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Piano man: Nicola Formichetti has a parallel passion as a classical pianist.Photo: Victor Jones
Piano man: Nicola Formichetti has a parallel passion as a classical pianist.Photo: Victor Jones

People

Meet stylist and creative director Nicola Formichetti

Nicola Formichetti’s bold vision extends far beyond his sensational styling of Lady Gaga. Now moving in more commercial circles as Diesel’s creative front man, the fashion world’s enfant terrible is once again ready to go mad.

Clad in a sky-blue satin bomber jacket with a luminous smile on his face, there’s something of the boy angel about Nicola Formichetti this afternoon.

Born: Tokyo, 31 May 1977
Lives: Tribeca, New York
Current positions: Artistic director of Diesel; designer and owner of fashion label Nicopanda; stylist. 
Career: Head buyer and creative director at Pineal Eye boutique; fashion editor and creative director of Dazed & Confused magazine; stylist working for magazines such as V, V Man, Another, Another Man and Arena Homme; fashion director of Vogue Hommes Japan; creative director at Mugler; creative director at Uniqlo.
Awards: Isabella Blow Award for Fashion Creator at the 2010 British Fashion Awards.

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We meet the fashion maverick – whose work is intrinsically linked to Lady Gaga’s outlandish wardrobe, including that meat dress – at Brown’s Hotel in London’s exclusive Mayfair area. The distinctive jacket he’s wearing is by Diesel, the Italian denim brand for which he’s served as artistic director since spring 2013. He also runs his own suped-up streetwear label Nicopanda.

These days, Formichetti, who is of Japanese and Italian descent, is based in New York. But it was in London that his trajectory towards the upper fashion echelons began. “I grew up in Rome and Tokyo but didn’t feel at home in either city,” says the 39-year-old. “I was obsessed with British magazines like i-D and The Face. The way people dressed was insane and I thought ‘I have to move to London!’”

To justify the relocation to his parents, he enrolled at an architecture school, but headed for the exit only days into his degree and soon hit the mid 1990s’ London nightclub scene. “It was incredible to be part of that hedonistic, creative world,” he exclaims, as if reliving the moment. “Dressing up was a huge part of my clubbing days. The music and the way you dressed were connected – it was raw, creative and grungy. London gave me the freedom to be who I wanted to be.”

While working at the progressive Soho boutique The Pineal Eye, Formichetti came into contact with all manner of fashion people, including esteemed stylist Katy England. She spotted Formichetti’s unique creative sensibility and brought him into the fold of the edgy Dazed & Confused magazine, allowing him to make his irreverent mark first as a stylist and fashion editor, then as creative director.Photo: Victor Jones

Freedom of expression is central to Formichetti’s work and persona, and he uses fashion to push boundaries and break convention. “As a young stylist, I embraced the grungy 1990s aesthetic of London, turning my back on anything else,” he says. “Then I realized I’d gone against the freedom I was looking for by rejecting my Japanese and Italian roots. I was all about the new, new, new!”

It all clicked, he says, when he paused for a moment and acknowledged his heritage. “When I let the influences of my past and present merge, I grew more confident and my work became more interesting.”

Part of Formichetti’s talent is his ability to capture the imagination of the millennial generation. But while his digitally-savvy vision is wholly contemporary, influences from decades past give it nuance.

And he has a particular penchant for Italian photography and advertising from the 1980s. He ­singles out the Benetton ads from this era with their strong colors and bold smiling faces as all-time favorites. “The idea of communicating the values of different cultures and using advertising as a vehicle to start a dialog appeals to me,” he explains.

He has clearly harnessed this approach in his spring/summer 2016 campaign for Diesel, which comments, with a tongue-in-cheek tone, on society’s love-hate relationship with the digital world. He’s even come up with his own emoticons, including a small halo­adorned angel.Photo: Victor Jones

It’s impossible to sit next to Formichetti without prying into his days with Lady Gaga, with whom he worked between 2009 and 2012. “Gaga and I had so much fun,” he beams. “When I put her in my outfits, they came alive and turned into something else entirely.” Formichetti and Gaga’s convention-busting aesthetic created a stir globally and became an enduring image of its era.

One ensemble caused more controversy than others: the famous outfit fashioned from raw flank steak. “That dress caused such a reaction, and not only in fashion circles,” observes Formichetti. “It was exciting to discover that a piece of clothing, though an unconventional one, could have such an impact globally.”

As for the endless interpretations of the dress, Gaga herself explained at the time that it was a statement about one’s need to fight for what one believes in, criticizing the US military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy.

Today, most designers would kill to have Lady Gaga, or any musician of global renown, appear in their clothes, but Formachetti reveals that this was not always the case. “The only two people willing to lend us clothes were Alexander McQueen and Miuccia Prada. That’s why you saw Gaga dressed in their pieces a lot during her early career. All of the other brands said no. When I started working with Gaga, it was taboo for a fashion stylist to team up with musicians. People told me I was crazy to work with a Gaga, saying it would ruin my career. It’s amazing to think this was the general consensus only a few years ago.”

Having reached international stardom via the House of Gaga, Formichetti was appointed creative director of French fashion house Mugler (originally known as Thierry Mugler). Gaga had brought Mugler back into the limelight, which made Formichetti a natural fit.

But Formichetti received mixed reviews for his work, and his tenure came to an end in 2013 after just two years. “One of the reasons my time at Mugler wasn’t successful was that I didn’t take the commercial side seriously enough; I just wanted to be creative,” he admits. “I never had formal fashion training and made all my mistakes in public. In the beginning, it was horrible and I took it personally. But it contributed to the position I’m in now.”

Photo: Victor Jones

Formichetti also gives credit to his “teachers” in the magazine and retail world for his current success but notes that the one thing he’d always lacked was a business partner. Enter Renzo Rosso, founder and owner of Diesel and Only the Brave Group, which includes Marni, Maison Margiela and Viktor & Rolf in its stable of fashion powerhouse brands.

Rosso had been watching Formichetti for some time and eventually asked if he’d consider helping him restore Diesel to its former glory. “My first reaction was ‘me designing denim, are you crazy?’” recalls Formichetti. “But it soon started to make sense. I love denim and I knew Renzo wouldn’t try to stifle my creativity. I also knew I had to hone my business skills and joining a major company like Diesel would give me the perfect opportunity to do so.”

Since stepping in as the Italian brand’s artistic director, Formichetti has been involved in every aspect of the sprawling business and helped strategically steer it in a new, more premium direction. “We’ve spent two years refining Diesel’s DNA and bringing in the right people,” he says. “Now we have a really strong team, and we’re ready to push the brand – it’s time to go insane.”

Text: Emma Holmqvist Deacon

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