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.
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.
Nicola, on the right, with Mugler muse, Rico. Photo by Mariano Vivanco.
Were your parents underwriting this perpetual party of yours, or were you working?
I was working. My first proper job wasn’t until I started at the Pineal Eye when I was 22, but before then I worked at Vivienne Westwood on the weekends.
That’s great! From there you went to Dazed & Confused, right? Was it there that you found out that being a stylist is a real job?
No way. Fuck. I hate the term “stylist.” I really, really hate it. I always refuse to be called a stylist, but then people say, “But you are a stylist!” and I say, “No, I’m not.” You know, that sort of witty repartee you get every day in the fashion world. I don’t just put clothes on people—I don’t even care about clothes, really. I’ve always seen myself as an art director—someone whose job it is to create moods, oversee an overall image. With the best styling in the world, a shit image is still shit. I love being in control of the whole thing—the design, the styling, the photography, and then getting it into a magazine and the marketing and trend forecasting. I love everything about fashion, so when I get labeled as a stylist—one tiny part of that world—it really pisses me off.
Noted! Did you abandon studying architecture because the field didn’t offer you this type of overarching control? Or was that direction kind of just a youthful ambition or even a simple, if harmless, lie?
No, not a lie, I’ve always loved architecture. I’ve always been into fashion, too, though just as a fan at the start—reading The Face is what made me want to come to London. You read that as a kid too, no?
Yeah. It was the only magazine I could find at my local newsstand that explained what the most exciting people were doing in the most interesting places in the world.
Yeah, it was a bible. I was thinking about that the other day. What are the kids doing now? The internet makes it so easy to get all the information you need and want. Without it we would never have found Rico, for example.
You don’t really know what you’re looking for as a kid, except that you want whatever you find to transport you into a world that’s vastly different from the one you’re living in.
You want to feel like you’re part of something, too, as though you’re part of a gang—even if you haven’t met anyone else in it yet. That’s what great magazines do. The kids now have so much more information at their disposal than they did in my day. They know old music, new music, who all the interesting designers are—if it’s happening, they know about it. Like everyone else, I think it’s great. But at the same time, when things become so easy they lose their value a little bit.
It’s nice to have everything so immediately accessible, but there’s definitely something to be said for the rewards of tracking down something that’s hard to find.
Yeah. It’s the same thing for sex and relationships too.
How so with sex?
The ability to watch porn straightaway means that the times when you have actual physical intimacy with someone else aren’t so special. You just think, “I could have just done this on my own and I wouldn’t have had to shower or spend all that money on drinks,” you know? It ends up just being easier. The world is changing and it’s an exciting time to be experimenting with sex, fashion, and music.
In what ways are you doing this with Mugler, in particular?
That was what I was trying to put across in the Mugler video I made: Everything is so available and disposable that it’s about adding value to the things that you do. Making them three-dimensional. The clothes, Gaga’s music—it’s all about making the very best stuff available to everyone. I’m not and never have been an elitist. I want everyone to get together, collaborate, and embrace what’s going on in the world, but I don’t want them to get bored with it. It’s another one of those fine lines.
I think that’s something that comes through in your work.
This isn’t work for me, it’s fun. It’s never felt like work.
When you started doing magazine work did you have to give up anything else?
When I started working with shops and magazines, I felt like it was my destiny. I never had proper training or assisted anyone. I completely learned from my own mistakes. I got sacked from jobs. I didn’t know how to deal with clients. I had too much passion. There was always too much of myself in something and not enough of the client.
Were there ever any major repercussions or burned bridges?
I was doing a show for a big Italian house when I was a kid, and they fired me straight after because what I had done was no longer their vision—it had become mine. I treated it like the Nicola Show, but I guess that’s what young people do: ignore other people’s philosophies. Everyone thinks I’ve done great, but it was always a struggle. I have more experience now that I’ve come out the other side, but I still get bored with things too quickly and want to move on to whatever’s newest.
You mentioned the word destiny. Are there spiritual aspects to your work?
I only really started to be “spiritual” as a funny, jokey thing. Me and my friends used to go to fortune-tellers and stuff. That’s just my Japanese side. I have a couple of guys in Tokyo and New York, and I go see them or we talk on the phone and they look at my fears and we work through them. It’s kind of like therapy but using a psychic power.
Can you list some of those fears? Are they work-related?
No. Like I’ve said, what I do has never been work to me, and if all the companies and brands that I work for fired me I’d still call photographer friends to come round and shoot because it’s what I love. I don’t do this for money—it’s for fun. When it comes to work, I’m fearless, and that’s because I haven’t sacrificed anything to do what I’m doing. It’s my hobby and the way I live—I’m not very competitive. I’m very open, very connected to my fans and to my own existence. It’s more inclusive if you’re with a gang. Creativity is bouncing ideas around. I don’t come up with ideas by meditating. It’s about embracing things and finding ideas in music or art or whatever.
I notice that you’ve lost some weight.
Yeah, I’m trying to lose weight for the women’s show.
So you can walk the runway?
[laughs] I don’t want to be a fat pig for those pictures. I’m doing acupuncture and meditating too.
With a guru and everything?
No, I just close my eyes and think about nothing for half an hour—just detach. I started by doing it for three minutes, then five minutes. It’s difficult to switch off but you can train yourself to do it.
Should we talk about Lady Gaga? The situation has changed massively from the beginning, when designers didn’t want her in their clothes. Do you remember who said she couldn’t wear their clothing?
I always loved her. I’m attracted to the freaks. People were so horrible to her. I can’t say who it was that said no, but of course I remember them.
Now I suppose you’re always hearing from those people. They have reconsidered.
All the fucking time. McQueen was the only one at the beginning who loved her. He just said we could take whatever we wanted from his stock.
Do you think the Gaga project was a natural extension of what you and your group of young London compatriots were doing before she became so massive?
We didn’t think like that at all. We were just doing what we were doing. It was like jerking off—doing your own thing and being happy. Gaga made that stuff into a reality. She gave a purpose to my jerking off. She became the human form of all the pages of the magazines I was doing. Now I’m doing something that actually exists! My ideas are walking around and talking to people.
Are you ever able to escape the maw of fashion? Is that even possible for someone in a position like yours?
I have lots of friends who aren’t in fashion. I’ve met a lot of crazy people who have struck me as pretentious, and I’m always conscious of not being one of them.
So is that at least part of the goal, to avoid being a fucker? Is there any other catchall sort of goal?
Of course I want the whole world to love me and what I do. I know that’s impossible, but I’m idealistic. I try not to look at what people are saying on the internet because when you’ve put your heart and soul into something it’s not nice to see people responding negatively. Even if they’re just some random schoolkid from Mexico. If a criticism is thought-out I try to take it into account, but it’s just better not to look. Now that I’m doing collections, there are critics at the shows. It’s terrifying. Criticism hurts, but there’s nothing you can do about it. I don’t do mainstream, mass-market stuff, so of course I’m going to get criticized.
Do you ever consider what some people might call your legacy?
No! What the fuck are you talking about? You make me sound so old! I’d love to make an impression, but thoughts like that are a long way off.