ESPRIT DE CORPSE
photo laurent segretier
NICOLA FORMICHETTI and RICK GENEST are continuously pushing the envelope with their unrestrained creations. VIVIENNE TANG meets the two to discuss the legacy of Thierry Mugler, their collaboration with Lady Gaga and the ever-turning rumour mill
CALL IT SHOWMANSHIP or genius, Nicola Formichetti knows how to create a buzz. From his role as Lady Gaga’s personal stylist (he prefers to say art director or curator) to being the new creative head at Mugler, Formichetti never disappoints. His shocktastic inventions are legend, ranging from the meat dress that he created for Gaga’s MTV Video Music Awards appearance in 2010 to his latest campaign at Mugler featuring his full-body corpse-tattooed muse Rick Genest, aka Zombie Boy.
But it’s not all roses. Formichetti came under fire recently for saying that he hates fat folk and old people, and during our interview he drops the odd hint of acerbity, pointing out, for example, that people here are “in your face.” Given his reputation for abrasiveness, one wonders whether he’s ignorant, misunderstood or perhaps a marketing prodigy.
“Now people listen to what I say; before, they never cared,” 34-year-old Formichetti says when I meet him and Genest at Joyce in Hong Kong. “And now when you say something wrong you get scolded. People say all sorts of stuff about me, that I hate fat people and things like that, and that really hurt at the beginning. First I said, ‘Why do people care if I hate fat people?’ I mean how stupid would that be to say in an interview: ‘I hate fat people.’ Of course it’s a joke. You can never make everyone happy. I only care about what people that I respect say, people who like my work, my team. Then of course I listen, but you can’t start listening to every blogger.”
The half-Japanese, half-Italian Formichetti (whose looks are often likened to those of a small panda, which has led him to take on the symbol as a kind of mascot) rose to fame when he moved from Italy to London in his early 20s to help launch the careers of Brit designers Gareth Pugh and Kim Jones. A spell at Vivienne Westwood followed, and then at Dazed & Confused, where he worked as creative director. Today he keeps himself busy with a number of projects: Gaga’s innovative creations; Vogue Hommes Japan, where, as fashion director, he creates fantastic photo shoots with the likes of Gaga and Genest; and the reinvention of Thierry Mugler’s brand, relaunched this season. He wants to keep all the platforms “if it’s physically possible,” he assures me.
“I’m in Paris once a month,” Formichetti says in a Japanese-intoned Italian accent. “I’m between New York, Tokyo and London. It’s kind of worked out. I’m really excited to be here, because I rarely go to a new place. I always go to Tokyo, same old places. I’m so excited. We visited some temples this morning, and I just started Weibo (a Chinese Twitter equivalent) yesterday. I have 2,000 followers already, within 24 hours. It’s incredible. There are so many people here.”
Formichetti is always on the go, constantly innovating and pushing the boundaries. Creating outrageous costumes for Gaga is one thing, but reinventing an iconic brand such as Thierry Mugler’s and applying the same kind of shock value to its clothes is another thing. It takes guts.
“No idea,” he answers when I ask him if he knows what Thierry Mugler thinks of his revamped version of the label. “I don’t want to know actually. If I was him, I would hate it. If someone was using my name, I would think that they would never be as good as me. The same goes for Jil Sander, even though Raf [Simons] is doing an incredible job. Still, I don’t think she’s going to say, ‘Oh, I love it.’ It was the same for Yves Saint Laurent. That’s why we changed the name to Mugler, to show that it’s a team and that it’s no longer about a personal vision. I wanted to do a group collaboration, something digital. I wanted a global idea for the brand.”
Even though Formichetti finds himself at the helm of the house now, he gets a helping hand from two head designers who work on menswear and womenswear respectively. And then, of course, there’s his muse, Rick Genest.
“It’s not just a one-off, he’s part of our team,” he says about his somewhat controversial affiliation with Genest, whom he found through Facebook. “We haven’t really thought about it, but he might not model next season. He might help us backstage. We’re friends now. I didn’t use him as a marketing tool. I don’t do that kind of stuff. I love what he represents.”
Twenty-six-year-old, Montreal-based Genest is nothing like his exterior, though. His pale green eyes reveal a shy and timid young man, notwithstanding the fact that he also runs a carnival project named Lucifer’s Blasphemous Mad Macabre Torture. He got his first tattoo when he was 16, and by the time he was 21 he’d decided to get a skull tattoo on his face.
“That was a gift to myself for my 21st birthday,” the soft-spoken Genest says with a smile, conceding a little bit of a blush behind his tattoo. “I became an adult, and felt like I had to make some serious decisions.”
Genest has stopped counting his tattoos. He simply refers to them as one big one. He counts punk rock as his main influence, and he’s quite comfortable in his new role as a fashion muse.
“I’ve always been interested in people’s styles and cultures,” he says. “I was very into making my own gear, DIY. I made my own pants and jackets. I’ve been into creative styling. I guess it’s not too far from where I’ve started. It’s just on a different level. It’s the same with the circus. It’s all about costumes.”
