Last September, Italian fashion brand Marni and its 39-year-old creative director Francesco Risso staged a fashion show featuring around 553 looks. Good kind of. The show itself had 53 outfits, but Risso and his team also opted — in a colossal task — to dress the entire audience as well, a process that took more than a week. “For me, that was the best part of this show, like meeting everyone,” Risso says. “And I got the meaning of what we’re doing at the end of the day, which is actually making clothes for people.”
We are sitting in Risso’s office in Milan. The last time I was here was winter, dark and cozy, striped with eggplant and yellow. It received a summer facelift amid a scorching heat wave on the tarmac, painted a pale mauve-grey. A door bears the hand-painted word “MARNI”, reminiscent of Danny’s scribbled handwriting in Stanley Kubrick’s film, the brilliant.
Marni was founded in 1994 by Consuelo Castiglioni, originally as a subsidiary of the family fur business. Risso was appointed in 2016 when Castiglioni resigned following the sale of Marni to Renzo Rosso’s OTB group the previous year. Risso, born in Sardinia and a graduate of Central Saint Martins MA, joined the company after eight years at Prada, following stints at Blumarine and Alessandro Dell’Acqua.
Risso remade Marni in his image. This image is artful, wacky, a little messy, with lots of raw edges and exposed seams, darnings and embroideries as if worn, repaired, pre-loved. The clothes Risso dressed up for his audience last September were hand-painted with the stripes that also line many of Marni’s sweaters – ‘With the team, we were like, what’s our uniform? Oh, stripes, of course! — numbered with hand-scribbled labels that resemble the doodle on his office door.
Her last show, staged in Milan in February for the fall/winter 2022 season, was “about fragility, about mending, about the secrets behind emotional clothing,” says Risso.
Alongside hand-painted prints, ripped bias-cut evening dresses and handmade knitwear from the Marni collection, each model wore pieces from their own wardrobe that had a keepsake or meaning to them. “There was something about these emotional objects that we bring with us that to me was almost like this shield to protect us from that moment of darkness,” Risso says — security blankets, if you will.
To underscore the point, Risso marched his cast through the semi-dark, torchlit audiences crammed into a disused warehouse. The models were non-professionals, people he felt an affinity with — members of his studio team, friends, select family, “even people who have been clients, they walked on our show.”
For the second consecutive season, the designer himself modeled – and next to the clothes he designed himself, he wore a garment inherited from his grandfather. “He has multiple lives,” Risso explains. “Personally, it gives me strength at a time when the world seems so scattered and so divided. And so difficult to live with.
In the studio outside Risso’s office, dresses are being prepared for the upcoming Spring/Summer 2023 show – parts are hand-painted, edges frayed, chunky pieces cut out. It is this process, says Risso, that he has missed the most during these difficult times, namely the Covid-19 lockdowns. “All that connection. All that handwork. All this work hand in hand. In an instant he was gone,” he said sadly.
Instead, he worked with his team remotely and went into a creative frenzy. “You should come to my house, because I basically painted all the walls in my house,” he laughs again. “I was painting curtains!”
As the pandemic subsided, it was time to bring everyone together. “To reconnect,” Risso says. “Not just the people who work here, but the people who have helped me with the music, musician friends, artists, our performers, the models, the cast, everyone. Everyone who is really part of the circle.
“And we started this epistolary work that reconfirmed that what we do is a practice, that it’s not just the self-centered top-down work of the designer. What we do is very much influenced by the joint ventures of these people. And that’s how Marni moved down this path of this strange two-year gap.
You could call it a school of Marni – a collective approach, exemplified by the multi-faceted cast and multi-sensory experiences of Marni’s last two fashion shows. Along with the diverse cast, they each featured music crafted by English singer-songwriter and producer Dev Hynes and art direction by Babak Radboy, who also worked with Telfar in New York. And both disrupted the idea of the traditional fashion show, with dozens of models making their way through an audience arranged not in the strictly regulated rows of hierarchical fashion seats, but organically gathered together as if to celebrate.
Risso is all about emotional responses, and these two 2022 shows have both garnered strong reactions from their audiences. A few people broke down in tears during the Spring/Summer 2022 fashion show, inspired by the idea of communities and teams, with choir singing and clothing around, among other things, football kits and school uniforms as school badges. ‘membership.
A number of critics, conversely, were angered by the staging of the Fall/Winter 2022 show in this dimly lit warehouse. They complained that they couldn’t see the clothes, which you couldn’t. Risso is a philosopher. “I was curious how we could, in a way, create some kind of mystery where you wouldn’t know where to look,” he said – and, for him, the show is not just about show clothes. It is a mood or a feeling. Apparel sales, after all, take place away from the catwalks. “And I have to say that in terms of, let’s say, numbers, it’s the most successful collection we’ve done,” he says proudly.
Another criticism sometimes leveled at Risso is that his Marni may not be very . . . Marnie. Granted, her clothes were unlike Castiglioni’s, which were often fresh and summery, rounded shapes paired with bold prints, heavy platform shoes and chunky jewelry. Risso is tall and thin, and his clothes tend to pull in an elongated line. Knits are important — he cites Marni’s striped mohair as a huge hit.
But he also sees a thread that connects his creations to what Castiglioni was doing a long time ago. “Marni was born with this free spirit,” says Risso. “I feel like it’s a re-enactment – in a way that looks so different to the outside world, but people can actually see so many of those similarities. There’s something about the rawness of the hand which I keep coming back to… there was something like that at the time with Marni, this fragility.
This feeling is something that Risso himself has always loved. As a teenager, he made his own clothes – or rather he remade them, ripping and tearing pieces, sewing and customizing. He still does it today. “Asset!” Risso laughs. “Even my Marni clothes, which are probably already ripped by definition when they go into production. But actually, I can’t avoid ripping more.
Risso doesn’t necessarily see destruction as a bad thing, he says. “I can’t find beauty if I don’t destroy, because in destruction I can see that I can find another side that was kind of hidden,” he says. Then he smiles. “Like a beautiful Frankenstein.”