During an exclusive interview in Paris at the end of January, we spoke with Givenchy's artistic director about his highly anticipated collaboration with Nike, as well as his passion for sports, Air Force 1s and much more.
Italian designer Riccardo Tisci was the initiator of a “couture clash,” which has transported the Givenchy house - for which he’s the artistic director - onto the black asphalt, revealing dark yet precise silhouettes in each new collection. Tisci has wrestled his way into the world of luxury fashion with an iron hand in a velvet glove and has established himself as one of the most prominent designers in the industry by building modern bridges between the worlds of couture and streetwear. The streets recently reached back out to him, by way of Nike, who offered to let him design a full line of Air Force 1s. This highly anticipated collaboration, as well as his passion for sport and AF1s, amongst many other things, were the topics we got to discuss with the designer in an exclusive interview he gave to Highsnobiety in Paris at the end of January for our latest print issue.
“Bonjour” Riccardo Tisci, what’s your history with sneakers, and more specifically Nike shoes?
When I wear sneakers, I only wear Nikes, as an Italian who has always dreamt of America and a lover of basketball. I played basketball for seven years, but I injured my left leg and I had to stop. That's one of the reasons why I started fashion. I'm going to be 40 in seven months now and my childhood took place during a moment when there was a big explosion of sportswear in the streets. I remember the Neneh Cherry song, “Manchild,” and its video directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino... That was the beginning of hip-hop and they all were Nike-addicted. That was my first step into fashion, so Nike represents a lot to me. It represents sport and comfort, as well as my teenage years and my childhood. It's very important.
Your last show for Givenchy was super sports-oriented, with models walking on a basketball court, behind a wire netting - a clear message that you’re in love with sports culture.
I love sport. First, because I think sport is always related to my teenage years. I come from the streets, in the sense that I don’t come from a rich family, and when you are in the streets - in any country in the world - you will find basketball courts and football fields, in any city. Sport means freedom, you don't need to have money to play sports, and sport to me is the moment when - no matter if you are rich or poor - you play the same game.
You can meet people from all walks of life on the field...
"Bravissimo,” you can meet on the field and it doesn't matter if you are rich or poor, black or white, everybody is on the same level. That means a lot for me. Sport has always been attached to my childhood. For many years I stopped doing sport, because when I signed a contract with Givenchy, my life changed, and I started to focus only on my career and didn't take my needs into consideration… So, five years ago, I decided to go back to sport and started a big diet. As soon as I got back into it, I understood that sport gives you the means to think, live and love life in a completely different way. I fell right back in love with sport again. And because I try to be a very honest person, and an honest designer, I never forget where I came from, and I never forget what people need - hence me being the first one to bring sportswear to haute couture. In the beginning, it was a big clash, a big shock to the fashion world, because nobody dared to bring haute couture to the streets. My style is very recognizable; I can bring haute couture and luxury to the streets and vice versa. People are sometimes afraid; they build these barriers for themselves. Me being from the streets, I don't have barriers like that. The sporty vibe to my designs has always come naturally.
Was it a long process for you, when arriving at Givenchy, to get the team surrounding you to understand this culture?
No, because I'm young, so I design almost everything myself, and it was very easy because my team is also young. However, it was much more difficult for people on the outside to accept this new orientation. Once they got it, it became a big trend. It being a part of my DNA, and as an honest designer, it makes it very easy for me to bring that vibe. I brought couture to the streets, like I’m bringing couture to Nike.
Did Nike give you “carte blanche” for this collaboration?
Completely! Nike contacted me, and before I even signed a contract I went with the entire Nike team, including people from Europe and everywhere in the world, on an incredible trip - a trip I could only qualify as a Nike trip. And it was amazing, because the first time you arrive in this amazing green paradise (editor's note: Nike's HQ in Beaverton) everything is so precise; there’s a certain rigidity to everything… But, once you actually step inside, it's like a big surprise because everybody's young, everybody's so sweet, everybody's very open-minded, and everybody's quite soft, and that's the complete opposite of the first impression you get when you arrive.
It was an amazing trip, because when you get there, you understand how much it's not about financial power. Financial power doesn't mean a lot, I’ve worked with other people in my life who have financial power and don't have what I found there... It's the power of creativity, the power of experimentation, the power of technology, and the power of intelligence. For me it was a very strong emotion and experience. I spent three days there, and after 24 hours I felt like I was a longtime friend with everybody. It was crazy; there was a really family-like feeling to it, which is a beautiful thing to have in a big multinational company like that.
