GREATEST / Riccardo Tisci

The iconoclastic designer on discovering Burberry—and himself—while isolating with family in Italy.

WRITER: Maya Singer PHOTOGRAPHER: EWEN SPENCER (LGA Management) STYLING: James Campbell (Burberry) HAIR: Soichi Inagaki (Art Partner) MAKEUP: Anne Sophie Costa (Streeters) GROOMING: Michael Harding (Streeters) SET DESIGNER: Louis Gibson MODELS: Tyler André Forbes (Milk), Nyasha Matonhodze (Titanium), Khalil Ghani (Next), Gia Bab (Blanche The Agency), Miles Gardner and Matteo Ferri (Premier), Chris Alli (Supa) EXTRAS CASTING: Mollie Dendle (Mini Title) PRODUCTION: Kofi Paintsil LOCATION: Savile Club
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Riccardo Tisci was just settling into his new job as the Chief Creative Officer of Burberry when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Major lifestyle changes ensued. For one, the globetrotting 46-year-old found himself sheltering-in-place in Italy, living at home in Lake Como with his mother. He also quit smoking; a 30-year habit that Tisci seems to have renounced without much struggle.

“You have to remember, the virus was very aggressive in Italy, it was the first place in Europe to see all this sickness,” Tisci recalls, speaking over Zoom. “And knowing that my family, and myself as a chainsmoker, were in the middle of this, I thought, ‘Okay if I have to die, I want to die in serenity, not attached to a machine. I want to breathe.’”

A year later, cigarette-free, Tisci debuted a Burberry collection all about fresh air. Long celebrated for his streetwear—a mode he helped bring into the high-fashion mainstream over the course of his 12-year tenure at Givenchy—Tisci had the inspired idea to get his cool-kid style tribe out of the city and into nature. “It’s a very British thing, to go out stomping around the countryside, and, of course, Burberry is the ultimate British brand,” he explains. “Plus, because of lockdowns, this idea of nature became a very big fantasy. We all want our own little garden now.”

With Fall 2021, Riccardo Tisci has planted the seeds for his Burberry, a Burberry whose iconic Britishness comes infused with the edge, sensuality and glitz that the designer made his name on. “I found myself at Burberry with this collection,” he says. “It’s a new beginning.”

Here, the designer catches up with GREATEST about making Burberry’s Brit ethos his own, the Tisci fashion tribe and the unlikely crossroads of streetwear and couture.

TYLER: Black Acetate Navigator Sunglasses, Cotton Gabardine Trench Coat / KHALIL: Mohair Wool Tailored Trousers, Logo Boxer Shorts, Black High-Top Sneakers, Leather TB Bag, Black Leather Backpack / MATTEO: Linen Bib-Front Trousers Leather Olympia Bag / MILES: Mohair Wool Trousers, Black Leather Olympia Bag / CHRIS: Nylon Backpack, Cotton Gabardine Trench Coat / All by Burberry   

You’d barely begun working at Burberry when the pandemic hit. I imagine you were still in the process of asking yourself, “What is Burberry?” when, suddenly, the questions got so much bigger. People were starting to rethink the whole point of fashion, not to mention the way the industry operates… 

It was quite a challenge, figuring out my identity at Burberry. I’d been called on to refresh a brand with an amazing heritage but that needed to speak to the way people dress now. There was this balance that needed to be found, between the history of Burberry and its future. But at the same time, there’s also the enormity of Burberry; it’s a huge company.

In my first year, I think we did something like 25 collections. It’s hard to see things clearly when you’re working at that pace. Then, boom, everything stopped. For me, that stop was a good thing. For the first time since I was a kid, I was living at home, I was with my family; it was very grounding. This also gave me the opportunity to work alone, which I hadn’t done in many, many years. It was wonderful to sit and draw, you know? To design. I still had a team, but it was smaller and we were all working remotely. There was space for new ideas.

TYLER: Cotton Gabardine V-Neck Trench Coat With Scarf Detail, Classic-Fit Tailored Trousers, Black Leather Boots With Crystals, Black Acetate Navigator Sunglasses / KHALIL: Fringed Cotton Gabardine Car Coat With Scarf Detail, Classic-Fit Tailored Trousers, Black Leather Boots With Crystals, Beige Acetate Navigator Sunglasses / All by Burberry   

It’s kind of ironic that you found yourself wrapping your head around this quintessentially British brand so far away from England… 

I was thinking a lot about how Britishness has changed since I was in London for school. I went to Central Saint Martins about 25 years ago and, at the time, it was all about the punk kids of the mid-’90s. Don’t get me wrong, I love that, but it had its moment, and today, if you walk around London, you see people from everywhere. All kinds of bodies, all kinds of style. And the approach to gender is very free—very “fluid” as this new generation says.

Whereas people have tended to associate Burberry with a very different kind of Britishness, very upright and traditional.

The funny thing is, all the big menswear inspirations of my life were British: People like David Bowie, who were so confident in their masculinity that they could play with it. So that’s a tradition, too, that tradition of English eccentricity. The uniform co-exists with this kind of wild individual expression.

MATTEO: Linen Bib-Front Trousers, Leather Olympia Bag / All by Burberry   

And maybe the trick to reinterpreting Burberry is to navigate between those two poles?

