Nicola Formichetti: 'The Lady Gaga thing pushed me into the limelight'

The fashion designer has gone from styling one star to steering the artistic direction of a big brand. Alexander Fury meets him

Nicola Formichetti is no ordinary fashion designer. Then again, really, he isn't a fashion designer at all. He started off as a stylist, working on the magazine Dazed and Confused and then for numerous editorial and commercial clients. At some point, there was a run-in with a fledgling New York-based musician who performed under the name Lady Gaga. Formichetti was drafted in to collaborate on her music videos. The rest, as they say, is history.

Formichetti, 36, has a polished voice – polished by numerous press interviews, an accent ironed out by endless transcontinental commenting. He was born in Tokyo, the son of a Japanese mother and Italian father, hence his move to Rome for school, aged 12. He then spent stints living in London and New York. Hence the smooth, almost accent-free English. At a push, you would nail it as London rather than anywhere else, which chimes with Formichetti's urge to break the rules and transgress boundaries. "Gaga always said, 'Whatever the record company tells you to do, do the opposite,'" he casually states. It feels like a distantly London-punk mentality.

But Formichetti has moved from punk to the heart of the establishment. Today, he is artistic director of the multibillion-euro Italian denim behemoth Diesel. Please note: artistic director, not head designer. Direction, either artistic or creative, is postmodern fashion's epithet of choice. It implies a remit far larger than merely clothes, spanning advertising campaigns, shop-fits and all facets of visual presentation. Neither explicitly states that you'll be getting your hands dirty with the nuts and bolts of design.

What is the actual definition of the job? Nicola Formichetti shrugs. "I still don't know – it's just a name that sounds kind of cool." Maybe that's the answer, in part. It's knowing what's "cool" at any one time, and being able to steer something, or someone, towards it. It's a diviner, rather than a designer.

That is something Nicola Formichetti has carved out a career doing. That sense of cool is possibly his most valuable commodity, as is his willingness to challenge factors limiting certain spheres of influence. Example: Formichetti's day job is a stylist. It's a very well-paid day job for a figure of Formichetti's calibre. It's also a day job that Formichetti has chafed at the confines of for some time. A stylist implies tinkering with existing clothing – maybe helping designers to pull "looks" together for a catwalk show, or dressing a model or celebrity in garments for a photographic editorial. Stylists don't normally have a hand in actually devising the pieces of clothing themselves, and they certainly don't take a bow after the catwalk show.

Formichetti was arguably the first to do so. In 2010, he was appointed creative director of the Parisian house of Mugler, overseeing designers Sébastien Peigné for womenswear and Romain Kremer on menswear.

"Stylists are like designers," says Formichetti. "We can sew. We can design. Maybe we are less confident than designers, who don't want to put their name out there. I know so many stylists who are incredible designers. It's about confidence. Maybe you don't want to do that, come out at the end on the runway." Nevertheless, Formichetti did take bows at Mugler, where he was credited with spectacularly reviving interest in the moribund French house better known to the general public for its sugary-scented perfume Angel than for its fashion credentials.

Key to Formichetti's Mugler revival was, of course, Lady Gaga. She sported the label long before he took the reins, wearing an archive Mugler "Cyborg" suit for her Jonas Akerlund-directed "Paparazzi" video in 2009. She acted as musical director for Formichetti's debut 2011 menswear show, and modelled in his first womenswear show. And she sported the Mugler collections, allegedly purchasing the first womenswear show in its entirety. Formichetti also states she was instrumental in propelling him into the Mugler role.

"I was happy being backstage, being part of the design team," he says. "But the whole Gaga thing pushed me into the limelight. Then the Mugler thing happened. Instead of saying no, I just did it. Maybe it was too early, for me."

Now, however, Formichetti asserts the timing is perfect. He waited a year before presenting his first show for Diesel: his artistic director role at the label (where he oversees all product except the Black Gold line designed by Andreas Melbostad) was announced the day after he left Mugler in April 2013. His first show took place in Venice, close to Diesel's headquarters in Breganze, with a razzmatazz that included a vast amphitheatre, a troika of films by Nick Knight and almost 90 street-cast models in Formichetti's clever mixes of denim, leather and military-tinged pieces, as well as follies such as balaclavas with fake fur pom-poms, like animal ears.

