Marni’s Francesco Risso — Cultural Seer? – WWD

A collection preview is typically just that. A designer offers as much as he or she is willing about what’s soon to hit the runway (or, more often this season, a digital platform), providing a sneak peak, creative insight, a sound bite or two. But sometimes, you have to spend a moment or two looking back.

Marni’s Francesco Risso started last season’s journey down the rabbit hole by posing the question, “Are we in a caged world and psychedelia is the thing that helps free us?” That was last February in Milan, just as all normalcy was about to combust. A month prior, Risso’s men’s show was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” The story tells of a prince who shuts himself off in his palace to avoid a horrible disease devastating his country. (In the end, the Red Death wins.)

Talk about being in tune with the culture. In a Zoom chat last week, Risso looked back and forward, to spring 2021’s “Marnifesto.”

WWD: This call is about spring 2021. But I have to read back to you the premise of your fall 2020 collection — written in February: “Are we in a caged world?” Do you consider yourself clairvoyant?

Francesco Risso: It’s funny that you are pulling that out. Sometimes the words just fly away. But during lockdown over all these months, sometimes those words just came back as something very powerful. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to compose this project that we are now calling Marnifesto, that’s going to be [our presentation].

WWD: Marnifesto as in manifesto?

F.R.: Manifesto but Marni. Yes. I feel almost strange talking about a collection of clothes. This is because of exactly what you’re saying, this caged world that we are living in. These months have been so much about this collective work. I mean, usually a collection is about collective work, but this time more than usual.

Somehow, the anarchy [has paved the way] for freedom and self-expression.…This collection has been about the individual stories of all the people I work with, all their lives, their loves, their awakenings, my awakenings, the connections.

I don’t feel like I want to make a statement with this collection. It’s not that during the lockdown I was thinking about [traditional inspirations], about the beautiful landscapes. It’s the opposite. This has been almost like a social experiment where the dialogue between me and the people I work with is central to construct this collection.

And also, we pass the collection on to the people who will interpret the Marnifesto. It’s a live show that will happen in several cities in the world: L.A., Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, London, Paris, Milan, Dakar [Senegal], Tokyo and Shanghai. The dialogue has passed from us to [the show’s talent]. We sent the clothes to them, so that’s why this is like a piece that is in evolution. And it’s in evolution because of our molding it, and the people who are wearing it. So it’s not about the “I”; it’s about the “we.”

WWD: So you sent clothes to people in all of those cities, and they’ll wear them and there will be a live simulcast show going from one city to the other and showing each…

F.R.: It’s going to be a simultaneous show that will start at 3 p.m. and will achieve its highest point from 4 to 4:20, where we will have our show.

WWD: What’s the concept?

F.R.: What we worked on is to understand the people’s lives, their houses, where they live, their narratives, what they want to express. So, each person, each musician, each artist, will perform and play and express their urgencies in a sort of like geometry. It’s going to be a collage.…We are going to synchronize almost around 48 stories, and this is going to be our show.

WWD: It sounds quite elaborate.

F.R.: It’s all happening through the people’s phones, through, through YouTube and digital platforms. Basically each person will be filming themselves, or through their friends, through their lovers, while they are waking up, going to work, doing their things. And what is going to be the common ground is that each will select a symbolic place in their hometown. So, a street. That will be our show. Each person is going to hit the street, and that’s where everybody is going to be connected. Gathered between these stories there’s going to be musicians singing, like Deem Spencer, Moses Sumney, Mykki Blanco. They are all part of our Marnifesto, walking and maybe singing to you on your phone.

WWD: Tell me about the casting.

F.R.: Well the casting started from the people who have done our shows many, many times, which is basically my family, my friends, the artists who have worked for Marni in the years. It naturally became a bigger casting, maybe bigger than our usual castings because we have 48 people. Usually our shows are a little smaller. So it happened naturally.

WWD: Who is producing this? This seems like quite the live endeavor.

F.R.: It is a big mission. I’m collaborating with Tal Rosner [director of video] and John Kennedy [production head], who are players in this operation. I’m very devoted to this collective work. We’ve spent these months making this thing happen from sending the clothes, doing the fittings in the most remote places, from North Carolina to Detroit to strange places in Los Angeles to Tokyo, Dakar. So really literally even sending the clothes it’s been a mission.

WWD: There’s a stop in North Carolina?

F.R.: Actually Moses Sumney, he’s in North Carolina. And he makes his own videos. So he is going to be filming himself.

WWD: It’s one thing to fit clothes digitally on the fit model, how did you fit 48 people remotely?

F.R.: It was a big work. But most of the people are the people who we used to work with. And so we know what they fit, we know how they look. But that’s what I mean, that this collective work is almost like a continuous evolution. The clothes have been started from a dialogue here and they continue to mold through the people who are wearing them. So things have changed while the fittings were happening. Things molded also through the personalities, and that’s the beautiful thing about this Marnifesto. 

WWD: Can you articulate the Marnifesto? Is that what it is, the idea of individuality?

F.R.: I would say that Marnifesto represents a celebration of what Marni is, a canvas that is multifaceted. And it’s the romanticism of a daily experience of what Marni is. I have been thinking a lot about this era, about how it’s expected for us to create innovation. But actually, to me the real twist is about fragility and the power of fragility. Somehow recognizing the fact that that patternmaker had put so many hours into that beautiful coat has been the key. [It’s about] the hand that made a certain type of clothes in a certain moment. That’s the dialogue I’m talking about. It’s about recognizing, respect, love, the things that we actually stand for at Marni.

WWD: You talk about the dialogue with the people wearing the clothes, and ultimately the clothes become about their personalities. But you also talk about the connections of all of your team, the collective effort of them making the clothes. How do their stories come through?