Exactly. My goal coming in was: The iconic stays iconic. I like to say, “The trench is our religion.” You will always be able to go to a Burberry store and find a trenchcoat. But now when you’re at the store, there’s more than outerwear. The kids come for the trainers, the fashion girl comes for the corset, the elegant lady comes for the classics like the car coat and cashmere scarf. There’s room for everyone.

That kind of come-one-come-all approach has been a hallmark of yours; your “tribe” has always included a rich variety. I believe you were the first major designer to put a trans model on your runway, Lea T, and if I think back to your early menswear collections at Givenchy, both the casting and the clothes stood in frank contrast to that “skinny white-boy” look that was still very much the “in” thing… 

I love Raf and I love Hedi—they both have a strong point-of-view—but when I started doing Givenchy menswear it was kind of overwhelming because everyone was copying them, and it was all about these pale, waif-y teenage boys. So people didn’t know what to think when I came in, putting these gym bodies on the runway. Guys of all races who were big, tall, muscular, and yet they’d be in these feminine silhouettes. I wasn’t the first designer to put a guy in a skirt, but to do it so strongly, a decade ago [...] it was shocking.

There was a similar confusion with streetwear. When I was appointed at Givenchy, fashion was very “fashion,” if you know what I mean. It was all about glamour, exclusivity. So people didn’t know what to make of my bringing streetwear to a luxury house. The fact that I was designing sneakers and backpacks and working with Nike, while designing couture at the same time didn’t make sense to them.

TYLER: Pink Cotton Hoodie, Cotton Gabardine Car Coat / All by Burberry   

But, obviously, it made sense to you…

The couture and streetwear, they’re both part of me. I grew up in Italy, in a culture that reveres craft, so to do couture, that’s the dream. But on the other hand, I come from the street, so my reality is sportswear. And in a way, it’s not so opposite from couture as most people assume because the clothes you wear for sport are all about feel and fit and the right fabric and the right volume.

Both of these forms, you just have to know it. It has to come from your experience, it’s not something you learn in the studio. It’s from your body. It’s sensual.

Now pretty much every luxury house is incorporating streetwear elements into their collections. 

And some people do it well and some people are just following the trend. You can tell when it’s inauthentic. I can tell. But, listen, I didn’t invent streetwear, I don’t own it. This change was coming, no matter what. I just gave it a push. It helped that a lot of celebrities were into what I was making.

KHALIL: Faux-Fur Duffle Coat, Classic-Fit Tailored Trousers, Black Leather Sock Boots / NYASHA: Black Triangle Bikini Top, Black Bikini Bottom / All by Burberry   

Do you think streetwear-as-fashion is a trend? It’s so massive now. Do you anticipate the pendulum swinging back? Or is this just how we dress now?

There’s always change in fashion, that’s the point, but I don’t think streetwear is a trend, the way having a little bag or a big bag can be trendy. I look at it this way: I was raised by my mother, with sisters, I’ve been surrounded by women all my life, and if I look at how women are dressing now, I understand they’ve fought forever to achieve this freedom to dress how they feel. Sexy, not sexy, masculine or feminine, sporty and relaxed yet still sensual. You can be wearing streetwear as a woman and nobody’s going to look at you and say, “No, that’s not how you’re supposed to look.” So why would women go back to having less freedom?

Or, if you’re a man, you see that it’s much easier now for men to express themselves in ways that used to be considered “feminine,” and I don’t think men want to lose that freedom either. Fashion, like any art, reflects society. And right now in society, we all want to be happy and to have our identities respected, however we want to express them.

MATTEO: Geometric-Print Cotton Shirt, Black Wool Beanie With Ear Detail / TYLER: Geometric-Print Silk Shirt, Black Wool Beanie / All by Burberry   

Going back to Britishness, what was interesting to me about your Fall 2021 collection was the way you managed to find your voice within the language of Burberry. You’re interested in utility and tailoring and ease, and the historic codes of the brand, going back to the trench, are also about utility and tailoring and ease.

The last womenswear collection was sophisticated luxury. It was precise, it was chic, but at the same time it had the feeling of nature. Not in a “sporty” way but in a very British way. I think about these elegant aristocratic women like Stella Tennant; I mean, how cool, getting married in a forest, wearing Wellington boots.

You have to give it to the British, this love of nature is in their blood. And that love really reawakened due to COVID. People got out of old habits, and now nature is part of the lifestyle. I knew I wanted the collection to speak to that, this respect for nature.

MATTEO: Logo Boxer Shorts, Black Leather Trousers / MILES: Logo Boxer Shorts, Black Wool Trousers, Black High-Top Sneakers / TYLER: Logo Boxer Shorts, Black Wool Trousers, Black High-Top Sneakers / CHRIS: Black Wool Trousers, Black High-Top Sneakers / KHALIL: Logo Boxer Shorts, Black Wool Trousers, Black Boots / All by Burberry   

Given that people think of you as a very “urban” designer—in the sense that your whole vibe is very informed by city life—I wonder if your turn toward the ecological inspired the phrase on the T-shirt you wore when you took your bow at the end of the fall show…

Ha! “Don’t Believe Everything That You Think.” No, that wasn’t where it came from [...] It was a phrase I once saw at a rave in Brazil, and it stuck in my mind, you know? With this pandemic we’ve realized that so many things we were believing—about how the world works, about what’s important in our lives—we were forced to reconsider. It seemed like the right phrase for the moment; this exciting moment, when we can let go of the old beliefs and create something new. Something we haven’t seen.