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Nicola Formichetti – An interview with

By On April 11, 2013 In Editorial Submissions, Fashion Brand, Interview, Print

A balanced hybrid in a digital age of multiple personality. Social connectivity has ushered him as alien in an industry that follows the rules set by a select few. But Formichetti, in the Gaga cliché, was born that way, from two worlds instead of one.

2013 will mark the 25th anniversary of Anna Wintour at Vogue, the 30th for Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, and the third for the stylist-formerly-known-as Nicola Formichetti at Mugler. Formichetti can no longer be considered just a stylist, an editor, or even a fashion designer. As of late, he’s been appointed creative director for the house, an all-encompassing role that creates and destroys. He’s something new: a balanced hybrid in a digital age of multiple personality. Social connectivity has ushered him as alien in an industry that follows the rules set by a select few. But Formichetti, in the Gaga cliché, was born that way, from two worlds instead of one.

© Nicola Formichetti, photography by Nicholas Ong, 2012

Born in Tokyo in 1977, Nicola Formichetti moved to Rome for school at the age of 12. “My father was Roman Catholic and my mother was Buddhist but more Shinto,” he says. “I was always hanging out in shrines in Japan and then churches in Italy, which is where I learned about Caravaggio,” he says, referring to the master of shadow. “But I never felt I belonged there.” Formichetti left six years later to go to London. “London is full of people who want to create things. We just did it for the love, young kids who never asked for any money.”

Sitting in the kitchen of his New York apartment, which looks like his oth- ers in Paris, London, and Japan, Nicola Formichetti faces his colorful, plush toys that line this living room and a back wall. “I love these Hello Kitty types,” he says as he picks one up. “They have no character, a blank face so you can imagine anything, what these blank eyes mean, and why they’re always smiling.” He models the subtle facial gesture. “It’s always a fantasy,” a projection, toys like a blank canvas prime for nostalgia and reconsidering integrity in the annuls of perfection.

“My first ever campaign was a Stussy campaign,” Formichetti remembers of 2003. “I burned the entire collection with cigarettes.” In one of the ads for the Californian street wear brand, scorched-through eyeholes and a carved- out mouth appear on a baseball cap, creating a mask before a monochro- matic red background. “It’s still one of my most favorite images I’ve ever created. I hope it’s Googleable.” Sure enough, on his cell phone screen ap- pears a bright grin made from a singe, an artfully destroyed product smiling back in its own undoing.

© Mugler, Nicholas Ong

“I’ve always been from both worlds,” he says, referring not to the intermediate states of objects but to Italy and Japan, his dual heritage that may have offered the deconstructive precedence. Italian artist Lucio Fontana once installed physical depth into his paintings by slashing them with marring Tagli that would reveal slits of darkness behind the screen. In Japan, the avant-garde art collective known as the Gutai, led by Kazuo Shiraga and Shozo Shimamoto, embodied chaos by launching their paint-covered bodies onto by standing canvases, using physics to directly address disorder even at the subatomic. Beauty was instead found in its resulting and revealing destruction.

© Mugler, Nicholas Ong

“Gaga says we say, ‘Fuck Fashion,’ because we love it so much that we want to destroy it, then recreate it.” Formichetti casually mentions the star, even though he’s fatally attracted to the picture they’ve created together. “It’s almost like a serial killer or a pedophile, you know, like a super fan. With Gaga, we focus on the occasion. We research a lot and we really study. But, on the day of the actual event, we burn the whole thing and wear it upside down.” It’s a spontaneity in dressing like the unguarded, automatic writing of how one wishes to appear.

It would be in London that Formichetti would first start styling at the re- tailer, the Pineal Eye, followed by the British magazine Dazed & Confused. There, he would manipulate the most photographed, most readily found object—fantasy and desire. In the corporeal and hyperbolic, this could also mean the wake left by such things, like plain absence, matter’s ghost like naked nudity, the sort of beauty that adorns Renaissance piazzas and sancti- fied churches. “In my work, I like it when it’s a little obviously sexy,” he says, the famous flesh dress worn by Lady Gaga being the most literal incarna- tion. “I like cheesy sex: hot girls and boys and big boobs. That’s my Italian side probably coming out,” he pauses, “yes, that’s my Italian side for sure.” But his use of ropes and see-through harnesses might as well evoke ideas of imprisonment, the Boschian hell rather than its saintly path to heaven.

© Mugler, Nicholas Ong

“Everyone thinks I’m into S&M, that I do that in bed. But, I would start laughing. I just think they’re beautiful objects. I started Nicopanda,” his own line of manga stuffed toys, “because I wanted to do something that had no negativity, just pure joy” – good vibes manifesting as sexuality is being underlined. It began even as a joke. “I used to have a beard and was a bit chunkier, like a gay ‘bear.’ People would call me Nicobear, but I would tell them I was actually more like a panda because I’m half Asian,” wide-faced and animated. “I’m like an Asian bear,” he says, caricaturized as a leathered cop and a cartoon skeleton.

