A designer’s influence extends beyond the clothes he or she sends down the runway—the casting of a collection can serve as a platform for ideas about beauty and make waves within the modeling industry. Few understand this as well as Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci, whose model selections each season reflect both his personal aesthetic and a modern approach to the idea of a runway lineup. Deeply involved in the casting process, Tisci fills his catwalk with faces who have more to offer than attractiveness alone.
During his tenure at Givenchy, Tisci has launched the careers of household names like Joan Smalls, Lara Stone, and Natasha Poly—all of whom skyrocketed to fame after becoming members of Tisci’s girl gang. The women he places under exclusive runway contracts frequently find themselves attaining It girl status, but modeling’s revolving door of high-profile favorites holds little appeal to the designer who views models not as clothes hangers, but as sources of inspiration. In keeping with Hubert de Givenchy’s own tendency to use models as muses, Tisci values his women for their strength, personality, and invaluable input.
As a designer, what do you feel the role of a model is?
For some designers, a model is just about someone wearing clothes and a beautiful presentation. For me, models are so much more. Since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed. I come from Italy, and Italy [was] where it really started, the top-model story. When I was a kid, Gianni Versace created the moment of the top models with Helena Christensen, Linda [Evangelista]…so it was a little bit in my blood.
For me, models mean a lot because they’re not just presenting my collection; they’re really giving it life. I’m deeply bound to that idea. I’ve always been doing casting and I’m constantly looking for new girls. It is not that I want to find a girl, then have her become the girl of the season and drop her. I’m building relationships for years and years. I have my family and gang, which we carry on season after season.
Since you approach things from the perspective of building long-term relationships, what do you look for when you first meet these girls?
For me, a really good model has got a personality. It’s about beauty, of course—like a classic kind of beauty—but that isn’t the only factor. A girl can have an unusual personality or a strange beauty. And for me, you see it, you feel it in the moment you meet the girl, that she could be the girl. You know, at the end of the day, a show is not just made out of the clothes, it’s made out of emotion.
Which girls have really impressed you with their personality over the years?
I remember discovering Lara Stone. She was an exclusive, and she came here by accident to see me because of her friend. I fell in love with this girl—and she was very different compared with the girls at that moment. She has a beautiful form, but she was not the classic skinny girl. [I] fell in love with that. Her story is beautiful to me because I think it shows why it is so important to meet each girl in person—without that personal interaction, you can’t get a sense of who the girl really is. I’m open to moving beyond the castings where it’s just about using the girls of the moment. I use some of them, but I like to see beyond the surface, to see the character of the girls and support those who aren’t necessarily the trend of the moment.
Lakshmi [Menon], when I discovered her, for so many seasons she was a [house model]. Then I began using her, and I still love working with her; sometimes I even flew her from India to Paris, because for me it was so important that she was in my casting, because she belongs to my aesthetic, my beauty, and I love that.
Natasha Poly. I was the first one to organize papers to make Natasha come to Italy. This was before designing for Givenchy. The first job I gave her was a campaign for a label where I was working, and since then she’s done all my shows. The same [with] Joan Smalls. I remember the first time they sent me the picture of this beautiful black girl, and I was like, “Wow, can we fly her in and see her?” She came, and I remember she was very shy. She did three days of a couture fitting with me, and then I put her in exclusivity, and she was doing my prêt-à-porter as her first show, and then look at what she has become today. And many other ones, like Saskia [de Brauw]. Now at the moment I’ve got a few newer models whom I’m obsessed [with], like Greta [Varlese] and Stella Lucia.
Someone you really seem to have built a special relationship with is Mariacarla Boscono, who I believe has walked in nearly all of your shows—at this point she seems like an integral part of Givenchy’s aesthetic.
My relationship with Mariacarla is different, because actually she’s my muse. I met Mariacarla when she was not famous. She was very young, [living] in London. She was the first person that really believed in me. We were friends, we were young, we were naive, so we were just enjoying studying, and we were enjoying London as club kids. We were partying; life was so light and different. But I could see a potential in her, and she could see my potential.
It was during the moment [when] all the top models were very tall with athletic bodies. And Mariacarla, she’s quite different. As she’s gotten older, she’s become more and more beautiful, but when she was very young, she had a very specific look, very particular. I was there when Mariacarla was discovered by Rei Kawakubo from Comme des Garçons and Steven Meisel. We’ve worked together since I was in school. She did my graduation invitation, and she did all my lookbooks I made at home—because I was making lookbooks at home, you know, because I didn’t have money. Since then, we never split up as a friendship, of course, but as well as a muse and artist.
