Romeo Gigli is utterly charming and undeniably Italian, yet also, at times, a solitary nomad. He is one of the very few European fashion innovators who turned the late 1980s and early ’90s upside down with subtle shapes that defied the aggressive angles of the time, and ambitiously eclectic collections whose mysterious origins and destinations prefigured the global influences that have now become standard. It was hard to find Gigli, as he swore distance and silence from the media after an acrimonious takeover and the subsequent breakdown of his company in the mid-’90s, and an ensuing dispute over the copyright to his own name that continues to this day. Yet his recent capsule collections for Joyce, the eminent Hong Kong- based group led by his old friend Joyce Ma, who, as a buyer for her eponymous boutique, bought his very first collection in 1985, are undoubtedly a success. It is proof that the romantic creator has a soul of steel.
Photography by Vassilis Karidis
MOTWARY: Mr Gigli, it is with great pleasure that I am finally speaking to you. You know we’ve wanted to do this interview for a long time.
GIGLI: Yes. The last time I did a full collection was 2003, so it’s a long time ago. I was a victim of fraud, you know… I guess everybody knows.
MOTWARY: Joyce helped us to reach you. You have a very close relationship with her company?
GIGLI: Yes! Joyce bought my collections from the very beginning, 1985 or ’86. Only a few years after that, she decided to open a [Romeo Gigli stand-alone] shop in Hong Kong. She was a very big client for me, someone I consider very important to this day. Our collaborations stopped around 1998, when a big part of my company was sold, so the quality of my clothes stopped being the same. Then, three years ago, Joyce celebrated its 40th anniversary and I was contacted by the Milan office to contribute some pieces from my archives for a travelling exhibition that would go to Beijing, Hong Kong, Paris…
A few months later, I received another call informing me that everybody was looking for me, everybody loved my clothes, and that it’s very current again what I used to do, and they proposed that I design a capsule collection for them.
MOTWARY: You just presented your summer collection in collaboration with them. What is it about?
GIGLI: [Laughs] I find it difficult to explain my collections, to be honest. Usually when I design for men, I try to keep my eyes and ears open and investigate how man has evolved. I try to underline the deco- ration of fabrics through design. In my work you can always see brocade, lace, English embroidery on the jacket; colours like midnight blue, dark pink, black and olive green. There is a lot of darkness in this collection, except for a few white shirts.
MOTWARY: You are a well-travelled man who appreciates different cultures and the weight of history. How does history serve the future, in your opinion?
GIGLI: We cannot survive without our history. Without the past, it is like you put a person in a black box with no emotion, no oxygen, no ambition and no hope. Whether it is in art, fashion or anything else, history is important. A designer can only survive and underline the present if he reads the past.
GIGLI: My own history is strange because I grew up in a very particular family. My father was an antiquarian book dealer and my mother, Alfa, a contessa. My education was classic and the right thing to do at the time was to follow the profession of my father. It was by accident at the age of 18 that I decided to travel the world, more or less for 10 years. Of course it was a cultural shock for me. I knew about other cultures, though not in a deep way.
From that moment I started to mix my own culture with others, with what I was experiencing. It was like a visual melting pot of emotions. Everything for me is about emotion: when I work or think about fashion, a movie, the theatre, art, it is a colossus of feelings, you know? It’s difficult to explain. I will try. In the 1990s I did a lot of collections that were inspired by and dedicated to other cultures. One was the Persian collection [1993 womenswear] and it was about colours and decorations from Persian history, though with a twist.
For example, I had my fabrics cut in an English manner and I included references from the 1970s, and my models wore glasses in precious-stone shades. But in each collection, there was so much work after the maiden idea and research that it was hard to recognise the very first concept behind it. I did turbans from English striped fabric and the girls came out in Dr. Martens boots. This is the way my travels are reflected in my work.
MOTWARY: So are you fond of the global aesthetic, the way fashion has evolved to become a sort of common language? The scene is so different now.
GIGLI: Fashion is not art, though sometimes it might seem that way. We need to be a bit more secretive. Back in the 1990s there was a feeling of expectation. Everybody was looking for something different.
MOTWARY: There was the power of surprise.
GIGLI: Of course! And different visions! Today everybody follows the same history. But fashion used to be about how things were translated. The force of fashion today is quite boring. People need different pieces, not only in fashion, in all forms of creating a product. A product must help one underline his personality.
My 15-year-old daughter likes to wear some of my pieces and my wife has an enormous collection of my archival works… Although my little girl wears sports shoes, leggings and sweatshirts—it is difficult for her to find pieces that she really likes. There are so many things and shops for her to choose from, tacky ones to the highest boutiques, but she is still not happy.
