Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci on Why He Dresses Kim Kardashian and Kanye West But Rejects Other Stars: "Why Waste Time?"
The head designer, fresh from his startling fall 2015 show, is "having a moment" as he rules the red carpet — Julianne Moore, Julia Roberts and Jared Leto are among those who wore his creations during the recent awards season — and counts Madonna among his inner circle.
This story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A smartly dressed sea of Parisians are gathered in an apartment replete with gilt moldings and white flowers on historic Rue de Presbourg. At the center of the black-swathed, expensive clutch-carrying creme de la creme de la French fashion crowd is a slender Italian man in an untucked red plaid shirt and white sneakers. You'd never know by his attire that he's the most important person in the room — a room that contains Jessica Chastain, Amanda Seyfried, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and Katy Perry — except you do. Fresh from his startling fall 2015 show, Givenchy head designer Riccardo Tisci is "having a moment," as he puts it, atop the international luxury brand mountain.
During the recent awards season alone, he dressed Julianne Moore twice, Julia Roberts, Chastain, Rosamund Pike and even Jared Leto in his lavender Oscars tux. He created Madonna's two Grammy looks, not to mention her 2012 Super Bowl looks. Among his most conspicuous achievements is having made Kardashian's gown and West's tux for their 2014 wedding, which he attended. Now 10 years in as creative director of Givenchy — overseeing women's haute couture and ready-to-wear as well as men's, shoes, bags and accessories — the 40-year-old Tisci (pronounced "Tissi") is carrying on the tradition of Hubert de Givenchy, whose association with Hollywood is legend as the couturier of choice for Audrey Hepburn. On the business side, the brand, owned by LVMH, reportedly brought in more than $270 million in revenue in 2013, followed by a huge retail expansion with more than 20 openings in 2014. During the past several years, Beyonce, Claire Danes, Jennifer Connelly, Naomi Watts and Rihanna (whose 2013 tour costumes Tisci also designed) all have graced major carpets in Givenchy.
Blanchett at the 2011 Oscars in lavender Givenchy.
The evening after the party, Tisci is perched on a divan in the Givenchy couture building atelier where Hepburn did fittings with Hubert. "He was one of the first Parisian designers working in Hollywood," says Tisci in a thick Italian accent. "It's a very strong feeling when I'm working in here. It reminds me that the world I live in is amazing."
Tisci was installed at Givenchy in 2005, having worked only for Puma, Ruffo Research and on one season of his own line. He had practically no reputation; expectations weren't high. Being shrewd, he knew how to handle that. "I didn't do any interviews at the beginning," he says. "I really wanted people to forget Givenchy a little bit — and to gain back the respect. The first big emotional moment for me was Nicole Kidman in a black dress in 2007. Then Naomi Watts chose a striped dress — another moment! We did a Mermaid collection in 2007 couture, and there were three dresses my team didn't love. But I was obsessed with one of those black dresses. Then Cate Blanchett wears it in Berlin! I was shocked. Even my mother was shocked!"
Pike in her 2015 Oscars dress, which Tisci coaxed her to wear.
The relationship with Blanchett grew to include Oscar and SAG Awards gowns. "My favorite Oscar look of all time is the lavender gown on Cate in 2011," says Blanchett's stylist, Elizabeth Stewart (who also works with Chastain and Seyfried). "Riccardo holds a very special place in my heart. When he shot Amanda Seyfried for his campaign a few years back, the look was pure him and pure her — that takes talent."
A week after his Blanchett moment, "I get a call from Madonna," recalls Tisci. It turned out to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship: "In magazines I'd seen her wearing a few of our pieces. Then I did the Latin collection in 2008, and Madonna's stylist Arianne Phillips wanted a dress for a video. A few days after, I get a call from Madonna herself to meet me in New York. Can you imagine? The ultimate icon." At the meeting, the pop star diffused Tisci's nerves with "a joke that made me turn red! Now we are friends. I know what she likes. I know what she wants to show of her body — like all women."
One of Tisci's unique talents is knowing how to flatter a shape and make a woman look like a bombshell — albeit a sophisticated one. "Some women are very aware of the best of their bodies," he says. "Some are not. Me, I'm very honest. We work with some princesses, and I say, 'Baby, that's not right.' I won't argue, but I will be upfront. It's my job to tell them what looks best. Cate, Madonna or Jessica, when you start knowing them and their bodies well after years, it's easy. With Rosamund [Pike at the Oscars], she listened to me a bit more because she has a fear of fashion, and I wanted for her a big fashion moment. I said, 'For me, this is what you should do.' She was afraid of the red; she almost didn't wear it. But she went for it — it was a moment!"
For the 2013 Met Gala, Tisci dressed Mara, who says, “Riccardo combines two of my favorite things: romance with a bit of edge. His dresses feel of-the-moment or even of-the-future — a little bit gothic, a little bit punk, always unique.”
Oscar nominee Pike confirms the story: "Riccardo has a fire in his belly! There's an enfant terrible inside of him. He wanted the dress to have a corset and a big split up the front, which was really bold. I felt very vulnerable about an Oscar dress — you can be eaten alive! Then I realized, in the end, it made me feel relaxed, free and even safe."
