Riccardo Tisci comes from an era of classic designers, but his sensibilities have always been leagues ahead of his peers. Growing up in a poor family in Southern Italy and starting his working life at 10 years old, his imagination went into overdrive. Tisci held the reigns as creative director of Givenchy for 12 years, which, in today's climate of designer rigamarole, feels like an epoch. But really, it kind of was. Bringing in goth aesthetics, leggings under shorts and an unforgettable Rottweiler print, Tisci's tenure at Givenchy set a precedent for the current era of luxury fashion houses producing sportswear as the norm.
Now, the Italian designer, whose celebrity clout includes being friends with (and occasionally designing for) Kanye and Kim Kardashian, is collaborating with NikeLab, furthering a partnership that began 8 years ago. Inspired by the NBA, and created for a fictitious basketball team, the Victorious Minotaurs, this collection includes Oxford shirts (a first for Nike), track pants, and a reimagined edition of the Nike Air Force 1.
Fresh from the morning after of the NikeLab x RT launch party in Paris, Tisci speaks to Highsnobiety about how growing up poor informed his creative vision, his unending love for basketball, feeling blessed and how sportswear became a gimmick in fashion.
In your own words, please explain the "Victorious Minotaurs" concept.
"I get very emotional about this, because I used to play basketball a lot until I had a motorbike accident and ruined my knee, but basketball means a lot to me for many reasons.
Basketball is like many other sports in that it is very democratic, it doesn't matter if you come from a white culture, black culture, a rich background or poor background. When you arrive on the court everybody is on the same platform. So it's your strengths, your beliefs and your intelligence that really come out, and you play with a team, which is fantastic.
I come from a poor family and playing basketball one of the best and fairest moments in my childhood, because suddenly it didn’t matter where I was from, we were all playing at the same level. So, basketball is in my blood and when I think of the basketball players in the ’80s and ’90s I think of them as heroes, as a mythology."
I read that the minotaur idea goes way back to your childhood too. What's their significance to you?
"I was obsessed with them when I was younger. I was the the only boy of eight sisters in a council flat, and I lost my father when I was very little. I had a fantastic relationship with my family but I had been thrown into work and business very young. At ten years old I was already working because I had to pay for school.
It was not bad or nasty work, you know, assisting workers with selling flowers, or I was trying to do things to help my mom. When you do that, you mature much faster because you're working with people that are older than you. So I developed this disconnection with people of my own age, because everybody at ten years old would go to play, go traveling, go to see Disney movies. And I was going to school and then going to work.
I was always dreaming, dreaming, dreaming. I developed the dreaming side of my brain very young and I always dreamt to have a brother, to have like a best friend. When I was a child I didn't like people my age because they were taking about stupid things. They were talking about video games, and I was already thinking of other things. I was already loving music for example.
I always had a dream, like a day dream, that I would have a brother who was a Minotaur. So for me the Minotaur was like a strong brother that I never had and that has always stayed in my life.
So at Nike when we talked about this I was thinking one of the most important things in basketball is you need to have your squad. You need to have your gang, your team, your tribe. So I thought why don't we make our own team? I think basketball players are heroes and they are these amazing men, with the brain and the body of an animal and a human."
As a team, the Victorious Minotaurs felt diverse and inclusive, was this important to you? As someone who found Basketball to be something of an equalizer?
"I think it's one of the characteristics of my work. I started many years ago, and back then I was not scared to start including people in my thing — I was not just enjoying my success for myself. I was trying to get people like...'minorities' is an ugly word and I don't like to use it, but you know, people that were not so lucky in life, intersectional people who were not accepted by society. I was trying to bring them inside my team and inside my life because I know what it's like to be an outsider.
I know what it's like: when you go to school, and when you come from south of Italy and you go to north of Italy. Kids especially can be cruel and if you're the poor one of the class, they will keep you out, or if your sexuality is different....everything, you know? It was so strong for me and when I became a little bit more like the boss in my job, I tried to bring people in.
I did a lot of things to support people that had problems in society — well, actually society had a problem with them. I fight for anti-racism, I fight for transgender people, I fight for women’s rights. I always say that this part of my vision is to bring inside the people who are are left out by society."
Do you still think of yourself as an outsider? You appear to be so popular and well-connected in your world.
"I'm blessed because I think God gave me this dream. Sometimes I have a friend, a director and they're like "oh, let's make a movie of your life" and one day I probably will do it because I'm so lucky in my life that I really believe somebody does help me from another planet. I’m so happy and I'm so blessed. So, I never forget where I came from and I need to go back there and I need to talk to these people.
