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Riccardo Tisci, the Outsider Looking in

By Lou Stoppard

Riccardo Tisci, the new chief creative officer at Burberry, on the cover of T Singapore’s April issue.
 
Danko Steiner
Riccardo Tisci, the new chief creative officer at Burberry, on the cover of T Singapore’s April issue.

When the Italian designer Riccardo Tisci moved to London to take up his position as the chief creative officer of Burberry, he found himself temporarily without a place to stay. House-hunting in the UK capital can be laborious, and with just a few months to go before his debut collection for the history-rich British house in September 2018, he “set up home” at Claridge’s in the upscale district of Mayfair. The majestic hotel is a British institution — it even sparked a documentary television show in 2012 called “Inside Claridge’s”, which documented behind-the-scenes antics of its staff. Adored by Queen Victoria, the hotel’s popularity with royalty has led some to call it “the annex to Buckingham Palace”. During his stay, Tisci recalls listening to the chatter of the hotel’s well-heeled guests (women in particular) that drew his attention. “People always say, English people don’t talk about sex, but it’s not true,” he says with a laugh. “Those women were super chic, classic, but one glass of wine later and they were coming out with the funniest, most shocking things. That energy, you only have in Britain. Britishness is really about that surprise, that eccentricity.”

Tisci has since found an apartment, but the Claridge’s stay cemented his love for the dualities and contradictions of British culture — the famous politeness mixed with a rebellious spirit, and the reserved demeanour as in the “keeping of the stiff upper lip” offset by dry wit.

Thus, his debut collection for Spring/Summer ’19, titled “Kingdom”, offered up the many facets of British heritage, referencing everything from the Victorians in their finery to city workers, and even to avant-garde outsiders. The giant 134-look collection paid tribute to the many notions of British royalty — the actual monarchy and the other iconic figures, such as the punks. “In England you will always have the Queen and the skinhead,” explains Tisci. “That is in the blood of English people, and it’s always going to be that way forever. I see that punk side in everybody here, from the waiters, to the dentists, to the people in the street.”

For his debut ad campaign, launched in January this year, Tisci also focused on dualities, in the form of the young and the old. He recruited a cast of six image-makers to interpret their own vision of Burberry today. One of them was Nick Knight, an icon of British fashion photography, whose collaborations with John Galliano and Alexander McQueen in the ’90s and early ’00s are still remembered for their visual audacity. Others were younger, up-and-coming figures, such as Colin Dodgson and Letty Schmiterlow. “It’s about working with the masters and then people who are going to be the masters of the future,” he says. The models also span generations — among them were Stella Tennant and Natalia Vodianova who appeared alongside newer faces like Fran Summers and Rianne van Rompaey. In the background of Knight’s images is a painting by the British artist Jenny Saville, who recently became the world’s most expensive living female artist. She is, like Burberry, also considered a national treasure, another great export.

Yu CongFrom left: Burberry jacket. Burberry jacket and shirt. Burberry trenchcoat and top. Burberry jacket and top.
From left: Burberry jacket. Burberry jacket and shirt. Burberry trenchcoat and top. Burberry jacket and top.

Tisci is in love with the outsider’s view of England — the things that made him fall in love with the country from afar while he was growing up in Italy. When he took over the creative reins at Burberry, he recruited heroes of UK culture to help him bring to life his vision for the British house. Peter Saville, who created the artwork for the album covers of bands like Joy Division and New Order, and thus inspired the print visuals that hung as posters in thousands of British bedrooms in the late ’70s and ’80s, was tapped to help refresh the Burberry logo. In the entrance to the Burberry offices in Westminster, just north of the River Thames, are blown-up versions of emails between Saville and Tisci. “Here is the final layout,” says one from Saville, with the bold Monogram pattern attached underneath.

In December 2018, Tisci invited Vivienne Westwood, a doyenne of British fashion and one of the most famous faces of the punk movement, to collaborate on a capsule collection, which saw her signature mini kilts sporting the iconic Burberry check.