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Among designers who often work with Hollywood — Dior, Lanvin, Valentino, Chanel, Michael Kors — Tisci truly is friends with what he calls his "tribe": Chastain, Madonna, Rooney Mara (who wore Givenchy throughout the 2012 awards season), Kim and Kanye, Seyfried and Moore. Italian family obsession drives him to such intimacy: He has eight sisters and is close to his mother, who sits front row at every show. "For me, it's not so much the girls of the moment," he says. "Sometimes we make clothes for an actress with no projects out, possibly not even famous yet. I don't use stars to sell clothes — I dress my friends. People talk about the movie business, the fashion business. It's about people for me." What traits does his "tribe" share? "Intelligence first. Beauty is great, but not when you have nothing to say. They are confident. They have talent." Significantly, in an age of red-carpet appearance fees, Instagram endorsements and brand ambassadors, Givenchy never has paid a star to wear the brand. "I find that very sad, very cynical," says Tisci. "It shouldn't be about money; it should be about beauty, passion and family."
Moore, one of Tisci’s “tribe,” in Givenchy haute couture at the 2015 SAG Awards.
Having graduated from London design school Central Saint Martins (where John Galliano and Alexander McQueen also went before stints at Givenchy), Tisci was ready for Paris couture with his first Givenchy show in July 2005 (couture only being done during the past decade by the likes of Chanel, Valentino, Dior, Armani and Elie Saab). Despite several highly successful seasons, he suspended couture shows in 2012: "All these women working on one dress — it can take 300 hours to make a top! And people saw it from a runway and couldn't see the workmanship. So I do couture for Hollywood and real life. When actresses wear these dresses at major events, the world is watching. The way we do couture now is personal — it's modern." Says Moore, who sported couture during the recent awards season: "Riccardo is always present for fittings for major events — I love it. He's so precise about fit and proportion. When he designed my Golden Globes dress, he submitted 40 sketches. Leslie [Fremar, Moore's stylist] and I were blown away! We winnowed to three, and I wore two. Both were spectacular." Adds Fremar: "Coming from Vogue, I know that in some fashion circles Hollywood is secondary. Some designers still have a hard time embracing the red carpet. Riccardo loves it! He's so passionate. When we asked for an awards-season dress, he sent a book! Not everyone can interpret a body into a shape. His dresses fit like a glove: amazing on paper, better in person."
Fremar is among a lucky few. "We do say no a lot," says Tisci of the many requests from actresses and stylists, "and I'm very upfront about it. Not rude. I say: 'I don't think we are right for you, and you are probably not right for us. Why should we waste time?' " With no hesitation, he mentions his favorite stylists: Fremar, Stewart and Phillips. "I work with people who know what they want," says Tisci. "It can be the person who completes the relationship between you and the actress: A third opinion can be very important. But I've been in a situation where I had to tell the stylist to shut up."
Stewart has put Roberts in a number of Givenchy looks — a jumpsuit at the recent SAG Awards, a lace peplum gown at the 2014 Oscars — so it wasn't a huge surprise when Tisci reached out for the actress to star in his spring 2015 ad campaign. But it was shocking when the somewhat anti-style Oscar winner, who never had done a fashion campaign, said yes. The black-and-white result of Roberts in a brilliantly cut suit (for which she reportedly was paid less than $1 million, compared with Jennifer Lawrence's $15 million Dior campaign) "was a big success because she let herself go, with very little hair and makeup," he says. "It's a new way of seeing Julia."
Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn at a 1958 fitting.
Then there's Kardashian. It was Tisci who made her a person of fashion interest. "Kanye is a friend for seven years," he explains, "so when he called me up and said, 'I'm dating a girl; I want you to meet her,' I jumped. She's intelligent, sweet, beautiful. She's the girlfriend of my friend. I'm not into judgment. She started coming to my shows, and some people criticized me. But I love Kanye and now I love Kim, and I didn't care what people thought." Tisci invited Kardashian to the 2013 Met Ball, which he co-hosted. "I needed to have my gang with me, and Anna [Wintour] understood. Not everyone was positive about it — fine. I say, 'It's your problem if you have a problem with Kim coming.' Then, after two years, I was proud when she received the cover of American Vogue. Four or five years ago, no fashion house would touch her. But Kim represents the woman of today — she defines society today."
Tisci himself has been a subject of speculation, for being offered the stewardship of Dior before Raf Simons took the job; Gucci, even before Frida Giannini resigned; and Chanel, as Karl Lagerfeld's possible heir. "I know," he says with a laugh. "I think it's a compliment. I don't call myself a genius; I just want to do my job properly. I literally saved this house of Givenchy out of pure love," he declares, showing major confidence, for he believes in nothing so much as his design talent — a faith validated by wildly enthusiastic reviews (often commenting on his goth sensibilities, which Tisci deems "dark romance") and sales. Most of his fall 2015 collection sold out before it hit a store floor.
Audrey Hepburn donned Givenchy in 1954’s 'Sabrina.'
In contrast to his bold collections, Tisci constantly describes himself as "shy." But his personal Instagram posts — his 40th birthday in Ibiza, vacations in St. Tropez — have won him many fashion fans, and the Givenchy brand's feed has 1.8 million followers. "When I was a teenager — I grew up quite poor [in Como, Italy] — I cut out pictures to make fashion scrapbooks. Now Instagram is my scrapbook. If it gives kids hope that they can live their dreams, then it's positive."
Tisci's fall 2015 show was set in a high school gym, with models in Victorian-style velvet devore dresses, black architectural suits and chola-style braids (courtesy of makeup artist Pat McGrath) walking among old TVs, motorcycle helmets and video games. "I wanted to do 'chola Victorian,' " says Tisci. "I wasn't worried because I knew the clothes were strong." Not unlike their creator. "What I'm most proud of," he says, "is two things: couture and business. I've got a gift from God that is very rare — the clothes are wearable. I can do couture, and I can do street. I come from the street. I'm probably lucky I come from such a poor family. Perhaps that is a gift, too."