He begins drawing on his arm with a Sharpie, doodled Nicopandas result- ing in what looks like a repainting of a melting Keith Haring, though on the body, enlivening a pattern he’s previously repeated on a head bust and a Birkin. It smells of chemicals as it dries. “This one,” pointing to the perma- nent panda on his forearm, “was so painful. I can just imagine what it was like for Rico,” he says of his muse who is covered in skeletal tattoos. “I was surfing the Internet one day and saw his photo.

© Mugler, Nicholas Ong

I initially thought it was amazing Peter Phillips makeup or something, but he was real. He has tattoos all over, except on his cock and his feet. I told him to let me know when he’s doing his cock so that I can do a whole photo story around it. I’d call Steven Klein to shoot it” – this before it was even barely 12 o’clock, once again alluding to the sensuality of line, in his New York loft on God’s designated seventh day.

In an early editorial for Dazed and Confused, a year before becoming its fashion director in 2005, Formichetti conceived of men pressed up against plexiglass, grouped closely together with tangled limbs in a fetal fashion. They only wear Hammer pants as if in stumbled sleep inside a vitrine, flat- tened, as if having one’s nose to it, apt for computer screens and late-night shopping habits. “I was kind of a late starter of the whole digital thing,” the now avid user confesses.

© Mugler, Nicholas Ong

“When I started using Facebook, I got rid of all my sketchbooks because I thought I would do all my mood boards on the com- puter, making it easy to share it with people.” But, that wouldn’t last. “When you take a photo and print it, cut it out and put it on the wall, you find mistakes. There’s always a mistake, two weird things that suddenly end up being next to each other. You don’t know what you’re going to get exactly, which can become an amazing thing. I get my answers from that, when I’m not thinking about it,” like quick preview scanning. “I didn’t go to college, so I never really learned how to go to libraries or buy books and photocopy. I would just use myself as a reference.”

“I used to wear only Stussy and Supreme. I would also mix in Westwood –
I loved Westwood. My references, at that time then, were mixtures of street wear and that kind of fashion wear,” veritable highs and lows of the covet- able. The Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami, also works to reattach present cultural extremities, art historical (high) and popular imagery (low). Realiz- ing the tradition of the titled plane that dates back to the 12th century as the visuals for the Tale of Genji, Murakami uses its contemporary manifesta- tion, the planes of color found in anime, because of its aesthetic legacy.

“Mr. Mugler was amazing at bringing in Lady Miss Kier and George Michael’s ‘Too Funky.’ I still want to keep doing that with Mugler, like with Gaga, but not using them as marketing tools. I just love their music. When I saw Azealia [Banks’s] 212, I thought it was so good, so I just tweeted her,” which led to him styling her in stars and stripes for what would be her next video, the Americana-set Liquorice. “Murakami’s work is too good,” Formichetti says of the artist. “He’s probably just saying all of that afterwards. No, of course, he does it from his gut feeling,” reaffirming the spontaneity that the stylist’s creativity thrives on. “You think she’s thinking of any of that?” he asks as he looks at a shelved Yayoi Kusama behind some figurines.

© Mugler, Nicholas Ong

“She’s just drawing dots,” that also happen to appear flat like sewn-in ap- pliqué. In a 2007 shoot, Formichetti would ask the proverbial question, “What’s the Manga with Me?” with Dior Homme tailoring and a glove from a furry bunny costume.
“My all-time favorite photographer is Oliviero Toscani,” Formichetti men- tions about the Italian creative behind the iconic Benetton ads and his men- tor with whom he would work during his time at Dazed & Confused. “He was like a painter,” juxtaposing strong colors in the same frame. “His im- ages are still what I like: very flat and very graphic.” By creating such visual drama between saturated colors, fashion is encased in its own silhouette, prepackaged and hence limited by the edges of its own construction.

This is what the photographer meant with his social commentary, commingling races and the boundaries we allow to remain unchanged. It is this outline, the line layer that establishes separation that Formichetti aims to redefine. He would be promoted in 2008 as Dazed’s creative director, later leaving for Vogue Hommes Japan and relocating to New York. In a 2010 Vogue spread, photographer Josh Olins captures menswear against another monochrome, here of amber with a deep black tuxedo from which matte black sculptures grow, wrapping around the body like magnetic ivy. The tailored fit of an- other blazer is redrawn by the loops of bike handlebars and angular extend- ing branches. Even bound, these images break free from their predestined constraints – the fine weave of their fabric – and that’s all Formichetti. “It’s very difficult in New York,” he says. “It’s very difficult to start things here. You have all these establishments.”