Genest also appeared in Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” video, in which she sported the same skull tattoo make-up, and which catapulted him to stardom. “It was one crazy weekend,” he says with a chuckle. “She’s great. She’s very open and always cracking jokes. She’s very busy, but still very cool. She’s fantastic.”
It’s hard to believe that such attention-grabbing collaborations are more than just a flash in the pan, but Formichetti is known for his contradictions, one being his aversion to fashion because he finds it “too celebrity driven.”
“Oh yeah, for sure,” he answers when I ask him whether or not the rumour is true. “I still don’t like that.” And how does he explain his work with Lady Gaga? “Gaga isn’t a celebrity. To me she’s a performance artist. She just happens to be famous. Celebrities for me are those Hollywood people. I like musicians. They’re more creative. I hate the idea of red carpet. I’m not saying that I hate every celebrity. If we believe in the person, for sure…We’ve worked with Eva Mendes on the [Thierry Mugler] perfume. We dress her for her events and things like that, and we did Take That. That was just because we were fans when we were little. Now we’re like older and beautiful.”
Despite the frenzy he seems to create wherever he goes, Formichetti claims to shun the spotlight. “I hated it last month,” he says about his fame, even though his pop-up shop in New York was already in the works at the time of this interview, and ran for a couple of weeks in September. “I really hated it because I always loved being backstage and doing my thing. I don’t feel that comfortable, but I’m trying to be. Whatever I say, they seem to twist it, and I was reading all these things, and sometimes I’m like, ‘What is the point of this article?’ I went to this shop and then Beyoncé came and bought a pair of Mugler shoes, and that was in the New York Post. It’s great publicity or whatever, but I want to use it for positive things. I love interacting with the younger generation. They’re so inspiring to me. I don’t listen to people who don’t care about my work, but I listen to my fans.”
He also tries to listen to his inner voice, and he has a thing for meditation, Chinese herbs and acupuncture to help him relax. Formichetti admits that most of his time is spent online, but says he’s currently trying to reintroduce some of his old ways of researching and collecting inspiring images, which might serve as material for future collections and sculpture-like Gaga pieces.
“I think it’s great, and we should all embrace the digital side,” he says about the Internet. “But you get addicted, and you need someone to edit for you, because everything is so accessible. If you just live with Google…you know, it’s so big, it’s almost a curse. I’m forcing myself at the moment to walk around and do stupid things, like buy books. I used to be obsessed with buying photo books and magazines. I was like a collector. I realised the other day that I haven’t bought any magazines and books for a year. You just don’t have time, and you just do everything digitally. So I started doing that again. I had to force myself. I used to collect and photocopy and put stuff up on the wall. It’s good to have paper. I don’t know why. Even if you look at an image, I don’t think it registers for me, because I’m used to holding it.”
Formichetti once described his early work in the editorial field as “jerking off.”
“It was like that,” he admits. “Before, I was doing all my editorial work for myself. I had this vision, and I wanted to recreate myself and just focus on the magazine [Dazed & Confused]. It was a small circulation. Basically nobody was reading it. I was just jerking off to myself, until I started working with Mugler and Gaga, and I didn’t have to use my hand anymore.” He breaks out into a laugh, then quickly stops the narcissistic entertainment. “Oh my God, we’re going to be banned from China.”
But catering to a bigger audience can also mean more restrictions. Doesn’t anyone censor what he does (or says)?
“Later on, the work was about more than just me. I was doing it for my friends and other people. There was no restriction. It was more like, ‘How can we make it global and bigger?’ You don’t want to be that kind of crazy, edgy one in the corner. I want people to appreciate my work on the same level. To me, that was growing up and becoming an adult. It took 20 years. Now, I like wearing a suit, sometimes with sneakers. Before, I hated suits.”
It’s a thin line between fitting in and fighting against the norm, but it’s a balancing act Formichetti is cut out for. And perhaps it’s his biggest skill.
“We make fun of it,” he says, when I ask him about red-carpet events. “We made a dress out of meat. I’m doing one on Saturday for the VMA [MTV Video Music Awards] actually. So we still have to work in this system, but we try to be different and try to kind of push and try to be a rebel.”
Lady Gaga and Formichetti are an odd duo, yet their friendship and work relationship has birthed some of the most interesting and talked-about costumes of all time. “Random texts and random emails,” he says, trying to describe their working style. “It’s abstract. We always plan everything way in advance, but we always end up changing it on the day. Yeah, we always turn it around and destroy it. We don’t even know what we’ll be doing for the VMAs.”
It turns out that Gaga dressed up as Jo Calderone, her Italian male-model alter ego, who was also the subject of a photo spread in Vogue Hommes Japan.
Love him or loathe him, the young Formichetti has already made his name and achieved what millions of other creative people simply dream of. And when it comes to goals, there’s no end in sight. “I feel like I haven’t even started. We’re still experimenting. There are so many things we want to do. God, I don’t see the goal yet.”
photo laurent segretier