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Givenchy: All You Need Is Love

The first in our series of digitally-annotated fashion week longreads explores the exquisite Givenchy S/S16 show, a powerful and poignant celebration of love, co-curated by Marina Abramović

Neither New Yorkers nor the international fashion crowd have been noted for being easily impressed. Even in a city filled with novelty addicts, a good number of people who read articles and blog posts heralding “the party of the decade” or “the hottest new restaurant/bar/club/concept store” do so primed to greet the news not with enthusiasm, but with a shrug or a sneer. 

Yet when Riccardo Tisci brought his 10th anniversary collection for Givenchy to New York on the evening of Friday, September 11 (a date actually allocated by the CFDA, rather than selected by Tisci himself), everyone – even the most jaded showgoers – was left wide-eyed. The event fused solemnity and extraordinary fashion into a piece of performance art operatic in scale. Even the perfect sunset seemed complicit in making this a staggering, “where were you when”- level happening – one inspired, said the designer, by love. 

“It was a very honest collection,” Tisci said backstage after the show. “It came very naturally to me, it was a collection full of love… It was a very, very romantic collection, because I'm in a very romantic moment in my life. I'm very blessed.” 

“It came very naturally to me, it was a collection full of love…" - Riccardo Tisci

Muse and Maker: Riccardo Tisci and Marina Abramović
The crowd entered at sunset, leaving the city grid and crossing over onto a concrete pier jutting out into the Hudson River. Awaiting the nearly 1,200 showgoers was a parallel city: structures fabricated from reclaimed metal and wood ringed a runway measuring almost 1,000 feet long. There, Tisci and Marina Abramović, the performance artist and artistic director for the event, prepared a tableau of performances; as Abramović explained to us, "New York is built on granite. It is a solid place where you can make your ideas and your career moves a reality. There is a vortex of energy where the seeds you plant early on will flourish in the future in all their disarming beauty and simplicity."

Tisci and Abramović have a history of genre-crossing collaboration. Tisci designed the robes Abramović wore during The Artist Is Present, her landmark, 736.5-hour performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010. He regularly refers to her as his “mother” and posed breastfeeding from the artist for Visionaire's 60, the religion issue. (Tisci and Abramović even shared a Soho townhouse, until Tisci bought out Abramović’s half of the property in 2013, for $666 per square foot.) And their collaboration on the Givenchy show wasn't one tamed by fashion's tendency towards industry-conventional propriety; as Abramović noted, "In the beginning, l thought l would have many more restrictions in the execution of my vision. I wanted to create a set out of construction scraps and recycled materials and I feared that it would not be seen in a good way by both Riccardo and the Maison Givenchy. My guesses proved wrong in the end. They embraced the concept right away."

If, before the show, people wondered how a major fashion event could possibly face up to the 14th anniversary of the September 11th attacks with due sensitivity, it was clear from the outset that Abramović and Tisci had the milestone front of mind. Take the performers: a man in an ecclesiastical black robe, his back to the crowd, clasping a slender sapling in each hand; a woman cupping her hands under a stream of water; a man and woman, embracing (or was it grappling?) amid a stand of more young trees. Together, they invited interpretations of renewal, stillness, and solemnity. “The 11th of September is the most sad day in recent American history,” Abramovic wrote in a letter to Tisci that opened a book of visual references placed on every seat. “As the artistic director, I want to create something respectful and humble.”

The music underlined the reverent tone. Singers from six leading world religions performed devotional songs, from Shalom Aleichem (Jewish) to Ave Maria (Catholic); and there was no ignoring the Freedom Tower, built on the site of the destroyed World Trade Center and visible from every section of the show space.

“New York is built on granite. It is a solid place where you can make your ideas and your career moves a reality” - Marina Abramović

The #Family: Riccardo's Women
Even against this solemn backdrop, waves of excitement rippled through the crowd with every major arrival. There were more than a few: Nicki Minaj, Julia Roberts, Christina Ricci, Courtney Love, Liv and Steven Tyler, Debbie Harry, Lara Stone, Karen Elson, Ciara, and Pedro Almodovar... all dressed in Givenchy. The pack of major American designers in the audience (Michael Kors, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler, Joseph Altuzarra) further underlined Tisci’s pulling power.

The sense of the show as a reunion of Tisci’s friends was amplified backstage with the distinctive model line-up. An all-star one girl, one look cast (in order of appearance, models included Mariacarla Boscono, Kendall Jenner, Joan Smalls, Liu Wen, Frankie Rayder, Jamie Bochert, Candice Swanepoel and Raquel Zimmermann) read like a roll-call of muses from Tisci’s decade with the house. And of course, there were 800-plus members of the public there as well – all extended members of Tisci’s Instagram #family. If anything, Tisci is renowned for his approach to casting: one of complete inclusivity. He was the first to cast Lea T, a transgender model, in his Givenchy campaign for A/W10 and has been a proponent of diversity throughout his career; as Abramović expounded, "Mr. Tisci is truly original. He has a strong connection with the spirit of the times we are living in. He has a special quality in the way he mixes fashion with street culture. What l find especially revolutionary in his work is his inclusiveness of all kinds of people regardless of race, gender, or religion."

An hour after the published show time, the arrival of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West, wearing a sheer lace Givenchy gown, signaled that the show could, at last, begin.

Love is Purifying
Tisci called this “probably the most romantic collection of my career,” and he started the collection with a bride and groom in mind, which he explained as his dominant inspiration. All was black and white, a ying and yang palette. Light-as-air slip dresses spliced with lace trailed wisps of silk chiffon. Jackets blending tuxedos and boxing robes brought in Tisci’s signature interplay of feminine and masculine. Shown over a lace bodysuit and wide trousers, as on Ajak Deng, they produced an effect somehow both kittenish and dominant. “Love is purifying to human beings,” Tisci said. And seductive, too.

"Love is purifying to human beings" - Riccardo Tisci

This was never going to be your standard 12-minute fashion show. With 87 looks including menswear, Tisci had the space to reprise key moments from his decade with Givenchy. Lucky for this audience, that included couture. There was Joan Smalls, regal in a black gown that blossomed into tulle pom-poms; and Julia Nobis, in a sheer gown whose skirt almost beat with the origami-like wings of the birds embellished across its span. Ornately embroidered gowns dripping with spun-gold tassels or clacking pearl embellishments met their match with tough-luxe septum rings and otherworldly facial encrustations (Pat McGrath said they took up to seven hours to apply). Tailoring, sex, the street, the ultimate jackets, Victorian Chola girls: it was all there, along with the #family on the front row. 

It was just the way to survey and fete Tisci’s career with Givenchy, not to mention remind attendees of the range of what they might find in the house’s new Madison Avenue flagship. “This show is more than a celebration of my 10 years at Givenchy,” Tisci said. “It's a celebration of life, of where we have all arrived together.”