The Underrated Peak of Riccardo Tisci
The Underrated Peak of Riccardo Tisci
- Words Skylar Bergl
- Date March 8, 2017
I remember exactly where I was when Kanye West and Jay Z released Watch The Throne.
It was 2011, before the days of Apple Music or Spotify, and it was my last week interning in New York before heading back to college. Twitter was still a bit like the wild west, but it felt like the entire timeline was talking about it, trading hot takes and praise. And for good reason: Watch The Throne had two of the biggest names in hip-hop history, but also an unmistakable, over-the-top production style and, simply put, bangers.
The ensuing tour was no different. Stadiums sold out, Kanye and Jay Z encored “N****s in Paris” up to 12 times a night, and it eventually became the highest grossing tour in history until Drake’s “Summer Sixteen” dethroned it, no pun intended.
To ignore Watch The Throne is to dismiss a culturally defining moment. Sure, Kanye and Jay Z planted their flags, but much of it also wouldn’t have been possible without the work of designer Riccardo Tisci. The creative director of Givenchy at the time conceived the gold-encrusted album artwork and provided a custom tour wardrobe that has since become as memorable and influential as the album itself.
Defined by lots of black, stars, tight leather pants and a certain leather kilt, the looks were bombastic and brash, made for celebrities of WTT-level stature. But menswear as a whole was in the midst of a transition. While the Americana look had started receiving more mainstream attention and #menswear was in full swing, luxury streetwear as we know it hadn’t yet found its footing. That quickly changed thanks to Tisci’s work with Givenchy and Watch The Throne.
To get to the root of Tisci’s menswear and understand his impact, it’s vital to consider the history of the house where he not only made his name, but also resurrected. Hubert de Givenchy founded Givenchy in 1952 centered on womenswear and outfitting celebrity starlets such as Lauren Bacall, Jackie Onassis and, most famously, Audrey Hepburn. More than 40 years later, in 1995, after Givenchy the man retired, he was succeeded by two fashion legends in John Galliano and then Alexander McQueen, both of whom made an impact in their short tenures, but ultimately departed the house citing creative difficulties.
With the retirement of its namesake and two rapid creative director replacements, Givenchy was reeling. Between 2001 and 2004, Welsh designer Julien MacDonald led the house and, amidst all of this, in 2003, British tailor Ozwald Boateng became Givenchy’s first menswear designer outside of Givenchy himself, who, in 1969, launched the Gentleman Givenchy men’s collection. Boateng’s middling critical reception eventually led him to leave the house just three years later.
Following MacDonald’s 2004 exit, Givenchy spent the next year in search of the right person to revive the historic label. In 2005, they found their man in the relatively unknown Tisci, who took over as artistic director for womenswear and debuted his first collection the following fall. After a bumpy start and three years directing Givenchy’s couture and ready-to-wear offerings, the brand, without a men’s creative director, offered Tisci the chance to restart the menswear collections. Tisci debuted the new-look Givenchy menswear line for Spring 2009, setting the runway show to a symphonic rendition of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” and a lineup full of black leather trim and sports-inspired silhouettes. Givenchy’s life depended on Tisci’s success. And successful he was.
His Watch The Throne contribution may be what started his ascent to becoming a household name, supplying custom pieces for the tour that is now memorialized for its high-octane live shows, early sightings of the Nike Air Yeezy 2 and, of course, Kanye’s leather kilt. Still, in a series of memorable collections, Tisci brought us shorts layered over tights and the famous Rottweiler print in Fall/Winter 2011, the turbo-neon "Birds of Paradise" Spring/Summer 2012 collection, the shark theme of Pre-Fall 2012, and the holy Madonna-inspired designs from Spring/Summer 2013. There was a point where, even if you didn’t like Tisci’s work, you had to respect the impact. I distinctly remember seeing the Rottweiler sweatshirt and truly coveting it, even though it sold out everywhere and I didn’t have $500 to my name, let alone in my bank account.
While Tisci’s reputation now precedes him after 12 years at the brand, feelings about his menswear work tends to be a one-way street, often concluding that he only has a few notes: reliance on black, animal imagery, over-sized graphics, basketball motifs, edgy piercings and gothic rave details. While that’s not wholly inaccurate, it shortchanges just how influential that look was, as well as his overall peak popularity.
Tisci’s designs ended up on big name celebrities and athletes everywhere and finally made Givenchy's menswear mean something. Between 2010 and early 2013, Tisci was on a ridiculous winning streak, singlehandedly reviving Givenchy’s reputation. Meanwhile, his personal profile had grown so much that he turned it into an ongoing collaboration with Nike that started in 2014 and centered on his love for the Air Force 1.
In recent years, as the edgier, black-and-white paneled street goth look that Givenchy and other contemporaries helped elevate has faded, Tisci’s profile has as well. However, his couture and ready-to-wear work remains recognized as that of an incredibly gifted designer, which is why his recent departure from the house he helmed for over 12 years is so intriguing. His combination of edge, attention-to-detail and the never-ending rumor mill all point to him taking the reins at Versace where he will be reunited with his close friend Donatella Versace, who, in a stroke of cross-promotional genius, modeled for Givenchy’s Fall 2015 campaign. Putting a truly gifted Italian designer at the head of one of Italy’s most cherished fashion houses? That opportunity doesn’t come along too often. Obviously, we still have yet to see how this version of designer revolving doors shakes out.
Either way, looking back years later, some of Tisci’s menswear work does feel dated, sometimes to the point that we probably won’t see the styles he pioneered making a comeback anytime soon. But considering his dominance and influence over that period, he’s somehow become, dare I say, underrated. This was a man at the literal summit of fashion who helped spur an entirely new menswear moment. And to think all it took was Kanye wearing a leather kilt.
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