MOTWARY: But it might be a bit difficult for her, since she was born into a family in which fashion plays such an intense role in everyday life!
GIGLI: She would like something special, you know. A few days ago, she had a friend over for dinner and they were saying, “We don’t want to wear what is available in shops. Everything is so shiny and tacky. We wouldn’t mind wearing something that even looks like a uniform, but it needs to have a character.” I found it amazing how these young girls think.
MOTWARY: Could this be a motivation for you to consider designing a collection for young people?
GIGLI: But I did this for many years; maybe you are too young to know. My G Gigli, which was launched in 1991. My partner was [the Italian company] Stefanel and it was a collection for girls and boys. A very successful one. I used to show it in Milan mixed with my men’s collection. I worked with cottons and wools. It is very difficult to think of new projects right now. All I had I sold, just to be able to survive with my family.
MOTWARY: It seems that all the important designers are doomed to trouble. I am reading the auto- biography of Diane von Furstenberg and it is amazing what this woman had to go through to keep her business alive.
GIGLI: Our times are really hard! A few years ago, I went to Paris as I was thinking to relaunch my collection. And I went to see [president of the French fashion industry’s governing body, the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt à Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode] Didier Grumbach and I asked whether there was a chance for me to come back. His response was very flattering: “Mr. Gigli, I don’t know what happened to you in Italy, but your name for us in France is as important as Coco Chanel and Dior.” [Laughs]
MOTWARY: On a personal level, I became a fan of your work during my early teenage years, back in the 1990s, and I followed what you were doing until the early years of 2000. And then there was a gap. What happened?
GIGLI: How old are you? Perhaps you remember my last performances? My lawyers suggested that I stop working for three or four years because my name was involved in a court case, a fraud case with Ittierre Holdings, which was the same group as Gianfranco Ferré. I tried to come back right after, but everyone was showing me the shoulder.
MOTWARY: I spent maybe half a day watching your older collections, full shows on YouTube, and it made me very emotional. And amazed by how your soundtracks were mixed: Arabic music with Greek, Indian with Spanish, African with American jazz, Algerian with Turkish. I found it magnificent.
GIGLI: The music was a very important fact of all of my presentations. I always worked alone. The way I worked with the music was exactly the way I did with my clothes. Everything was about emotion. I would lock myself in the studio listening to the tracks for two or three days, and then with the music team we would put together a collage of emotional journeys. Organising a show always appealed to me like a movie script.
MOTWARY: Your collections have always had a strong focus on textiles, textures and weaves. Is it a result of collaborations with Italian artisans?
GIGLI: No, all my embroideries were made in India because they had the knowledge of different techniques—French, English, etc. At the time I was working with a very good company who under- stood my work exactly. I would send samples and it was a much easier collaboration with them than with Italy. Also the cost! When, for example, I did coats that were fully embroidered, they were really expensive to make in India, but the work would have cost double in Europe.
MOTWARY: You must know the fashion industry considers you one of the most important designers in its modern history. Why do you think that is?
GIGLI: Strange question, this one, and I’m afraid I cannot give you the answer. I am a very simple man, though I may not seem like it. I spend a lot of time reading and watching films, like a curious kid. Every time I start a project, whether fashion or not, I put myself outside myself and try to see things as an observer before I start to work. When I design a collection, I want to see many women associating themselves with it, not just one. When I work on the men’s, it is easier somehow. Man is an attitude.
MOTWARY: How has the current fashion scene changed?
GIGLI: Fashion used to be about dreaming. Designers worked in a different way—there was less pressure, I think. And there was a variety of silhouettes. Now everyone seems to walk in the same direction. There are more impositions. Designers worry more about what the magazines say about their work than if it sells. In my time, I was my own stylist for my collections, and more or less everybody was like this. Today designers hire others.
MOTWARY: Where do you come from?
GIGLI: I grew up in Faenza. Later I moved to Florence and studied architecture, though I only finished the first year. After a family accident, my family disappeared [Gigli’s parents died when he was 18] and I decided to travel around the world.
MOTWARY: As a young man, was there a particular point at which you started to get ambitious?
GIGLI: It was my attitude, I think. I was spending a lot of time alone, with no friends, because my family was overprotective and all the friends I had—one or two—I would see once or twice a year. In this isolation, I found ways to entertain myself by studying, reading, walking in the park dreaming, and translating everything through my fantasies. And this is how I am even today. When I decided to get involved in this business, it was a truly great time for fashion. I got carried away by its fantasy becoming reality, and vice versa.
MOTWARY: Was becoming a fashion designer a plan for you?
