Meet Riccardo Tisci, The Man Causing A Stir At Burberry
With an Italian at the helm, can such a quintessentially British brand stay close to its roots, asks Lisa Armstrong
It doesn’t get more British than Burberry.
Well it does. M&S, the NHS, the RSPB... However, Burberry is the luxury projection of Britishness. Under Christopher Bailey, who nursed it from minnow to whale during his 17-year reign there, it projected a comforting, soft-focus view of who we are (or like to think we are): pretty, upmarket Brit girls and boys (Sienna Miller, Keira Knightley, Lily James, Rachel Weisz, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Eddie Redmayne) endlessly emoting about the place in iterations of that trench.
All change. There’s now a 44-year-old Italian with expertise in designing leathers with S&M overtones in charge.
When Riccardo Tisci’s appointment was announced in March, there was some trepidation. He had transformed the fortunes of Givenchy, a much smaller house (fame isn’t always commensurate with turnover), by aggressively courting celebrities (he is friends with Beyoncé, Katy Perry, the Kardashians...) and turning it into a business powered by streetwear.
How would that sit with Burberry? How could an Italian get under the skin of a quintessentially British sensibility that began life in 1856 when Thomas Burberry, a former draper’s apprentice, opened a small shop in Basingstoke and finally, almost two decades later, invented a waterproof, breathable gaberdine?
Inevitably his first Burberry show was the most anticipated, most argued over of London Fashion Week. Tisci himself had been drip feeding teasers on social media for weeks. There was a new logo, emblazoned across Burberry’s LA and Cheongdam stores (and a giant teddy installed beneath Marble Arch), co-designed with Peter Saville, the British graphic designer responsible for inter alia, Joy Division’s and New Order’s album covers.
Out went the Burberry knight on a horse, in came a 1970s-eque curved rendition of the BB check, interwoven with TB initials. There would be a collaboration with arch punk Vivienne Westwood. There were pictures on Tisci’s Instagram of Nicki Minaj head to toe in the Burberry checks — a full throttle look that had got the Burberry tartan banned from pubs in the early Noughties, when it became associated with “chavs”). This was enough to give the Burberry classicist anxiety attacks.
Walking into the show in south London — a dark box reminiscent of the notorious nightclub The Box — wasn’t an auspicious opener. Nor was the 30-minute delay (caused by a technical hitch with those electric roof blinds), especially as we’d all been told to get there at least half an hour early (unheard of show protocol).
But once the show started, the black roof screens unfurled, the space flooded with natural light (as old Burberry shows always had been) and the classicists could relax.
Tisci went straight for them with a series of outfits from Margot Leadbetter’s unimpeachably well-behaved Seventies Good Life wardrobe; pleated silky skirts, pussy bow blouses, chic three-piece trouser suits and the trench, which appeared in numerous iterations. The most striking featured wide belts, worn externally or internally and based on the webbed cummerbunds that kept the original Burberry trenches close to the body.
There was plenty more: for city boys, for street boys, for those who like slinky black minimalist evening wear. Tisci plunged deep into Burberry’s archives and found that “here is a house that can be something for everyone, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. I want to capture everything that’s part of British DNA — from anarchy to conformity, punk to the Queen, rock to rap.”
When foreigners talk about Britishness, they tend to lose themselves in a thicket of fond but outdated clichés, but Tisci has a clearer grasp than most misty-eyed anglophiles.
He first came here at 17, worked as a merchandiser for Monsoon, the high street chain, and studied at St Martins. “I was so shy and scared of life when I first got to London,” he says. “I didn’t know I was going to be a designer. I didn’t know I’d be accepted at St Martins. In so many ways England helped me break out and gave me some punch. That’s why I’m obsessed with its style”.
It has been quite a trek for Tisci to his current perch — and the Claridge’s suite he occupied for several months until he found a permanent home.
His father died when he was four. For years, home life for Tisci and his eight sisters, was, to put it mildly, challenging. He was working part-time with his uncle as a plasterer at 11. His mother, Elmerinda, didn’t learn to read until her 20s. “But she is super bright”, he says.
He is too — bright enough to know that British millennials are more likely to be engaged by rap than by rock, and probably bright enough to handle the tricky task of stretching Burberry at both ends, pumping out relatively affordable cult T-shirts and trainers while making its top-priced lines more luxurious than hitherto.
His expertise with leather will, for now, be diverted from bondage-lite to Burberry’s under-performing bag line — and broadening the cultural reach of the trench. “The funny thing is I was never really into the trench, but once I studied it, I realised what a beautiful thing it is.”
Far from reducing Burberry to an upscale Nike, he says he wants to make it a bastion of tailoring “which it hasn’t really been so far. Yet Savile Row is the basis of all British fashion.”
He wants to bring back elegance too. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I love streetwear. I’m a boy of the streets. I was one of the first to bring it to a luxury house, but I think it’s gone too far.”
It will take a few seasons to judge whether he succeeds. But for me, the mark of the man’s character lies outside the show: the presence of his mother and sisters in the front row; that he wished Christopher Bailey happy birthday, and his closeness to Marco Gobbetti, Burberry’s highly regarded CEO who is expected to do great things. Stand by, there are two Italians in charge.
— The Daily Telegraph