Why Julia Roberts is Riccardo Tisci’s new face of Givenchy
Signing up the glossy Pretty Woman star is an unlikely move for a designer who reinvented Givenchy with diverse models and an infusion of cool. In an exclusive interview, Tisci talks about his street-style roots, heading a fashion family that includes Kanye West – and his secret love of 90s movies.
Here’s a fashion fact for you: Riccardo Tisci’s favourite scene in Pretty Woman is, like most people’s, the triumphant “big mistake, huge” moment in the Rodeo Drive shop, when Roberts’s character, prostitute Vivian, post-ladylike makeover, gets her revenge on sales assistants who had previously been snooty towards her. A fairly useless nugget of fashion trivia, maybe, but one that takes on a bit more significance now that the Givenchy designer has cast the 1990 film’s star Julia Roberts in the house’s autumn advertising campaign.
To those initiated in the Givenchy world, this will be a surprising development, to say the least. Since he was appointed creative director in 2005, Tisci has promoted a particular tribe of women to represent the storied Parisian house. “I like to work with people with whom I have honest friendships, who I respect,” he says. “They are a gang and part of my family.” Paid-up members include performance artist Marina Abramović, Italian model Mariacarla Boscono, who posed with her four-month-old daughter in 2012, Puerto Rican model Joan Smalls, when she was relatively unknown, singer Erykah Badu and transgender model Lea T. On the catwalk, Tisci regularly streetcasts his menswear shows, with tough, muscular men preferred over standard-issue skinny indie boys. The Givenchy family is diverse, edgy and cool.
No disrespect to Roberts, but all this makes the choice of a universally loved star, veteran of romantic comedies and owner of a heart-melting grin a bit of curveball. More a beauty brand fixture, she’s been in campaigns for Lancôme and L’Oréal, and is hardly the usual Givenchy girl. But that is exactly why Tisci chose her – well, that, and his spell of repeat-watching Pretty Woman as a teenager in the 90s.
To be fair, Roberts has been given a Givenchy makeover. Pictured in boyish tailoring, stripped of the standard Hollywood makeup and with artfully messy hair, she’s almost unrecognisable. “I liked that she is one of the biggest stars in the world but you don’t see her in fashion imagery,” he says on the phone from the Givenchy Paris studio. “I was very surprised she accepted.” When brokering the deal, Tisci garnered opinion from those that matter to him – his creative team, but also, crucially, his eight sisters, “and they all love her”.
Tisci is connected way beyond fashion – it’s a six degrees of separation kind of affair. He is tight with Kanye West and designed both West’s and Kim Kardashian’s clothes for their wedding. Pop culture’s royal couple repaid the favour – along with daughter North – by sitting front-row centre at the Paris Givenchy show in September. Kardashian’s sister, Kendall Jenner, was one of the models. That followed Tisci’s two-day-long 40th birthday party in Ibiza, attended by the Kardashian-Wests, Kate Moss, Justin Bieber, Beth Ditto, Jefferson Hack, assorted school friends and, of course, those eight sisters. “I invited all the people that have kept me company for 40 years,” he says. “I love to create families in my work and my life.”
Tisci’s thing with family, you sense, comes from a real place, a hard-knocks upbringing in northern Italy, as the one boy (a keen basketball player) in an entirely female household. His father died when Tisci was four. “I was surrounded by love when I was younger but we were poor,” he says with a marked Italian accent, despite living in Paris for nigh-on 10 years. “What kept me alive was family.” Famously, he took the Givenchy job to help them out financially.
This outlook has shaped his aesthetics. Tisci is admirable in the fashion industry for questioning the dominance of thin, white, blonde models. “I hate the fact that society keeps some people out because of sexuality and race,” he says. “We [fashion designers] don’t have a huge power but maybe we can make people think. To me, beauty is beauty.”
In keeping with this, Tisci’s designs have married streetwear shapes and couture-like finishings, an idea that chimes with the high-low way we dress now. The autumn collection was a exercise in this balance. With leopard-print bombers, those oversized wide-legged trousers worn by Roberts and pretty chiffon frocks with butterfly prints, it’s the logical conclusion of nearly 10 years of increasingly influential work. It’s thanks to Tisci’s collection for autumn/winter 2011 that you own a statement sweatshirt. The same year’s Rottweiler T-shirt is maybe one of the most imitated designs of the last five years. And the new fashion status of trainers can be traced back to his collections – they appeared in his first menswear runway collection in 2008 and Tisci collaborated with Nike on a range of Air Force Ones this year.
If some catwalk purists have harrumphed about this embrace of street-style staples over fantasy frocks, Tisci has had the last laugh. He has arguably done the most to move Givenchy on from its associations with mid-century elegance and founder Hubert’s work with Audrey Hepburn. This is despite the fact that he was a relatively unknown 29-year-old Central Saint Martins’ graduate when he got the appointment, following spells at the helm for John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Julien Macdonald.
Their Brit theatrics were all very well, but it took Tisci’s hybrid of clean, cool streetwear influences with a sense of romance to make Givenchy something relevant to a new generation (although admittedly aspirational for most, considering the often four-figure prices). “I am lucky to work at a luxury house and make evening dresses and crocodile bags but I never forget the urban, the ease,” he says. “I am a street soul. The street is in my blood.”
Tisci’s success seems to come down to a refreshing awareness of life outside of the fashion bubble. He has opinions beyond the length of your skirt next season – particularly with music. He designed the cover of Kanye West’s album with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne, and says he is currently “obsessed” with the new, as yet unreleased, Antony and the Johnsons album. In 2015, he is looking forward to more music from Madonna and Frank Ocean (“Everyone is waiting for Frank,” he says). It’s something you can’t quite imagine Karl Lagerfeld discussing. Tisci is all about confounding expectations and dodging stereotypes, and if that means choosing a Hollywood A-lister over a model plucked from obscurity, so be it. “I got goosebumps on the shoot,” he says. “Ten years ago, I couldn’t afford clothes. Now I’m working with Julia Roberts.”
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