Altar Boy

4.28.2009

By Tim Blanks

'I look very tough, but at the same time I'm very delicate, very fragile,' Riccardo Tisci insists, clearly aware of the fact that his brooding, stubbled swarthiness is more suited to a leather bar than a poet's corner. But he's already proved himself a master of extremes -- at least in fashion terms. Tisci's first menswear collection for Givenchy ran the gamut from black leather shorts over black leather leggings to hot pink lace shirts over swirling tattoos. It sent stylists into ecstasies.

Since ecstasy has something of a religious association (all those overheated saints), it's a fitting state of mind for contemplating the world of Tisci. Religion and sex are the pivots on which his dark, romantic aesthetic turns. Sometimes he almost makes it sound like sex is his religion. As he says, 'Everyone has their own church.'

Such an outlook might be what drew Madonna to Tisci's designs. He dressed her for the Sticky & Sweet tour. 'Yes, her story is very similar to mine,' he says. 'It's a start from nothing. And when you have a tough life, you have to have a belief. I always pray, every night. It makes me feel close to my mother and sisters.'

Tisci was born in Como, Italy, outside Milan, in 1974, the first boy after eight sisters. You can imagine what that meant to his parents. Tragically, his father died four years later, leaving his mother, Elmerinda, with nine children and no money. It was a challenge she met in a way that still overwhelms her only son with emotion. And he thinks growing up without a man around might have shaped the way he approached the task of designing menswear for Givenchy.

'Hedi Slimane changed the fashion business for men with his skinny boys,' says Tisci. 'But I want to show the contrary -- a man who's a real man, a man who is so confident that he can play with a lace shirt in pink.' To underscore his point, Tisci used big boys in his show. 'I didn't want to be provocative -- I just wanted to express myself. But people were shocked by the muscle -- the meat -- because in every other show the boys were very thin and feminine.'

The inspiration actually came to him in the most macho of settings. Tisci was on holiday in Cuba with a close friend, the model Mariacarla Boscono, when they came across a kid playing football in the street in a lace shirt, slippers, and a woman's sweater. 'He was probably too poor for clothes, but there was something supersensuous, supermodern about the notion that he had no taboo about what is man, what is woman. It was a freedom to decide what you want your sexuality to be.'

'There's not much I need in life to be happy,' he continues. 'It's a very Latino attitude. The Euro attitude is you have to be rich to be chic. But in Latin America the fact that they live with the important things -- like love, sex, dancing -- gives them a superelegance and the confidence to wear clothes with great individuality. You find it too in Morocco, Algeria, India. That's where the pink came from. I was using it in the couture, and it gave me such electricity.'

Tisci left home at 17 for London, where he attended Central Saint Martins, the world's number 1 incubator of young fashion talent, graduating in 1999. 'I was very soft meat when I arrived at Saint Martins,' Tisci remembers. 'Italian boys stay with their mothers until they get married at 30. But I left at 17. And London made me tough.'

Hired as a creative director at Givenchy in 2005, he is in charge of women's wear, haute couture, and now a men's collection for a house that -- even though Tisci's predecessors were John Galliano and Alexander McQueen -- will forever be linked with the style of its most famous customer, Audrey Hepburn. And that sure ain't what Tisci does.

Extreme shyness and extreme self-confidence, in Tisci's case, seem to make an attractive combination. When he guest-edited A Magazine, the Antwerp, Belgium' based fashion biannual, his coterie of contributors included Courtney Love, Christina Ricci, Antony Hegarty, and disco legend Amanda Lear, among other, more likely candidates. As much as his creations, such an extraordinary circle of friends is a living monument to Tisci's mastery of extremes. 'Black and white. I'm a Leo,' he agrees. 'But I also really believe love can do much with life.' And that's a religion worth respecting.

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