegarty (from the band Antony and the Johnsons).
As much as the previous season had been minimal, this powered on in the opposite direction: outfits were layered; Renaissance rose prints, flame prints and tomboy checks fought for attention; flounces on sleeves and light ruffled skirts evoked gypsies; leather biker jackets with padded shoulders provoked; sculpted skirts and sheers tantalised. It was not a collection for the faint of heart.
"People always expect something strong from me, but this one was a big punch in the face, because it's been so long since I've done my romantic side."
A combination of ethereal darkness, religious iconography and raw sensuality has given Tisci's style a powerful presence, his label having become a lifestyle, a gang, a sub-culture. Tisci may come over all dark-ness and melodramatic in his designs but his future seems bright.
"MY WOMAN IS SO confident with her own femininity that she can play with menswear, bomber jackets and oversized pieces," says Tisci. "This is why I am dressing women like Madonna, Rihanna and Courtney Love.
"I met [Love] six years ago and everybody hated her - she was the trash queen. But I fell in love; she's so intelligent, fragile. I helped her come out of that dark moment and began to collaborate with her … then everybody started to dress her."
The right attitude is needed by the men Tisci designs for, too; it takes confidence to wear a sweatshirt with lace, a skirt or Swarovski-studded shoes.
"You don't have to be gay," he offers. "A lot of heterosexual men in New York, London and Japan, they are obsessed with Givenchy, they wear the skirts." Singer Kanye West is one of them.
In his early time at the label, Tisci championed black and Chinese models before it was in vogue - Ming, whom he discovered, even sports a "Mr Tisci" tattoo on her leg in gratitude. Now he has turned his attention to transgender and transsexual persons.
"I find ambiguity, transsexuality and transgender people very beautiful creatures, very fragile and very delicate," Tisci says. "But these people suffer because society never accepts them. Why do they have to be prostitutes just because people only see them as sex toys?"
In 2010, he cast his transgender personal assistant, Lea T, as Givenchy's womenswear campaign model alongside Joan Smalls and Mariacarla Boscono. Since then, the stunning Brazilian has become something of a fashion muse, landing on the cover of magazines such as Elle Brazil and Love, and shooting for Vogue Paris, Numero and V Magazine.
"Transsexuals have a soul, a heart, a brain and the only thing they want is to be loved and to love, just like everybody else," Tisci says. "In society we think that we are so modern, with Google, Instagram and things like that, but there are so many heavy things that we have to sort out."
Perhaps Tisci's passion for the disenfranchised was ignited early, during his childhood in Como, northern Italy.
"I come from a very Catholic country, a very tough education, a poor family. I used to hate school," says the brother of eight sisters. "I used to hate my country so much because I was poor and they never wanted to pay for my schooling or give me support."
At 17, Tisci moved to London, where he got his first real taste of freedom. From then on, "Everything I had inside me came out, and exploded.
"If I had stayed in Italy, I would have probably ended up working in a factory like many other talented people. I would never think to go to Saint Martins, I would never think to become a success and be the person I am today.
"Maybe I would even have become an alcoholic, a drug addict or a drug dealer."
London was no easy ride, at first. Tisci did some of "the worst jobs": cleaning in a hotel, handing out flyers on the streets and manual labouring for department stores. He couldn't speak English and lived on very little money. But "to wake up every morning and be myself was so beautiful; deciding what I want to eat, where I want to go, probably not even having any money for the bus so walking to another side of London, but to be free - that was the biggest thing in my life".
Tisci learned English and applied to study fashion at London's Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design. He graduated with honours. After five years working for brands such as Antonio Berardi, Coccapani, Puma and Ruffo Research back in Italy, he went solo, presenting an eponymous collection in 2004, in Milan. The look was modern, refreshing, innovative and dark. By 2005, Givenchy had controversially picked him to design its prestigious collections in Paris, making the Italian a successor to John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Julien Macdonald.
The club-loving 29-year-old suddenly found himself at the helm of the aristocratic French couture house of Hubert de Givenchy, which had Audrey Hepburn as its muse and champion.
"At first I wondered what they saw in me," Tisci says.
It was hardly the most obvious pairing, but once he delved into the archives, he discovered that, "apart from a few cocktail dresses and classic items that everyone knows", Hubert de Givenchy was "so edgy and so strong".
Like Tisci, de Givenchy had left home at the age of 17. In Paris, he became designer Elsa Schiaparelli's first assistant before launching his own couture house in 1952, at the age of 24. His chic, light skirts and elegant shirts were an instant hit. A penchant for refreshing, pure lines and Hepburn's patronage made his name.
"[Hubert de Givenchy] is a genius, I'm not saying we are the same level, but we have something in common … I am very proud to be here," Tisci says.
The house, he remembers, was confused and chaotic; but Tisci began to turn things around creatively. His couture designs, which stand out as ultra-modern, elegant and ethereal, are of the kind that raise heartbeats. A closer look at the painstaking detail and almost futuristic construction of his latest couture collections and said heartbeats could only rise further.
In 2008, Tisci was appointed creative director for the entire brand, adding menswear and men's accessories to the women's ready-to-wear, accessories and couture lines under his control.
Menswear was another revelation. Apart from his friend Hedi Slimane's Dior Homme pieces and those of Helmut Lang (which he collects obsessively), Tisci had rarely worn designer clothes. Street-style brands such as Carhartt, Supreme and Tenderloin were more his style.
