Designer Nicola Formichetti was born in Japan and raised in Italy, which is the fashion-industry equivalent of an anorexic midget with arms like Popeye deciding to become a jockey. Nicola arrived in London in his early 20s and since then has helped launch the careers of young British titans Gareth Pugh and Kim Jones. He’s best known, however, as the creative director of Mugler, the label founded by and named after a man formerly known as Thierry who once designed clothing that resembled insect exoskeletons and transformed the torsos of models into motorcycles and later abandoned the fashion world to become “Manfred”—a muscle-bound behemoth with nipples that look like they’ve been enlarged with a toilet plunger.
In January, Nicola dropped the “Thierry” and debuted the revamped Mugler line to almost unanimous praise, but reinvigorating the left-for-dead brand is just one of his many hobbies. In his spare seconds he is also the fashion director for Lady Gaga, Vogue Hommes Japan (which is unarguably one of the best menswear magazines on the planet), and Uniqlo.
I first met Nicola when artist Matthew Stone was assisting him on a project and they scouted me as a model outside Koko, a music venue in Camden. Nicola took photos of me for the McQ by Alexander McQueen line, and shortly after that I found myself working for him full-time at Dazed & Confused, where he was a superyoung fashion boss doing lots of smart and beautiful things.
Today Nicola lives in New York, but I met up with him recently at a hotel in Central London during the scant hours he had between creating his first Mugler show in Paris (which took place in January) and preparing Lady Gaga for the Grammys.
Vice: Why are you back in London? Are you here to work on anything in particular?
Nicola Formichetti: I just finished my men’s show in Paris, so I came here to work on the women’s one, which happens at the beginning of March. I’m also here to work on the MAC Cosmetics campaign and Gaga’s Grammy outfits.
Were you surprised when you were approached to become Mugler’s new creative director? It seems like it could’ve been completely unexpected.
The CEO, Joël Palix, approached me and we spoke a bit. I was in my apartment in New York when he called, and I freaked out because I was so excited. At first I decided that I wouldn’t be able to do the job they were asking me to—you can’t resurrect Mugler. He was so much more than just “fashion.” He was fashion, music, the underground: a one-man subculture. But then I started researching who he was rather than what he had done. When I got to the root of it all I saw that he’d never been to fashion school and that he was always this punk outsider. So I was just like, “Fuck it. I’ll do it.”
It’s interesting to me that Mugler has never been a commercial brand. Are you finally going to take the focus away from the catwalk and make it marketable?
No. I want the brand to be successful, of course, but what I want to do initially is to continue what Mugler has always stood for. It’s more important to be exciting than to sell products. I want to recapture that feeling I had when I first saw Thierry Mugler’s clothes, or the “Too Funky” video he did for George Michael. It’s the attitude I want to bring back rather than just making the brand loads of money.
How is your outlook different from Thierry’s? For instance, what inspired you to make menswear?
Mugler’s focus has always been on the women’s wear—the rubber, the classical suiting, the fabulous pearls. So for the men’s collection I just went back to the women’s stuff and reinterpreted it. His clothes have always been about giving power, whether that power came through a domineering silhouette or by broadening their shoulders. It’s always been about making people look superhuman. What I wanted to do was to internalize that power. The clothing still gives you an imposing silhouette, but it’s a simpler one. When I started looking around for casting, Rico [Rick Genest] was the perfect match.
Because he’s tattooed his entire body and face to look like a skeleton?
Yeah, for sure. Who else has found a clearer visual way to take their internal feelings and externalize them?
Was it a big struggle to put the show together, being that it was your first for Mugler?
We didn’t have enough clothes for it. We weren’t even going to do a show at one stage. It was all very last minute, but then we realized it didn’t matter if we didn’t have a huge collection to sell because really it’s an atmosphere you’re selling. If you could see through the initial freakishness of the presentation, the clothes themselves were actually very wearable.
I suppose it’s harder to be outlandish when you’re making clothes for men.
Totally. Men’s fashion is still more restricted. You do anything a little bit “out there” and you’re instantly labeled a “gay” or a “freak.” There’s a fine line there.
Are people’s attitudes changing?
A little bit. It’s taking a long time, but it’ll be worth it when we get there.
So you see that as a personal mission.
[laughs] I don’t know. I just want what I’m working on to work out well.
I’ve heard stories that when you started out in fashion you’d take look books out to clubs so you could geek up on other designers’ collections.
Oh my God! Where did you hear that?
It’s just a rumor going around. There are a few in that vein.
Fucking hell, no! I love that, though—the nerd studying by himself with his books in the corner of the nightclub.
It takes true commitment. Why did you first come over to the UK?
I was born in Japan, where my mother’s from, and when I was old enough to go to high school we moved to Italy. After that, my life was basically about trying to find an excuse to come to London. I lied to my parents and told them I was going to study architecture, but I didn’t study anything. I literally walked in the front door of the architecture school and then ran out of the back one to go clubbing for three years.
Topics: Nicola Formichetti