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Riccardo Tisci, the chief designer at Givenchy, has edited the new issue of Visionaire magazine – and the theme, of 'religion', was an answer to his prayers. In an exclusive preview, he introduces his divine creations

For the 60th edition of Visionaire magazine, the Givenchy artistic director, Riccardo Tisci, has taken the editor's chair, following in a long line of fêted figures that includes Tom Ford, Rei Kawakubo and Hedi Slimane.

It should come as no great surprise that Tisci's issue is an exploration of religion. He is a designer whose southern Italian, Catholic heritage permeates everything he touches. His breakthrough show, under his own name ,was held in an incense-filled warehouse in Milan, dominated by a crucifix. References to funeral processions, Baroque churches, and religious Old Master sculpture and painting have all informed his work. Before he presents each collection, he prays, he says, and puts salt in the four corners of the space in question "to avoid negative energy. I'm superstitious, that is very much part of religion".

In fact, he continues, talking from a New York hotel room and with the hand-crafted prototype of Visionaire Sixty in his hands (it is limited to 3,000 numbered copies), it was the title's founders, Stephen Gan, James Kaliardos and Cecilia Dean, who came up with the theme.

Given that Tisci has collected religious artefacts and imagery – from rosaries to pictures torn out of books and magazines – from a very early age, they couldn't have wished for a more perfect fit.

"I wanted to do something very iconic, as in something that is there forever, but is also very strong. To me, Visionaire, which I have always looked at and loved, is about creative freedom, about the freedom of expression, with no rules.

"Today, so much fashion, and art and music, involves pleasing the client. So I said right from the beginning that, even though I am at Givenchy, I didn't want any [fashion] credits in the magazine. The contributors could use vintage clothing, they could use a single piece of fabric, they could do what they wanted. And there are a lot of nudes. In religious painting and sculpture there are a lot of nudes, too – Christ is portrayed nude, angels are portrayed nude. We were all born naked."

Tisci's approach to his task was cross-disciplinary – he approached artists, musicians, actors and more, as well as, naturally, many of the world's most celebrated models, photographers and stylists. "We tried to put people together who hadn't necessarily worked with each other before and to mix things up creatively which, to me, is very modern. Every person who has contributed is someone who I respect." Karl Lagerfeld has photographed former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld; sculptor Berlinde de Bruyckere has collaborated with Mario Testino on a sequence; Jefferson Hack has edited a series of Patti Smith's Polaroids; Inez Van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin re-envision 'Lucy Fer'.

All involved were given an image by Tisci to work from: "It was then entirely up to them to interpret it with their own eyes". He did stipulate, however, that everything should be photographed in black and white. "For me, black and white is clean and elegant, and I knew that if people used colour they were likely to go very dark. I wanted something very beautiful, very positive, and very young."

True to Visionaire's history, the format is unorthodox – a wooden box carved out of antique doors and based on an alter-piece splits open to reveal a leather-bound hardbacked book inside. Nine individual gold leaf pages that break up the work represent Tisci's eight sisters and his mother, he says; a single black page, his father, who died when he was only four years of age. "It's true, it's dedicated to my father," he says. In addition, the Givaudan perfumer, Yann Vasnier, has created for the edition a "smell of religion. To me that is all about my childhood," Tisci says, "about going to church every Sunday with my family, about being clean and well-dressed even though we were poor, about having coffee and breakfast afterwards. So I wanted the perfume to be something very fresh and innocent. The first impression is strong and sharp and then it becomes delicate, romantic and soft."

While Tisci is, of course, aware that at least some of the Catholic church's views are not as inclusive as they might be, "at the end of the day, I believe in my Jesus Christ, I believe in my God, and I am Catholic. It's one of the world's oldest religions and it's not quick to change. But my mother will tell you that, I might not seem it, I might not look it, but I am a good, religious boy."

For Easter, then, Tisci, who is now based in Paris, will be going back to the suburb of Milan, to where his parents travelled from southern Italy and set up the family home more than 60 years ago now. "In Italy, we say that Jesus died at three o'clock in the afternoon and, in my memory, at three o'clock, the Friday before Easter, it always seems to rain there. My mum used to say: 'You see, God is crying, these are his tears'. At seven o'clock, I'll go and see the procession with my family – there's one in every city in the country. It's a wonderful moment and one that we have always shared together."

'Visionaire Sixty Religion', guest edited by Riccardo Tisci, in collaboration with Givenchy, is available from 1 June; to pre-order, visit visionaireworld.com

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