I left Nike feeling like I’d been given a big gift, as much to my heart, to my culture as to getting a better understanding on how to achieve things. When I arrived in Paris I understood that I couldn't provide anything in terms of technology or experimentation, because they were already so advanced. The only things I could bring into the collab were my emotion, my creativity, in the sense of my recognizable Riccardo Tisci style, and, from that, start to make the Nike lovers and Riccardo Tisci lovers become one.
Was it a kind of challenge for you?
First and foremost, it was an honor. A challenge? Not so much, because I believe I'm always thinking, planning ahead… It's not that I'm naive but I tend to believe that people are honest, and in this case they are, so you are there to deliver something they’re expecting as they’re already familiar with your work. What I'm doing is not simple, I'm very experimental - I'm touching subjects that not many designers touch. With me it's not only Riccardo Tisci's clothing: you buy Riccardo Tisci's journey, Riccardo Tisci's lifestyle, a gang of people, a project, emotions… When Nike came to me, I was very honored that such a massive company didn’t solely focus on making money but aimed at providing human beings with fulfillment, in terms of sport and projects. So, to me, that was the most amazing. And also because, you know, Nike is Nike. To be mentioned next [to] a name like that… I mean that’s a key to open any door.
Was it the ultimate collaboration for Riccardo Tisci?
Every six months I have somebody asking me for a collaboration and I always turn them down, because I'm so busy building my career and my style. I'm sure that I'm going to do other projects, but I'm also sure that I won't do other projects at the same level as the Nike one in terms of sportswear. I think you have to do your best and I gave my best, with the best in the business.
What was the creative process that led to this Air Force 1 line?
When I went back to Paris it was Christmas, and in January I sat down and I did it 100% myself. With Nike I wanted the project to be the essence of Riccardo Tisci, because it's going to go down in history. By then I didn't know if it was going to be good or bad but I knew that it was going to go down in history, simply based on the fact that I was working with Nike. So I took it six or seven different ways. In one of them I completely deformed the shape, for one other it was only details, on another I tried to move things around, and then this came out. The night before the presentation, I was very stressed. I was looking at all of the designs I’d come up with and I called my collaborator Luciada, who has worked for me for the past 14 years - she is my righthand woman. We were looking at these variants and I picked one, and took it in my hand, and without talking to anybody I knew it was the best. The day after, we presented it to Nike; it was a very stressful moment for me...
More stressful than the first presentation of one of your new Givenchy collections?
Absolutely. One thousand times more. Because you want to give your best and you're touching something which is really iconic, something that’s already proved it worked, something that people love, you have to do better than that. So basically, I put all the designs on the table, in front of maybe 10 people. Each of these people had a name, each one had a story, each one was related to something or to a social situation… All of them looked at one proposal and said “this is the best.” That was the one that was already the best in my head. It was important to me to respect the roots of Nike, to not completely destroy the shoes, make them become me, so I changed the perforations on the toe box, I changed the texture… When you’ see it, consider that it's a brother, a younger brother to the classic Nike Air Force 1, as you know it.
Nike is a celebration of life, you wear them because you’re celebrating something.
With a first set of shoes in a predominantly white colorway, may we think that after many years of darkness in Riccardo Tisci's collections comes a kind of light at the end of a tunnel?
Kids these days become so trendy they wear Nikes in the clubs, in the raves… Nike is a celebration of life, you wear them because you’re celebrating something. And from the darkness came the light… of Nike. [Smiles]
Nowadays more girls wear sneakers, including, of course, AF1s. Did you think about the ladies when working on this project?
Yes, because I wanted to do a very unisex shoe. I kept the low and the mid models, which are the Nike classics and then I decided to do a three-quarter and a boot. The three-quarter and the boot are more unisex - they are all unisex actually - but the second ones were designed bearing boys and girls, warriors, in mind. Warriors of society. We’ve become warriors these days, and I think the hi-boot is for real gladiators, girls and boys.
How did the Nike team react when they discovered the hi-boot?
They loved it. And they were shocked, of course, because nobody in sportswear, I think in history, has ever done a boot like that. They were shocked and asked "why?” It was because I wanted to bring sport to couture and couture to sport. When we sat down to sign the contract I said: "I don't want to do a niche project, I want the project to be available to everybody, price wise."
With the first teaser of this collection we saw some references to tribes. It seems to me that nowadays it's quite difficult to define tribes, because of the mix of styles and genres. Can we still talk about “tribes” in the very first sense of the word?