This why like, last night [at the NikeRT launch] there was a lot of people interviewing me, and people say like, "oh my God, you're the first one to bring fashion to sportswear." But I didn't bring sportswear to fashion!
Sportswear has been in fashion since the eighties. When I arrived in my career everything was about luxury, glamor, money, this and that and I brought sportswear back. I did not invent hot water. It was the street. The reality, the real people. So I need to go back there. When I see things that are not right for society and for human rights, I need to scream because I know what it's like that you scream and nobody hears."
How did you feel about Nike, seeing it through an Italian lens in Taranto where you grew up?
"It’s the dream. It's the American dream. When you're Italian, and again from my social and financial background, a lot of people in their thirties, forties, fifties, they left Italy and they made success in America — Sophia Lauren etc.
So, to me the American dream was like big things in my life, the American flag, Nikes, Coca-Cola, McDonalds. They were like symbols of success that weren't from from Europe. So, Nike was like a bible. To me Nike was God.
When I was 15 I bought my first Nike Air Force Ones and I was wearing them only on Sunday or Saturday nights because I didn't want to ruin them.
It was an object that I really, really wanted, so when Nike called me it was like... I had a lot of people that would call me to do collaboration and I was like ‘no thank you, I don't need money.’ At that time I really just wanted to concentrate on what I'm doing, ‘I'm happy, but no thank you, no thank you.’ Then when Nike knocked at the door, I was like 'oh fuck, it's Nike'. It brings me back to my childhood and it's going to stay forever, it's iconic."
Why did you choose the Air Force 1 for this collection?
"Because I did Air Force One in my first collaboration with Nike, then the Dunk and then the Zoom Legend. Although not many people remember the Zoom Legend because it was a very small launch, but it was a big success. After we did that, all the fashion industry started doing these shoes like socks with a big sole. Everybody does these shoes that we had done a few years ago.
But I thought the Air Force 1 is me. The Air Force 1 talks to me. It talks to my work, to my clients, it talks to basketball. The Air Force 1 is one of the most iconic shoes for Nike, and to remake it and feel Nike but also fresh and modern is a challenge and I think we succeeded. Nike understand me in a certain way, they believe in me. I’m happy that we did it because it's screams dress shoes, it's screams many things — the NBA because of the color, but at the same times it screams the American flag.
Blue, red and white scream Nike, but it screams competition as well. It's one of the shoes I'm most pleased with. I think these and the Zoom Legend are my favourite."
There was a load of Air Force One releases this year, did you like any of them?
"Nike are very good at picking collaborations and designers to work with and I think everything they do is fantastic. I like the Virgil, I like the Comme, I like the Supreme.
I'm much more classic, I like crazy stuff, but at the end of the day you have to look iconic and classic forever. To me, sportswear became so fashionable and you see so much crazy stuff out there. When it become too gimmicky, too colorful, too crazy, it wasn't sportswear anymore. Sportswear can be cool, it can be modern, it can be fresh without going so crazy. There's a line. I'm convinced that everybody's trying to do sportswear, but to do good sportswear is not easy. It's like couture, everybody can do couture, but to do good couture is not easy.
Good sportswear must speak to real kids, and they don't go for everything — they go for the right thing, and I really believe in that."
What are you trying to achieve through designing clothes for people now, and what makes it fulfilling for you?
"Well, this is why I'm taking my break. I achieved a lot already. You know, when you run, run, run, run, you need two minutes to stop.
People say "oh, you took a sabbatical because you were totally overworking." No, no, no. I started working when I was ten. So it's 33 years. I never stopped for a second in my life and when you are a creative person it's rare that you look up and say 'oh my God I'm so proud'. You always want to change something because you know, things change, emotions change, you grow up.
So, what I really am so proud of is after 15 years of my career, I can be able to talk to a woman, she could be 70, very classic, elegant and chic, and also talk to young kids from Harlem and from the Bronx. That really for me is the biggest dream I could have. I'm still the same Ricky that I used to be 15 years ago. I didn't change, my life's changed and of course I'm glad, but I want to talk to the younger generation. I'm 43 and I'm trying to think how kids and young generations think.
You know, what do humans needs in their life? What I'm thinking at the moment is that I'm going to take care of myself and then reinvent myself."
You can shop the NikeLab X RT collection here.