© Nicola Formichetti, Nicholas Ong

So he breaks free. “Everyone knows that the big designers can’t even draw,” Formichetti says as the ink on his left arm starts to smudge in the noon humidity. “They don’t even talk about their team of designers because they need a single face for the brand. I’m not like that. I like to share.” He leaves a lineless fingerprint on the counter. His job then becomes a balancing act between people, himself, and his polar and coalescing influences. That’s why he says, “digital is too perfect,” because it has an inescapable form. He says he needs to balance the designs with reality, to give his designs an almost palpable frontality. “I don’t really care about the inside, detail, or the back of a garment,” he says of his newest role at the Mugler house. “I always start with the lines.” This has been true about the fashion house even under its namesake designer in the ’80s who was known to push the limit and borders of the feminine body. Formichetti changes the form too, mak- ing it more sinuous by amplifying its curvature through re-musculature and flaming cutouts.

He focuses on the silhouette, building it outwards to catch the camera’s attention as it walks on a flat pathway that will run up the backs of models in its consolidating picture. “I looked at architecture in such a two- dimensional way,” Formichetti says, even about the body. For Mugler’s menswear, which debuted Rico Genest behind a see-through, iridescent veil that slipped off to reveal penned skin and bones, the image is still front and center, sharing the spotlight with the men’s designer, Romain Kremer. “For me, Rico is completely visual, 2-D.” Formichetti’s latest for the women’s collection, along with the designer Sébastian Peigné, created graphic lines that ran over leather separates, a first for the duo from previous showings of mostly dresses, giving the creative director more room to arrange. “When I started styling, I couldn’t make girls look cool. Boys I could because I dress them like how I would dress. But girls would look like trannies. And they still do! But back then, they really looked like fucking drag queens.”

© Mugler, Nicholas Ong

When asked how styling, a deconstructive practice, translates into design- ing, the multipurpose artist doesn’t hesitate an answer. “I always work with things that are in front of me. When I first went to Alexander McQueen’s studio,” he recalls, “I saw these huge mood boards with all these amazing photos. There was this garment he had just made, which was an exact copy of this old, 18th-century gown. The print was different but he took the idea of the silhouette directly from that. I got so depressed. I thought that was just fucking copying. So I completely went into an anti-mode, trying to create things out of nothing. But, obviously, I couldn’t. It was impossible.” His solution? “I started learning how to steal, but not telling the world that you’ve stolen. Maybe stealing is the wrong word, but you start realizing that everything in the world is copied from other things,” he says. He uses arche- types as old as Greek mythology.

“People always ask if I want to create another Gaga. But, the thing is that I never created her.” On their first shoot together, for V Magazine in 2008, the singer, as legend has it, came to the 8 a.m. set already fully dressed. She was already there, an already made identity in herself. “Now, I want to do some- thing even more realistic for her. I’m thinking of denims and hardware,
like old Versace style,” an aesthetic seen in her music video, Edge of Glory, where she wears archival Gianni Versace. “I’m not really interested in work- ing with another female pop star,” he says. “I wouldn’t know what to do with Rihanna or Katy Perry.”

But, his plans for his own namesake brand, launching in 2013, will revisit the same tendency. “I want to create clothes my boyfriend likes, something authentic looking, with jeans, T-shirts, and leathers,” all with his genre- bending imprint. “All the fabrics will have a digital aspect to them, like put- ting your phone in a pocket so it charges,” breaking the ready-finished – the expected – like a found object thrown on the ground. Nicola Formichetti finds what’s in between all the scattered white porcelain, its function no lon- ger in question but its apparent form offering the initial restriction. “I know so many stylists that could take over a fashion house, even a hairdresser,” he says. “I wanted to show the world that you don’t have to be a typical design- er to do it. It’s a more personal take on fashion. We’re the bad kids.”

PHOTOGRAPHY BY NICHOLAS ONG,
PORTRAIT STYLING NICOLA FORMICHETTI,
ALL CLOTHING NICOLA’S OWN.
MODEL STYLING JULIEN ALLEYNE,
MODEL ALYONA SUBBOTINA @ MARILYN NY,
HAIR HIRO AND MARI WATASE, MAKEUP WALTER OBAL @ ATELIER MANAGEMENT, MANICURE KRISTY WILLIAMS,
RETOUCHING PETTERI LAMULA, CASTING AND PRODUCTION STALLION NY,

SPECIAL THANKS RYAN YOON, LEONARD FONG, VICKY YANG, PAIGE ESKENAZI, GREGG CHRISTENSON. ALL CLOTHING MUGLER FW12, SHOES CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN, GIUSEPPE ZANOTTI, JEWELRY STYLIST OWN

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