GIGLI: I think in a way it just happened. As a kid, when I was five or six years old, my parents used to take me to the tailor for pants, shirts and jackets, so I grew up in this environment. As an adult, I bought fabrics from everywhere and took them to the tailor and created things. This is how I work with men. Like myself. You know I am not a very tall man—I am around 1.77 metres. When I made clothes for myself, I always tried to make myself seem taller, longer. The pants were tight most of the time; jackets always came with a vest.
Back then, it was my own personal style that opened the first doors for me. Times were different, of course. [The designer] Piero Dimitri asked me to do a menswear collection and I thought it was a great opportunity. Immediately I started to learn everything about fashion, beyond the costume history that I was aware of already.
MOTWARY: Why didn’t you stay in New York?
GIGLI: I stayed for a few months, but I wanted to return to Italy, since other companies were already asking me to work for them. Working in different companies helped me to understand the business. At the time, Italy was very important in the fashion industry.
MOTWARY: But you chose to show your work in Paris in the 1990s. Why?
GIGLI: Because Paris was, and is, the place for fashion. Italy has good manufacturers, but the heart belongs to France. Let me tell you a true story. When I was dreaming of having a show in Paris, back in the ’80s, I had my space [in Milan], at Corso Como 10, and I always presented my collection on the Sunday during Fashion Week—two shows, one at 9am and one at noon, because the space could only accommodate 400 guests.
Back then, there were only three days of fashion in Milan and it was really short. I always chose Sunday because MaxMara showed in the afternoon as well and, of course, all the press would be in town. This happened for four or five seasons, but one year I asked the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana to save the day for me, and they said that it was now full, and impossible for me to have Sundays any more. I was not happy with this, so I faxed a letter to the Fédération Française and they immediately responded that I was more than welcome to show my collection in Paris. [Laughs]
MOTWARY: Your appreciation for other designers is legendary. I know that you used to mix other designers with your own collections in your boutique.
GIGLI: When I had my shop on Corso Como, I started to collect other designers. I even had the first John Galliano collection. And the fourth Margiela collection, and Sybilla, and Issey Miyake even, who is a very close friend of mine… Jean Paul Gaultier… I used to buy their pieces and I put together panels of my clothes mixed with theirs. Every time I was interviewed after a show, I would say, “Maybe I don’t want to see women on the street dress exactly as in a fashion show. What I want is [for them] to mix pieces, making collages of surfaces and qualities with freedom. It is the only way to build a personality.”
Even when I first started, I wanted to created pieces that were out of time, that you could wear for years and years, and with other designers’ works.
MOTWARY: Today’s fashion scene is quite vibrant. I think you already have successors—Haider Ackermann and Damir Doma seem relevant.
GIGLI: I do follow Ackermann’s work and sometimes I see a sense of my flair, but what is my flair, really? Who knows. Maybe I see a connection in the colours or the way he presents his clothes… I don’t know. If my work was strong enough to inspire others, then I’m happy. What else is there to say?
MOTWARY: Androgyny is one of the main characteristics of your work, especially in your women’s collections. How do you see women? Why do you so often dress them in male outlines?
GIGLI: What matters to me most, in women, is their sensuality and fragility. Every time, I try to bring these two qualities out. What most fascinates me is when I see a woman wearing her man’s clothes. This is the reason I often dressed them in such a way.
MOTWARY: Have you ever written a love letter?
GIGLI: I suppose, yes, I’m 62! [Laughs] I wrote a few letters in my life. If you ask me tomorrow what I tell you today, it will be impossible for me to remember. It all comes from inside me, very spontaneous and honest. It’s a matter of the moment. I am a true romantic. Even in my work, in the 1980s, my advertising was a male silhouette with poetry under it.
MOTWARY: What is your ultimate goal in life?
GIGLI: My biggest goals have been achieved. I met my wife and I have a wonderful daughter. I don’t want anything more.
MOTWARY: What is your verdict on fashion, after all these years of serving it?
GIGLI: When I work, I feel alive. This is what has always mattered to me. A few years ago, I saw Alessandra Ferri, the legendary dancer who was a good friend of mine. I passed her on the streets of Milan with her two daughters and she said something that made me happy: “Romeo, I still have all your clothes, and when I want to feel happy, I wear them.” Fashion can make people happy: this is my verdict.
Interview originally published in Dapper Dan magazine’s seventh issue, March 2013. Photography by Vassilis Karidis. All clothes Romeo Gigli; Fashion by Nicholas Georgiou; Masks by Pascal Humbert; Modelled by Nicholas Georgiou. Special thanks to JOYCE
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