It is an unfeasibly, unseasonably scorching hot day when I interview Riccardo Tisci — the kind of day he recently left behind in Como in his homeland, where he spent the majority of lockdown with his family.
Not for Burberry’s chief creative officer the prosaic lens of Zoom: instead, we FaceTime, he from the set of the vastly expensive fashion show the brand unleashed at 1pm today, me from my somewhat less exciting bedroom.
Tisci appears to be speaking in front of an umbrella: strange, given the sunshine, but perhaps apposite for a brand that has struggled to weather the storm of Covid. In May, it was announced that sales had plunged 27 per cent, with retail sales almost halving in the three months to the end of June, causing shares to drop seven per cent. More likely, the brolly is in shot because Burberry is synonymous with rainwear.
Since taking over the helm from Christopher Bailey in 2018, Tisci has modernised and expanded Burberry’s remit to include sportswear and other youthful elements from the street — but Thomas Burberry built the brand on trench coats, and trench coats remain staunchly at its heart.
Tisci’s own heart may belong in Italy, but he is careful to emphasise his love of Britain. “If you ask me where I’m from, of course I’m proud to say I’m Italian,” he says. “My DNA is Italian, but I would say I am a gypsy, because I came to England when I was 17, then went to France for 13 years. Now I’m back in London. This summer was the first time in 21 years that I’d spent more than three months in Italy, because I flew over to stay with my mum.”
His mother Elmerinda, 94, is a devout Catholic who inspired his love of religious iconography (the scent he wears is made by a German company that makes perfume for the Vatican — “I smell basically of church”, he laughs).
He grew up in Puglia with eight older sisters, their relationship all the closer following the death of his father, a fruit seller, when he was four. The family struggled financially, he and his sisters sleeping on a mattress together on the floor, dressed in hand-me-downs and earning their keep.
Now 46, with four homes, 2.5 million Instagram followers and Madonna, Oprah, Marina Abramović and the entire Kardashian West clan on speed-dial, Tisci is the ultimate rags-to-riches tale. The loveliest thing about him is that he hasn’t forgotten the hardship: it still informs his design process, his work ethic and values. One of the first moves he made upon joining Burberry was to launch B Series, a range aimed squarely at customers who couldn’t afford a £1,500 trench.
“A real luxury house today is one that doesn’t forget to sell luxury to the younger generation. It’s important that Burberry does beautiful trenches, shoes and leather goods, but there needs to be an entry price for everybody. I know what it’s like to dream of being part of a designer’s world. My goal is to bring luxury to everyone.”
B Series launches on the 17th of every month because 17 is Tisci’s lucky number. A proud Leo, one imagines that when he isn’t designing clothes, pumping iron in the gym (heavy weights are his least favourite workout activity, he says) and partying in Mykonos (his favourite holiday destination), he likes to sit quietly contemplating astrology and numerology. He is not a great TV watcher, and hasn’t seen a single episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians: not even the one where Kim and Kanye got married. Then again, having designed their wedding outfits, he’d had the privilege of being there in the flesh. “The girls have so much else to do — they’re very busy,” is all he’ll say on the TV show ending after 14 years.
Burberry did a lot in the fight against Covid, utilising its global supply chain to fast-track the delivery of 100,000 surgical masks to the NHS, and repurposing its trench-coat factory in Castleford to make non-surgical gowns and masks. The company also made a substantial (though undisclosed) donation to Oxford University to aid research into a single-dose vaccine, as well as donations to the food poverty charities FareShare and The Felix Project. “I’m incredibly proud to have been part of this initiative,” Tisci beams.
The obvious negatives aside, for Tisci lockdown was a rare opportunity to connect with his beloved mother and sisters. “Honestly, I know it’s selfish to say, because it is a horrible virus, but it brought to a lot of people a different love and a deeper understanding. People are examining themselves and their lives. I left Italy aged 17 with no money in my pocket. Lockdown was the first time I got to enjoy my house, my family, my garden, my sisters. It was beautiful.”
As a consequence of all this family time in Como, he says that tonight’s collection will be the most personal one he has designed for Burberry. “I hope people like it, because it comes very much from my guts.” He admits the design process was hard. “Working remotely is changing the world. Even though you’re on Instagram, and it can look as though you’re on holiday, there’s a lot of working on FaceTime and [Microsoft] Teams. Let’s hope the [design process of the] next one is going to be more relaxed.”
Has he managed to corral Burberry’s 1,500-strong workforce back to its HQ in Horseferry Road? “We are less than we were before,” he says, though he won’t be drawn on numbers. “The space has to be maintained, the masks worn, and distancing is not easy. But we’ve said, ‘Let’s be positive.’ It’s interesting to have to work this way. It’s fine, but fashion requires emotion, and it’s not always easy to do this by screen.”
Digitally, Burberry has always been ahead of the game: in 2010, it became the first luxury brand to live stream its show. As creative director of Givenchy for 12 years, prior to Burberry, Tisci staged some memorable ones, with the celebrity-packed front rows so essential to making a global impact. Does he think the fashion industry can survive without catwalk shows? “It’s an interesting question. I always thought fashion shows were not very inclusive, because only 1,000 people could go. But then again, you want to see the clothes moving. I’m not a technology person but I want to make an amazing show that can be watched by everyone.”
Fashion’s role in this brave new world may be uncertain, but Tisci is optimistic. “Covid broke down many walls. People stopped and talked about Black Lives Matter. Finally, it’s not just a trend, like, ‘Oh, how many black girls can we have in our show.’ It’s about loving those girls, loving diversity, loving LGBT. There is space for everyone.”
Tisci has been casting racially diverse models in his shows for years and has long practised inclusivity. In 2010, while at Givenchy, he was criticised for casting the transsexual model Lea T, now a close friend, who will walk in today’s Burberry show. “I got into a lot of trouble, especially from journalists. Today, fashion supports me. As well as designing beautiful clothes, I want to give a message. A lot of people have been left over from society, and they should be included. It doesn’t matter what colour or sexuality you are, or where you are from.”
To anyone who has been rejected for their sexuality, he has sage advice. “Forgive, especially when those rejecting you are your parents. Sometimes, they’re just scared to face things. The most important thing is that you accept yourself. When you accept yourself, one day doors will open for you. You have to be positive, and answer with love, not hate.”
As well as finally giving him the motivation to quit smoking after 31 years (“I never believed I’d do it”), he says coronavirus has made him reassess his work/life balance. “I don’t want to work weekends. There is only one life, and nobody is going to give it back to us. It doesn’t matter who you are. Love is the most important thing we have. We need to love and to be loved, and for that, you need time.” It’s a commodity in scant supply for Tisci. Maybe, after today’s show, he’ll be able to carve some out again.