The Mugler Man: One-on-one with Nicola Formichetti

Gaga making her Mugler runway debut (left); me and the man himself (right)

Last week I interviewed Nicola Formichetti, creative director of fashion brand Mugler, or probably better known to the rest of the world as Lady Gaga’s stylist. I was expecting him to be a total eccentric (seriously, who covers their best friend in raw cuts of meat?) with an over-the-top style to match, but was pleasantly surprised to find out that he is a low-key, down-to-earth guy who loves nothing more than a good old Muji tank top.

What impressed me the most about him was how hard he has worked to be in the position he is in today – he rarely takes a vacation (apparently the only person who answers his work emails on Christmas Day is Gaga!) and juggles several high profile roles, including this new job at Mugler.  His appointment was a big deal in the fashion world mainly because he is more of a stylist than a designer and has no previous design experience. It will be interesting to see how the brand develops under his direction and whether or not it will be taken seriously by critics. Perhaps it signals a new wave of change as more fashion houses look to stylists to help propel their brand and image to the next level. Katie Grand hasn’t done bad afterall!

Below is my interview with him along with the usual unedited quotes that didn’t make it into the published story. Enjoy!

Looks from the Mugler autumn/winter 2011 collection

LADY Gaga stylist and Mugler creative director Nicola Formichetti is on fire. He arrived at 5am this morning on a flight from New York and has already been to the gym, attended a photoshoot and completed a store visit, all by 11am.  He has also managed to set up a Weibou [Chinese twitter] account and read his regular round of blogs.  One of them featured some irrelevant tidbit of information about him, but this is nothing new to the stylist-cum-celebrity.

“This morning there was something on the Huffington Post about how I compare myself to a Panda. I was reading the article and I just didn’t see the point. I still have to get used to [the attention] because it’s so new to me. Mugler and Gaga have taken me to a different level. I always stayed away, behind the scenes, behind closed doors which I love. Now I am pushed into the spotlight and it’s a really strange feeling,” he says.

It’s hard to take him seriously as he sits in front of me in tight latex trousers. Add to that his portfolio of work with Gaga, which is hardly understated including a raw meat dress, a red lace dress that covered her entire face, a solar system outfit and my personal favourite, her arrival in an egg embryo at the MTV Music Awards last year. None of this gives the impression that he is a man who wants to go unnoticed.

“That’s different, it’s all fun. I know she is a celebrity and stuff, but it’s really like mucking around with a friend. We love to make fun of the red carpet and really get into it. The egg was ridiculous. She was so comfortable in there and was texting saying it was amazing,” he laughs.

Crazy antics aside, there’s no denying that Formichetti is fashion’s new wunderkind, thanks not only to his work with Gaga, but because of his new role as creative director of the famed Parisian fashion house of Mugler. For those born post 1980s, here’s a short history of the brand jog your memory.

Founded by French designer Theirry Mugler in 1974, the brand catapulted to fame in the 1980s and 1990s with its fantastical shows, Crystal Carrington shoulders and sculptural cuts. In 1997 it was bought by cosmetic giants the Courtin-Clarins family who created a range of successful perfumes including Angel, while the designer himself did the odd costume for singers like Beyonce before dipping off into obscurity. So how did  Formichetti end up working for a brand that had obviously seen better days?

“Of course I knew about Mugler, even before the job. My Japanese mother always loved Italian fashion, so I grew up surrounded by Versace and Armani. But then I saw the Too Funky video by George Michael and was in awe of the clothes which Mugler had designed. For me it wasn’t fashion – it was more than fashion and combined music, the club scene and art. He represented fashion how I see it –as an escape,” he says.

When he was offered the job of creative director last year, Formichetti had plenty of fashion experience under his belt as a successful stylist for edgy publications such as Dazed and Confused, Vogue Hommes Japan and V Magazine (funfact – he met Gaga when working on a shoot for the latter). Add to that a high profile role for Japanese brand Uniqlo and a reputation for a cool, edgy style that combines futuristic, street inspired Magna influences (he is half Japanese) with decadent couture. A creative director role however was a whole different ballgame to styling.

“When Joel [Palix, the CEO] approached me, I was like oh my god, this is amazing but I cannot do it. I could not do anything better than what had already been done. Plus I was a stylist and already doing something like this was so different.

“I declined and he actually told me to think about it.  After that I realised how out there it was for him to take on a stylist for a big fashion house and I really liked his approach.  That’s why I did it –I thought he could understand me. He was cool,” he says.

When he took over the reins in September last year his first priority was to give the design department a makeover, Formichetti style. So he assembled his own motley crew of pals including French designer Romain Kremer who looks after men’s wear and ex-Balenciaga and women’s wear designer Sebastien Peigne. Gaga also came onboard as an unofficial muse and they dropped the “Thierry” in the brand’s name to symbolise this new collective design team.