F.R.: Their stories came through at the beginning of the lockdown, when we started a sort of collective poem. We started this epistolary work, a work of letters, that we shared between us, the team, the artists who worked for Marni in the past, some of the talent who will be in the show.…We impressed the clothes with all these words. Our clothes are impressed and printed with all the words of the people who have worked on it.

WWD: So that’s the unifying concept of the collection?

F.R.: Exactly.

WWD: Is it all in Italian? Is it in different languages?

F.R.: Different languages. It’s a complete stream of consciousness. We have Portuguese Italian, Chinese, English. We have many languages.

WWD: It sounds fascinating.

F.R.: It’s wonderful. It’s still a work in progress, meaning that most of the poetry and words or feelings, notes, have been unified into a sort of collective poem that has gone onto this Marnifesto and onto the clothes. Some of the poetries are actually isolated onto special pieces that are this unique coat. So we have 20 to 25 coats, leather coats, that have been collaged from all the collections of Marni and then have been hand-painted.

WWD: Is the poetry a single work and everybody threw in their two cents, or did different people write their own individual poems?

F.R.: I actually started before the lockdown, asking each person to share with me something about what they were living or something about love, or anything they feel they wanted to write. So everything was extremely free. There was no control, there was no theme or anything. People sent images, people sent pieces of song. People sent their own poetry or their own songs. Even grocery lists or their journal from what happened at 10 a.m. or 12 or 6 p.m. That has been very emotional to me. And it made me want to build out the collection, continuing this dialogue. That was the strength of the collection, that fragility of that moment.

WWD: “That fragility of that moment.” You mentioned collaged leathers, which do not sound fragile. Describe the clothes.

F.R.: When I’m talking about fragility, I mean that dialogue [that] reaffirms what is the Marni DNA. Sometimes we found ourselves making pieces and prototypes with staples and then giving that to our seamstress to remake it.

WWD: Staples as in a stapler?

F.R.: Yes, as a stapler. And when I’m saying fragility this is what I’m referring to. There is almost a primitiveness in the making of the object because what counts is that softness, the fact that it lies on the body naturally. It allows people to express themselves with sensuality, not in constriction. And so this is [the mood of] the clothes. And the words, they just go on top of it.

WWD: Are there three or four or five words that speak most poignantly to you about this moment right now and how you’ve expressed this moment in this collection?

F.R.: Two things that I keep thinking about — first of all, that this process has been about moving from “I” to “we.” And also about a sort of collective new humanism.

WWD: A collective new humanism?

F.R.: For me, this is the most important thing, that symphony that we are creating with these 48 people and the dialogue that was part of such big efforts here at Marni, with the team that worked with me.

WWD: I’ve spoken with designers who’ve said that working remotely with their teams has brought everyone closer in some ways.

F.R.: There was a moment where myself and my colleagues, we found each other in a struggle, because our work is very sensorial. It’s very much about the hand, and we didn’t have that anymore. But that empathy allowed for each person to construct home-alone personal development. And when we finally could go back to work together, that was the real surprise. The real engagement came when finally we thought, “OK, we stayed home and we learned more, and now we can be stronger together.”

But I must say there is no joy in passing a pattern to a patternmaker through Zoom. There is no joy in feeling disconnected and having a call somehow dropping and not having that sensorial [experience]. So I feel even though technology can unite us, it can also make us further apart.

That’s why I am devoted to this Marnifesto, because of the importance of these 48 people who have committed to this project. They are not backstage, waiting to be called out and follow the scheme of the brand. This is a different operation that’s about each one’s expression. And there is no better time to do this. I mean, at least for me.

WWD: Are you all back at work together now?

F.R.: Yes. It’s not many people. We have to go in cycles; it’s a continuous rotation. Of course, we try to have the safest way to work here. We get tested from time to time. It’s a process that is new for all of us. But somehow, I’m lucky to be here. I have lost people in this period.

WWD: I’m so sorry.

F.R.: It’s been a process. And Italy and Milan, there was a moment at the beginning of the lockdown at home where we thought, Lawrence [Steele, Risso’s partner] and I, we thought “oh, finally, we can finally stop a little bit and just enjoy a normal life.” And then the oppression just comes, and you can’t avoid noticing it. And the moment you restart and you touch clothes and you enjoy this mutual connection, this is when it becomes really emotional and you want to treasure it.

WWD: It’s important for those of us who love this industry to telegraph the emotion of clothes. It’s not just fabric cut into shapes that look pretty.

F.R.: Exactly. There is a system that needs to be protected, there’s manufacturing, there’s the people who believe in it, who fight, who work so much. And we can’t make any innovation if we don’t start respecting everything that we work on, basically.

WWD: For how long have you been planning your show? It sounds so complicated.

F.R.: A long time. I actually started to work on this project even before COVID-19. Marnifesto started basically before the last show. And of course, COVID-19 just made it more difficult.

WWD: More difficult but I would think also more personal, more poignant.

F.R.: More introspective, for sure.

WWD: I want to go back to your last season’s press notes: “Are we in a caged world?” How often have you thought of the question you raised back in February?

F.R.: Many, many, many, many times. I thought so much about that and even about what I said during the men’s wear show, where I was basically raving about “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe, about the plague and about how that was like the last dance until the end. And so those words just kept hitting on my brain as something so urgent to contemplate.

WWD: That’s amazing. This has been so interesting. Before our Zoom times out, where are you right now? Are you at home?

F.R.: No, I am in my office in Milan.

WWD: You have quite a library behind you.

F.R.: This is what I call the “black hole” because I have so many amazing books but I never can find what I look for. It’s like, I know that there’s [what I want], but whenever I try to find it, it’s not there. And it’s fascinating because I find something else, which leads me to some other place.

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