Completely. With all the medias like Instagram or Facebook it seems like everything is mixed, but look: you have the rockers, the rap tribes, the hipster tribes, the Mods, electro tribes… Don't forget that Nike and the AF1 is really a New Yorker thing, and New York to me represents the mirror of the world, with so many different tribes, so many different clubs, so many different kinds of music, so many different celebrations of life.
Regarding rap music, how did one of the most iconic artist of this scene, a friend of yours named Kanye West react, when he discovered your creations for Nike? Was he one of the first to discover your Air Force 1s?
I didn't show it to anybody. It was a very secret project. I'm a lion. A lion always walks in silence, and then he bites! [Laughs] I didn't show it to anybody until the announcement was made on Instagram.
If you work with honest people, success is always guaranteed.
What did you learn from this collaboration with Nike?
First off, that you never know what is going to be around the corner for you. And that if you work with honest people, success is always guaranteed. Apart from that I learned a lot visually when I went to the Nike HQ, with all these amazing things they’re working on, and to be honest I didn't know how far Nike had gotten as a company and its aim to help human beings to live better.
As an insider of the fashion industry, you didn't know what heights Nike had reached?
No, because you wear Nike as you would wear Chanel N°5 perfume, it is so well-anchored in everyday life that sometimes it becomes a routine for everybody. You know, I was very shocked when one day, as I was coming back from a meeting for Givenchy, from New York to Paris, I sat at the airport and looked around me, I saw how many people were wearing Nike. It was quite shocking. Sometimes you find a product with a cross-culture, sexuality, skin color, tribe appeal. You can go to Alaska or to Africa and you’ll find Nikes. But, still as powerful a company as they are, I found that they were very sensitive, and very… Humble, very open-minded, and I think this is amazing. Sometimes when you work with business people, they are close-minded. Nike is quite the opposite. That's why they are so close to the young generations, in the best ways possible. This project really opened my mind.
How do you like seeing your creations on people? In everyday life, for example.
I like it in every way possible, I'm always surprised. Surprised by the way people reinterpret it. But I will never like to see a man or a woman wearing Givenchy on Givenchy on Givenchy, or full Nike either.
Which of your Air Force 1s will become the peoples’ favorite?
The three-quarter. Because it's not over the top like the boot, the "Gladiators" as I like to call them, and it's not as classic as the other two styles that have been around for many years. You can wear the "Gladiators," of course, but you can't wear them everyday, you need to have an outfit to go with them. I think the three-quarter is easier to wear, you can wear them with a pair of jeans - a skirt if you're a girl. I'm sure that it's going to be the most popular of the collections.
What's very specific to the Air Force 1 I believe, is that when I’m out on a "mission," during day or night, and I know anything can happen, I feel good and strong with them on my feet…
Yes, me too. You can check my fashion shows for Givenchy, in total there’s let's say, 100 shows. Seventy or 80 percent of the time, I came out at the end of the show rocking a pair of white-on-white Air Force 1s. That moment is very strong, you are the gladiator, because you go out there, in the arena - and I'm very shy - and you either get applause, or criticism; you have one thousand people giving you a strong energy. It's a very powerful moment. I have changed jeans, T-shirts and shirts for this moment, but my shoes have always been the white Nikes.
Is it true that you have hundreds of white AF1s?
Including the ones I’ve thrown away, in my entire life, I think that number exceeds three or four hundred pairs of Air Force 1s. I'm collecting trainers, mostly Nikes.
How many pairs do you have in your collection?
Like a thousand?
Yeah, I've been collecting them since I was very, very young. I would say 80 to 90 percent are Nike, and I have a little bit of Vans, and PUMAs because I did a collaboration with PUMA in the past.
How do you live with your Air Force 1s, silhouette wise?
My look is not too over the top, I mean I'm not like Salvador Dalí in the way I dress. [Laughs] My look is very laid-back. When I want to be elegant I'll wear a cashmere coat, a hoodie, a black shirt, black trousers, and Nikes. When I want to be more casual, I'll pop on a checkered shirt or black T-shirt. In every bag I travel with, there is a pair of white Air Force 1s. They are my everyday sneakers.
Can we look forward to a collaborative collection of apparel?
Not even the sweater we saw you wearing in the teaser?
It’s probably going to be produced, there are a lot of things to come out, I'm sure. For the moment we are focusing on launching the capsule shoes. It was a first, so we took things slowly…
So it might be a long-term collaboration with Nike, then, with more things to come?
Was collaborating with Nike a bit of a game?
It was a love affair. If you check my background, I always talk about darkness, about sex, about transsexuals... But with Nike, it's a completely new image. It was an amazing fusion.
Interview by PH Camy for Highsnobiety Magazine