“I don’t believe in one boring vision of someone – I want the brand to be more global. The new Mugler is not a couture house with someone directing everyone – it’s a team. It’s like when I work with Gaga, we text random things to each other and we are always communicating. It’s digital design, it’s how we work. There are things that I am good at and things that Sebastien and Romaine are better at. I tell them what I think and they tell me what they think,” he says.

Also part of his new vision is harnessing the powers of the internet – something he had been doing since his early days as a stylist.

“On twitter I started talking to young people and they didn’t know the brand. I really wanted to show people we existed and do something relevant. I didn’t want to be too elitist about it and do a small show and only invite certain people. Involving the digital world felt right. Isn’t that what every brand wants to do these days anyway?” he says.

In the run up to his first women’s show in March the online onslaught began. A Facebook page went up and he recruited a new muse through the social media network – Zombie boy aka Rick Genest, whose face and body is covered with over 200 tattoos. A 45 minute pre-show was shown on Facebook in addition to the live stream and Gaga also tweeted to her 9.2 million fans that she would be making a guest appearance.

The hype paid off and editors came in droves to see his modern reinterpretation of this much loved 1980s favourite (and of course to see Gaga). The extreme structured silhouettes played on Formichetti’s obsession with fantasy and reality, while body hugging dresses in fluid gazar contrasted with techno fabrics such as silicon and latex for a cool look.

“People were expecting Tron, with lasers, lights and fluoros. I just didn’t feel that,” he says.

“I love the simpler take on the DNA and in the showroom you can really see this. All my friends who are uptown girls loved it because they thought it was sexy and not too outrageous. At the same time the downtown girls like Gaga were going crazy because they can be a little sophisticated. The look is minimal, sexy and a little tongue-in-cheek but still luxury. It’s like wearing something a little hard in a soft way.”

So what’s does Formachetti have up his sleeves for the next few months? Aside from a recent move to New York (he also says he would like to explore Asia more) he is focusing on refining his vision for the brand and showing his second collection in Paris next month.

“I don’t want to change fashion but I want a different voice. I think it’s good other brands exist and do their thing, but I come from a different background and I want to encourage the underdogs. That’s what Gaga is doing in music. We are basically going to create a world for the underdogs and start everything again.”

As for the next show, he is dropping no hints on what to expect, and remains mum on whether Gaga will walk the runway once again.

“You know when you have a friend, you are happy to work together. I don’t force her to only wear Mugler – I work with Donatella [Versace] and Tom Ford for example. She will always be around and that’s how we will take the next show. It will be something different again, but I don’t know if I can say. But it’s going to be exciting.”

Published in STYLE (SCMP) on September 2, 2011.

And the bits that didn’t make it in…

On his origins as a shop boy:

“I started off as a shop assistant and I really encourage everyone who wants to be in fashion to try it because it is a great way to learn about the industry. Rather than assisting someone you can find out what you like about fashion and get to meet all these people. It’s great training.”

On looking good:

“If you love fashion you want to look nice – there’s nothing deep about it. All my assistants who work with me, my team, are just a group of young people who are obsessed with fashion. It’s not a difficult job assisting a designer or stylist. You just have to have the passion. For me its important the way you look at the beginning.”

On his style:

“There’s always been an undercurrent of East meets West, like my background.  You can see it in the futuristic magna influences with couture clothes that are decadent. Also the combination of high and low, and of course streetwear. When I started out I was a kid in the fashion industry so I was always this bad boy amongst these fashion people.”

On meeting Gaga:

“I had already listened to her music and we [at V magazine] thought she looked amazing but she wasn’t really loved by everyone. All the cool people, mostly in London, didn’t think much of her. That’s the whole elite side of fashion that I am not into. So when we met she was wearing a jacket that was a Margiela copy with the shoulderpads. I loved her freeness – her mix of rock n roll and high fashion and I was really into her. Music really was our first common thing. I was also struck at how professional she was at the shoot. She came in full gear before hair and makeup and I thought respect.”

On the transition from stylist to designer:

“I think it was a good thing. The same thing happened when I went into styling, I was thrown into it and you just learn it. I made lots of mistakes and I still do but that’s how you learn. That’s why I want to be surrounded by people tht I love and people that I respect. It hasn’t really changed the way I worked. Its not like I turn up and everyone has to follow or watch me. I always work on collections as a designer but also a stylist. Industry people know that stylists can be designers and designers can be stylists. That’s when the magic happens when it’s a collaborative effort.”

On Asian style:

“I want to see Asia though. I never had a chance to come to China or Hong Kong and now Asia is taking over basically. Who knows if I will move here? You know how people say they have money and no style? With time you can get style. People here can learn. Its not something you are born with it – you can buy style in the sense you can learn about it by travelling the world etc. Its going to be real interesting here.”