Three days after the show, the new advertising campaign will be shot, again with Knight, whose last campaign around Formichetti's Diesel "Tribute" collection was shot on an iPhone. "Coming from a high fashion world into Diesel was a bit of a thing," says Formichetti. "People are actually nice! People actually eat food! Drink wine! You work hard but you play hard too. It's a different vibe."

The clothing is different, too. His work at Mugler was all pointy sci-fi shoulders, corseted waists, a penchant for latex – a bit Gaga, in both senses of the word. At Diesel, Formichetti is creating something closer to reality and to the street, which also links with his other day job as creative fashion director (another of those odd titles) of the Japanese high street brand Uniqlo. "We're just doing phantom things in high fashion – or the stuff I was doing with Gaga. You create these things, but they're only for specific people to wear once, or for a fashion show. I love that now I get to see people on the street wearing my designs. As a creator, a designer, it gives me such a high."

Formichetti isn't shy to call himself a designer – after heading up a major Parisian fashion house (albeit to mixed reviews) and now at one of the largest fashion companies in the world. Diesel's turnover is roughly €1.3bn. "I never had a plan," says Formichetti of his move through the fashion ranks. "I mean, when I was super-young, yes, I wanted to be a designer, for sure. But I went to study architecture and sort of got lost in the London world, just went clubbing and stuff! I found myself loving photography, doing styling, making visuals. I sort of forgot about the whole designing thing."

Lady Gaga was the point, presumably, where that interest was reignited. Formichetti was as the centre of a cadre of creatives Gaga herself dubbed "The Haus of Gaga", who devised some of those "phantom" garments for Mother Monster to model during her numerous public appearances, each necessitating a costume change. (Formichetti has estimated their daily number at no fewer than 12.) "I wasn't her stylist because I wasn't really styling her," he says of the three years he worked with Lady Gaga.

"We were coming up with all the other stuff too. I didn't want to call myself a stylist. It felt like a little gang of creators just doing their thing. I'm really sad now that I'm not doing it. I wish I could keep doing that. But I had to do my own thing. I miss focusing on something and just keep doing it, keep doing better."

Formichetti's work with Lady Gaga catapulted him into a new realm of popularity and fame. Although he resists, and is irked by, the term, he became the most famous stylist in the world. And the work of Formichetti and the clan of Gaga collaborators, including the Lady herself, to devise her often controversial but always noteworthy images, has perhaps best defined the nebulous idea of creative or artistic direction in the public's eye. It wasn't an easy route. "When I first started with Gaga, everyone was like, 'What the fuck are you doing? Don't go there! Why are you working with a musician? You're going to ruin your career,'" says Formichetti. "No one would lend me any clothes. Now it's such a normal thing to request a high fashion brand if you're doing a music video. Credits, credits! I just did that because I came from magazines, and I just wanted to tell the world how much work I'd been doing, on that bloody 'Bad Romance' video!"

All that Gaga chat diverts your attention from Formichetti, which is maybe what he wants. We meet before his first Diesel show, when Formichetti is still agonising over whether or not to take a bow at the end. (He does, but hauls the Gaga-alike singer Brooke Candy alongside him to distract the crowds somewhat.) "It's weird, and I hated it at the beginning," he says of his fame. "Then you see the other side, and there are fans that come up to you. They're crying – they want a picture taken with you. They say, 'Thank you. I want to be like you.' That's beautiful. That's the stuff I'm really happy about."

Curriculum vitae

1977 Nicola Formichetti is born in Tokyo.

1989 Goes to school in Rome.

1995 Moves to London to study architecture, and is immersed in the club scene.

2005 Appointed fashion editor of Dazed and Confused.

2008 Appointed creative director of the same title and also fashion director of Vogue Hommes Japan.

2009 Meets Lady Gaga on a shoot for V magazine, and begins to collaborate on her videos and public appearances.

2010 Receives the Isabella Blow Award for Fashion Creator at the British Fashion Awards.

2011 Presents his first menswear collection for Mugler.

2011 Opens a pop-up shop, Nicola's New York. He also launches the range Nicopanda, of clothing bearing a cartoon panda likeness of himself.

2013 Leaves Mugler and is appointed artistic director of Diesel, and also creative fashion director of Uniqlo.

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