Seeing a gap in menswear between formal suiting and luxe street style, he started designing what he, himself, would want to wear. The results turned heads, making Givenchy one of the most popular high-fashion labels for men.
At the beginning, some critics branded him "crazy" for mixing religion, sexuality and danger in his designs. You'd see high-fashion hipsters wearing his gold crosses and shirts printed with pictures of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. On their bottom half would be a sheer column skirt with thigh-high slits and sexy black heeled boots.
"But that is my culture, my reality," he says. "I am Catholic, I pray, but I love sex, I love danger, I love to go out at night … My style is truly an honest representation of my life. You have the romanticism, which is the love for women I got from my mum and my sisters. You have the sexuality, because I'm from Italy, where sexuality is so important and so intense. And then you have the darkness, because of my life before."
On the other hand, he says, "I am a happy person. That's what people didn't understand at the beginning: my darkness can be a happy, beautiful darkness. Darkness can sometimes be clearer than the day. The night is when people relax, make love, stay with the family, whereas the day is for work."
Tisci might have shocked with this gothic sophistication, but it also quickly won him fans and friends, including Carine Roitfeld and Wintour - fashion doyennes with whom he continues to collaborate.
And the more you learn about him - his unlikely life story, brutal candidness and social rebellion, as well as those goth-punk design elements - the more you realise how fitting it's been for Tisci to be part of the Met's exhibition and gala. The theme is "Punk: Chaos to Couture" (the exhibition runs until August 11).
"I believe in God so much, I am a very Catholic person, but I don't believe in the Church and I don't believe in trying to put people in a box … My rebellion is a positive message."
Tisci remains close to his mother and sisters; he is Italian, after all. They hang out, watch movies, do the gardening, "normal things". And after having eaten together, he is still sent off by his mother to wash the dishes or buy the milk and bread.
"I can be at the Met Gala, be with all the top celebrities, fly in a private jet, stay in a five-star hotel - but at the end I need reality and to stay with my family. I need people who will tell me off if I do wrong, who will love me if I make a mistake."
Never mind the Botox
Shortly after 6.30pm on May 6 - as she waited for the first of 800 celebrities and supermodels to make their way up the long staircase of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) for the annual Costume Institute Gala - Anna Wintour tapped a young man on the shoulder. He had a spiky blond mohawk and wore a red blazer with the words "The government is lying" scrawled on the back.
"You look very handsome tonight," Wintour told him.
"Thank you," he said, a little befuddled. "So do you."
It should have been obvious that with the Met's spring exhibition called "Punk: Chaos to Couture", the scenes at fashion's party of the year, celebrating its opening, might be a little tough-chic. But Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue and a chairwoman of the annual event, had gone over the top, decorating the museum's entrance hall with a 40-foot-tall chandelier made of thousands of aluminium plates in the shape of razor blades. It was a little scary.
Wintour wore a floral sequin column dress from Chanel and carried a clutch with her initials in pink sequins, raising a few protests among the many guests who had spent days festooning themselves with safety pins, razor blades, faux hawks, neon hair dye, spiky shoes and combat boots. Linda Fargo, fashion director of department store Bergdorf Goodman, had wrapped her silver hair with barbed wire. But actually, Wintour was well within the theme, too. The curator of the exhibition, Andrew Bolton, she said, had told her "[pink is] the colour of punk".
Seeing punked-out socialites and models greeting Wintour in a receiving line along with her co-chairs - actress Rooney Mara in sexy white lace Givenchy, Lauren Santo Domingo, of Moda Operandi, in a long silvery gown and Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci scrubbed up in a tuxedo - seemed quite subversive.
"That was the longest staircase in the world," said British designer Zandra Rhodes, who wore a body-fitting black dress with a coral-pink sash, which matched her hair (which is normally that colour), wrapped around her waist. And the punk attendants cheered when British designer Vivienne Westwood walked in.
Inside the exhibition, while waiting for a dinner that cost US$150,000 to US$250,000 per table and included - no joke - Jell-O shots for dessert, all the fabulous people stared at the punk clothes on display and on one another; and sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. A lot of people were just trying to catch a glimpse of Madonna (who was wearing an outrageous spiked tartan jacket from Givenchy, shredded fishnets and no trousers) or Kim Kardashian, who arrived with her baby bump, a skintight Givenchy floral dress and Kanye West - her boyfriend and the evening's entertainment.
The strange thing, with all the bin bag dresses on display and a recreation of the nasty CBGB nightclub bathrooms as a "period room", was no one was shocked.
"I wish I had been at CBGB back in the day," Seth Meyers of Saturday Night Live said. "By the time I was there it was already DEFG. It had already moved down the alphabet."
Supermodel Heidi Klum took one look at the urinals and said, "You can still go to certain clubs in London and see this."
But nowhere else could you have seen Nicole Richie with her hair dyed a shocking grey, Anne Hathaway with super-blond hair channelling Debbie Harry, and Harry herself dressed as if for a combination wedding-funeral in a black tartan dress by Tommy Hilfiger.
"It's quite wonderful," Harry said of the scene before her, even though punk, as it turns out, makes a surprisingly difficult subject to capture in a museum context. It was a short period, and most of the clothes - as they were meant to be - were ruined.
"This stuff was old when they put it out," writer Fran Lebowitz said, after walking through the show backward.
The New York Times