As he releases his own Nike Air Max 97, the designer talks coming of age on London’s dancefloors, meeting Leigh Bowery and trying to blag his way into a McQueen show
Riccardo Tisci was just 17 when he left his native Italy for London, arriving in the capital at the start of the riotous decade that was to be the 1990s. The designer – who recently exited Givenchy after 12 years transforming the French house with his gothic, street, and sportswear sensibility – soon fell in with a crowd who took him under their wing, introducing him to the city’s dancefloors and the rebellious communities who spent all night on them. It was in the clubs that the young Tisci forged his style, thriving off the freedom the city afforded to express himself through clothing. He created outfits with clothes found in charity shops, mixing fur or 50s tuxedo shirts with sportswear – wearing everything with trainers.
It’s the unity of the worlds of sportswear and nightlife which forms the main inspiration for his latest shoe with Nike, an iteration of the iconic Air Max 97. Although he’s transformed the shoe with a new, higher design (and a pocket for storing your cash on a night out), his memories of the original go all the way back to Italy. “The Air Max was big, especially there,” he recalls. “In the 90s you went from maximalism to minimalism, from everything being super glam to Helmut Lang. If you didn’t have Air Max you were not cool! The sexy bad boy and the bad girl in the club, they would wear them – so my memory of these shoes is me saving money to buy them!”
Tonight in Rome, legendary host Tisci is putting on a giant party to celebrate the new design. We caught up with him to talk about how London’s nightlife informed his career, meeting the legendary Leigh Bowery and the formative experience of trying to get into an Alexander McQueen show.
What were your first experiences of clubs?
Riccardo Tisci: I come from a very working class, simple family. My mum didn’t have much money to pay for my studies, so I always worked, since I was 9, 10 years old. When I was 15 or 14, I was working for clubs – doing flyers, bringing people to the clubs. I was obsessed with music and the club scene and I still am, but at the time it was really a part of my lifestyle.
“I had the luck to meet Leigh Bowery before he died – I saw this gigantic, amazing, glamorous monster” – Riccardo Tisci
Did getting that kind of experience young help you in fashion?
Riccardo Tisci: Completely, completely! So, in the 90s in Italy, the club scene was full of fashion victims. You had to have that look, be part of that gang. Finally, and thank God, I left when I was 17 and went to England. It was a moment of like, Leigh Bowery, Minty, Milk Bar. Of course, there was fashion, but it was about creating fashion. So you were not trying to be somebody else or part of a group, you were expressing yourself. You were seeing the most insane stuff! That really did inspire me, freedom was the most important thing. For many years of my career, people didn’t think that I was like an Italian designer. They said, you’re from Italy but you’re very British! That avant-garde part of me, I got that from the club scene, from studying and living in England for eight years. You get it in your blood. In Italy they teach you to be safe. My roots are Italian, but they were shaped in England and then in France.
What clubs did you go to? Who were you with?
Riccardo Tisci: I was crazy – party, work, party! I used to go to Trade, Disco Bambina, Heaven on a Wednesday night – I wasn’t missing one. When I was in Italy I was very shy, in England I completely opened up – I could really express myself, say ‘Fuck everybody! ‘I’ll do this’, or ‘I’ll wear that’. That’s the magic of London, it lets people express themselves and be themselves.
Any moments you thought, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy!’?
Riccardo Tisci: So many! I think I was 17 or 18. For the first six months I was just trying to survive, but at 18, I met a guy called Robert Louis Stevenson, who was friends with Antonio Berardi and David Kappo from Saint Martins. I was the young one – they took me into their gang and got me into any club in London. I remember one night I went to Trafalgar Square, to a night with Minty and Leigh Bowery, and Boy George was there. I was so young, I remember one point I was on the dance floor and I was just like, ‘Wow. This is a dream.’ I was a kid! I think I had a lot of ‘Wow’ moments in England. I had the luck to meet Leigh Bowery – I saw this gigantic, amazing, glamorous monster, I was dying! Or the first time I went to Trade, and all these big DJs were playing. It all came out in my inspiration and my way to work, my way to interpret life.
What was fashion like in the clubs back then?
Riccardo Tisci: Fashion – you were not talking, you were screaming. In the moment it was really cool because there were no trends. I remember we used to go to Camden Town and get vintage clothes, customise Levi’s, big bombers. It was freedom, fashion was freedom. It’s something which has started to come back again, there’s a lot of freedom today. People are really honest about what they like. For a moment it was like everybody was doing the same thing, I think the next step is for the club generation having fun making looks is coming back.
Were there outfits that today you’re like, ‘Oh my God, why did I wear that?!’?
Riccardo Tisci: Not really! Because I was making my own clothes. I didn’t always want to become a designer. I think my style was actually quite cool, but I’m probably too full of myself! When I was in Italy I was wearing a lot of leather trousers with leather boots to make it more Versace. And when I was in London, I discovered oversized. I was wearing leather pants, quite bondage but strong and, on the top, a gigantic bomber. Or a hoodie with a bomber on top. Like what’s happening in fashion today. It was the moment that Margiela was coming out, so I was mixing things up. But I’d buy clothes from Oxfam, I was cutting shirts into new styles, wearing very tight trousers and a big silhouette on top.
“I got kicked out, it was normal! That’s the beauty of youth. That dream to be part of something” – Riccardo Tisci
Did you ever crash parties?
Riccardo Tisci: Oh, so many times! I got kicked out, it was normal! That’s the beauty of youth. That dream to be part of something. I remember once I was waiting to get into an Alexander McQueen show – he was already big when I was at Saint Martins – and there was this one PR who would not let me in. You dreamed of getting into a show like that, so you were allowed to be part of it. I never got in, but I crossed paths again with that PR in my life, when I was in a different position. It’s OK, I forgive people! But I remember the emotion of my first Galliano show in Paris… today, everybody can be everywhere with Twitter and Instagram, but at the time fashion was a club. It was exclusive. It was fantastic! I don’t feel anger about that, the many times I didn’t get let in. But I was lucky as well, because I met people like Robert and David who took sympathy on me.
Why is it important to have fun with such a busy life?
Riccardo Tisci: In Italy we have this very old saying – so much you work, so much you have to have fun. I work so hard, and I give so much to work. And I love music, the energy of humans, letting go and just celebrating. It’s important. Friends in the same room, beautiful music, a freedom in the way you dress, and being happy just for the moment. I wish we could do more parties in open spaces where nobody is left out, but its hard when you can only fit so many people!
And finally, who are your favourite people to go and party with?
Riccardo Tisci: It’s super fun to go out and party with Mariacarla, with Mert and Marcus, with Edward Enninful, Jefferson Hack, Katy England – she’s the best – Alister Mackie as well, is another one! People that really know how to let themselves go and they don’t care what people think about it. They dance the way they want to dance, they dress the way they want to dress – really out there – to have a really good time together. That’s the most important thing. Basically, there are no stuck ups allowed!
Marking the 30th anniversary of the Air Max, the Riccardo Tisci x NikeLab Air Max 97 Mid is available on March 26 at NikeLab stores