The opportunity to delve deeper into the history of British design and style is one of the main reasons that attracted Tisci to the position at Burberry. He knew his choices for the brand would reach far beyond the style press. “It’s part of the culture — and that’s one of the reasons I accepted to do Burberry. It is one of the flags of the country, something that can be seen from the outside. And that is part of my concept here. I want to do Britishness,” he says. To him, Burberry is to England what Chanel is to France — everyone has a bit of it, he argues, whether a fragrance or lipstick, or scarf given on a special occasion such as a 21st birthday, or, if the budget allows, a trench coat or a bag. He is very proud that the house has the stamp of approval of the Queen, in the form of an official Royal Warrant. 

Tisci sees much of Burberry’s story as being wrapped up in the broader fashion output of the UK, whether in the form of military wear, or women in men’s clothes, or the eccentric way of putting things together. Of the last, “Only the English have it!” he says. “I see women in England in leopard print shoes, an evening gown, thick socks and a big parka, [an] Hermès bag. If anyone else were to do that, it just wouldn’t look right. But that way of putting it together is very British — every country has something, and that is what Britain has. And that is very Burberry. And by that I don’t mean my Burberry, I mean Thomas Burberry [the founder of the house who launched the label in 1856] and the heritage of this house.”

Yu CongFrom left: Burberry jacket, top and skirt. Burberry trenchcoat and earrings. Burberry jacket, top, skirt and earrings. Burberry shirt and trousers.
From left: Burberry jacket, top and skirt. Burberry trenchcoat and earrings. Burberry jacket, top, skirt and earrings. Burberry shirt and trousers.

Tisci is committed to honouring the history of the house, both recent and old. It’s refreshing in the face of all the twists and turns currently going on in the fashion industry. The turnover of designers at big houses seems far too rapid — Olivier Lapidus managed just two seasons as creative director at Lanvin, while Justin O’Shea, then creative director of Brioni, left after just one collection. “It’s crazy,” says Tisci. “Let’s hope that’s not happening to me!” There has also been a trend for the U-turn takeover, exemplified by Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent and now Celine, and Alessandro Michele at Gucci. 

Tisci’s debut for Burberry was less dramatic — it was forward-thinking, but respectful. It had a quieter impact. There was no engineered shock value. That should be the way, he stresses. “My clothes have to live with the clothes of Christopher [Bailey — the previous chief creative officer],” he says, referencing the fact that the first of his garments to drop will hang in stores next to the final pieces from Bailey’s collections. “I also think that Christopher did an amazing job. It was a different eye, to me. But I respect so much [of] what he did — he built all of this. And I know what it’s like to be carrying something so big. I’m very proud of that history of Burberry — it has been 17 years. I don’t think it should be so drastic [that] all that is Christopher should be gone. It’s very important to respect what you find in a place.” He sees his job as one to build up the brand, rather than to disassemble it. “It’s like languages — different words, same alphabet. I did my take on the same letters that Christopher had.”

A bit of backstory seems appropriate here. Before Tisci became a celebrated designer, following a stint running his own label and a successful reign at Givenchy, he travelled to London to study fashion at Central Saint Martins. Does being back here make him nostalgic for that time — for the promise of youth and those wild days of freedom? No, he says, but it does make him “grateful”, for everything he learned. He describes himself today as “loud”, not in terms of voice, but rather the vivacity, enthusiasm and conviction with which he works. He credits that to something he learned while he lived in England. “When I arrived here I was just locked — locked in the pressure of Italian culture, religion, which I believe in a lot, family, the Vatican. England taught me how to be myself, to be open, eccentric — things I had in my blood but I didn’t want to show because I was scared to be judged.” He recalls clubbing and raving, sleeping on friends’ sofas, having the freedom that young people in other cultures just don’t have. “I dreamt about the luxury world of England, but I never lived that life back then. But my life changed, thanks to England. I became a successful designer, I travelled the world, and I made my own England in my head. But now I’m here, I know both sides of it — I know the street, survivor side, and I now see the sophisticated, luxury side. I’m glad I’ve lived both sides.”