Some people probably find the idea of a muse outdated, but I think it’s so beautiful, because being a man designing for a woman, I think it’s so great to get an opinion from a real woman. [Designing] for men, for me, is easy, because I’m wearing the clothes and I understand what men need. But for a woman, it’s only my dream, and it’s beautiful to make a dream become reality. And with Mariacarla, I think it is like a real artist. But you know, it’s not only me. Looking at the past: Gianni Versace with Naomi Campbell, Alexander McQueen with Kate Moss, Audrey Hepburn with Monsieur Hubert de Givenchy, Monsieur Saint Laurent with Betty Catroux—everybody had their muse, and I think a designer needs a woman who really inspires him, someone who really has a style and gives him an opinion about it.
Lea T is another model who seems to serve as an iconic presence on the Givenchy runways.
Lea is a friend and she’s been a friend of mine for many years; she used to work here with me as a personal assistant. The moment she told me that she wanted to do this transition from man to woman, I supported her. She has a very specific beauty; it’s so delicate and so feminine and so intense—I could see it when she was Leo and I see it now. When we began this journey together, I knew we would be in it till the end.
There were people who were against a big couture house using a transgender woman in a campaign. We didn’t care what people said, and in the end she wound up doing so many shows for us. [She was there] the first time I translated my couture to a new format; I was going from fashion show to a portrait in the Place Vendôme. So many people were talking about that because I didn’t want to do the catwalk, but so much work goes into a couture collection that I wanted people to be able to see the details.
I sat down and I knew I wanted to do a portrait with 10 women—my 10 women. The picture was Ming [Xi], Mariacarla, Joan Smalls, Iris [Strubegger], Daphne [Groeneveld]—all my beautiful exclusives all together in one picture, and Lea was there. I got emotional when I saw it. All these beautiful girls, and in that image she was on the same level or even lovelier than these other girls—so intensely beautiful. That was the moment when people backed me about using Lea. Then in six months, with the help of the wonderful Oprah Winfrey, it was being discussed in a positive way. Today she’s a full-time model with campaigns and contracts. A beautiful girl with a beautiful message for the world: Beauty is beauty, nothing else matters.
You always have an incredible cast of men each season, as well—is finding male models any different than working with the girls?
Yeah. Paolo [Roldan], Simon [Nessman], Alessio [Pozzi], Filip [Hrivnak]—I’ve got so many. Rob! You know, the big Rob [Evans], he did my first [menswear] show. I remember, he was boxing in London, and we discovered him, we made up the papers for him to come and see us. Then when he got here, he was too big for the collection! I was so obsessed with him that we had him walk the runway topless, because there were no clothes for him. I was like, “I need to have him in this show,” because his beauty was so strong. When he came inside the room, it was like the potential was incredible, and look what he’s become today—everyone loves him. No men are the same. Actually, [casting] men would be more difficult, to be honest.
Really? How so?
Yes, because I started menswear after the womenswear started to become powerful. In the beginning, I didn’t want to do menswear. I didn’t want to really do [menswear], and then the house asked me to become a designer for men. I said, “OK, fine, I’m going to take this risk, but I’ve never done it.” I was a little bit scared of doing [a] men’s collection. I do wear a lot of street clothes; I don’t wear really design clothes, so for me it was a new world. So I started to go [on the] Internet to check what other people were doing. I was seeing all these beautiful boys, of course—you know, they’re all beautiful, but I was seeing all these boys that were all very not me, I would say. Skinny, white, pale skin—I love that, absolutely, but that, for me, was an aesthetic that belonged to other designers.
My first three shows mostly they were street boys, because I did a big casting in Rio de Janeiro, in Milan, in Paris, one in New York, for the first season. All the boys who would come to the casting were beautiful, gorgeous boys, but belonged to another aesthetic. They were very skinny, very tall and pale, and my man was not that. So after all this casting, I looked [at] my casting editor at the time and I said, “Listen, I need to go to the street. I need to find boys and teach them to walk.” It was very intense the first season, because we’d done so many castings, and then basically 90 percent of the show was street boys. At the beginning it was [a] shock for fashion because, you know, I’m very good friends with Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane, and both of them, they had their own aesthetic, and everyone was going in that direction.
Givenchy’s casts are always incredibly diverse—is that a deliberate move or something that simply happens organically?
I think we’re all the same, and beauty is something that doesn’t have culture, religion, or color. I opened my second couture show with nine black girls; some of them I’d discovered, some of them were established like Naomi [Campbell] or Liya Kebede. I did it in a very naive way and, in retrospect, a very honest way. I remember all the magazines talking about the casting, and that surprised me. People make such a big deal about using black girls in your casts, but it shouldn’t be a big deal—it should be normal. Your cast should have everything that is related to your world and your aesthetic. It doesn’t matter what their race is, what their gender or sexuality is, you should represent beauty—beauty is beauty.
—Janelle Okwodu, Style.com