Yu CongFrom left: Burberry top, skirt and shoes. Burberry dress.
From left: Burberry top, skirt and shoes. Burberry dress.

He does recall the excitement of fashion when he was still an “up-and coming designer”, and longs for that energy. “I remember the time in London when it was [Alexander] McQueen and John Galliano and they were all doing crazy stuff. British fashion was always ahead and I think it should go back to that. I don’t want to follow.”

It’s a tricky time to feel celebratory about Britain... and it seems too, an especially hard time to be a European in Britain. All in the name of the Brexit debacle — as many in the fashion industry are frustrated and angry over the referendum result, keen to remain a part of the European Union (EU) and worried about the repercussions of leaving the EU. I ask Tisci, will the national embarrassment that many — especially those in multi-cultural cities such as London — feel about Brexit change the desire for exported ‘Britishness’? Is ‘Britishness’ even still covetable? He’s not worried, he explains. “I’m sure something is going to happen soon — some revolutionary moment. And I think Britain needs that. I think young kids have been watching... and they will go and speak up.” 

Tisci and I met for this interview just a few weeks before he was due to unveil his Burberry collection — a highly anticipated showcase of menswear and womenswear in a smorgasbord of a taupe-and-beige palette, Macs (raincoats), studs, silk and leather –at London Fashion Week in February this year. 

Burberry was one of the first brands to mix their menswear and womenswear offerings back in 2016, under the direction of Bailey. Fittingly, long before gender neutrality became a hot topic amongst the rest of the fashion pack, Tisci, while at Givenchy, put models who defied traditional categorisation down the runway of his shows. His Autumn/Winter 2010 Givenchy campaign, conceived nearly a decade ago but in keeping with the zeitgeist, featured the beautiful transgender fashion model Lea T, who was incidentally, discovered by Tisci. Everything he was doing then, is happening now, he quips. “Finally, fashion is starting to understand that it should be all one thing — men’s and women’s together.” At Burberry, gender neutrality is fitting; their classic item is the trench, a staple of both sex’s wardrobes. But it’s a good fit — Tisci has a deep interest and has been exploring how the broader society is rethinking gender and sexuality. “At Givenchy, we were always about including, not excluding. And that is everywhere now, which makes me very happy.”

Yu CongBurberry trench coat and shirt.
Burberry trench coat and shirt.

Though pleased to see fashion embrace more progressive ideas of beauty and identity, Tisci is wary of a climate where those who embrace gimmicks are often rewarded with a glut of attention. “Everything in life should be a balance. Everything — love, work, sport. Sometimes with fashion, people can be very drastic,” he says. He is protective of diversity in casting, keen to never see it employed as a marketing tool. “Before there were no black girls on the runway, now there are all black girls. But it shouldn’t just be a trend. I want to see it happening still in 10 years’ time. That’s why it should be balanced.” He recalls the days where people would observe, with an incredulous look on their faces, at how mixed his casting was. “‘There were so many black girls in that show!’ they would say. Why would someone make that comment?” he asks. “Sometimes they would say, ‘Oh, and a few of the girls were fat.’ I just thought they were all beautiful.” 

A new taboo he’s keen to tackle is age, one that he deals with by including older models in his new ad campaign. “Age really doesn’t mean anything. It’s truly just a number. I know people who are 50 or 60, but they are so young,” he says. This focus may come as a surprise to those who know Tisci as the original champion of youth-focused high fashion sportswear. But the realisation that fashion should not fetishise youth has made him grow up, he shares. “I arrived at a point in my life where I felt that I needed to switch off for a second,” he explains, referencing the year-long gap he took between leaving Givenchy, and joining Burberry as its chief creative officer. “People say, ‘Oh wow, you did 13 years at Givenchy’ but actually I’ve been working since I was eight, because I’m from a poor family, which made me what I am today, and I needed a break from working too much or from being far from home. I needed a break from letting too many people take care of my private life, my schedule, my planning, my diet. Things that humans should do [for themselves] — that everyone should do.”

Those months of self-imposed leave gave Tisci a refreshingly different perspective on fashion and moving forward in the industry. “In that moment, I [felt] I matured. I was looking at things from the outside and I realised that fashion was only looking at millennials. It was all for them.” At 44, he feels close to them — admiring their fearlessness, their sense of fun (“I still go to raves because I love music,” he says with a smile), but he felt that the fashion pack had become too obsessed. “Watching from the outside, it felt like it was all the same thing. In fashion one person does one thing and it’s...” he makes a sweeping gesture with his hand, imitating falling dominoes and to convey repetition. “It’s not like millennials are the only people buying clothes. The only people dressing. People who are [in their] 40s, 50s, 60s — do they have to go around naked?” So, at Burberry, he surprised critics with the addition of traditionally lady-like elements on his designs — the elegant skirts, work-appropriate blazers and neat blouses. It looked like clothing for CEOs, rather than starlets. It was the reverse of what happened at Givenchy, when he introduced sporty elements into the world of Parisian couture and ready-to-wear, “Then, people would say, ‘A woman can’t wear that!’ but I thought, what about her daughter, what about her son?” At Burberry, he’s offering a new version of fashion for the whole family.

Yu CongFrom left: Burberry jacket and T-shirt. Burberry dress and shoes. Burberry dress.
From left: Burberry jacket and T-shirt. Burberry dress and shoes. Burberry dress.

Tisci is also keen to point out that millennials have diverse tastes in fashion. Who says that younger shoppers won’t go for something that, at first glance, looks “grown up”? The first celebrity to wear Tisci’s new Burberry after the show was American actress and singer Zendaya. “She is the queen of the young generation, they are obsessed with her. And she wore a look from the first part of the show, which was more the classic part,” he shares. Zendaya’s choice of a striped pussy-bow blouse and double waisted tailored trousers looked subtle and refined. “I realised we all put millennials in a box,” he continues. “We all presume they just want one thing. People think that because you put on sweatshirt and trainers and a backpack, it will just appeal to millennials [but] that’s not the case. That’s not what the cool millennials are wearing anymore.” He cites Supreme, one of the few brands that millennials are obsessed with, and says that it “actually [has] quite classic pieces.”

So is Tisci moving on from sportswear? He must have read the headlines that fashion’s obsession with tracksuits and sweatshirts has perhaps run its course? Of course not, he says. “It’s never going to be over — it’s over for people who took it as a fashion moment. For me, it’s not over.” Indeed, he is wearing an oversized sporty navy sweater. “I’m very lucky that I can do streetwear, and I can do couture. And I think that’s what Burberry deserves.” He’s keen for no one to be alienated and so is working to expand the product range, growing the accessories range to include lower-priced items. “I want kids to be able to buy an item, however small, and be able to be part of this journey. But then I also want to offer a couture-looking luxury dress. I don’t think it’s modern for brands to just do one thing.”

In that sense, he’s appreciative of the fact that he’s at a house like Burberry — a house that is bigger than fashion, more akin to Apple or Coca-Cola than some niche designer label. “At the end of the day, clothes are a human need, but the fashion business, it’s a game. But why do you have to exclude people to win?” he says. Fashion can be a bit backwards, he argues, stuck in its ways, or obsessed with trends and fads. Tisci is keen to look beyond the [fashion] cycles and the inner circle and excite a worldwide version with his vision of Burberry, and, in turn, his vision of Britain. “You know when you do clothes just for fashion people, and you know when you do clothes for the world,” he says.

Photographs by Danko Steiner and Yu Cong
Styled by Jojo Qian
Hair by Ming Hu Chang
Makeup by Xin Miao
Production by Vivien Chung
Subjects: Riccardo Tisci, Chun Jie Liu, Chu Wong and Jia Li Zhao