In the offices of Marni, near Milan’s Linate airport, an unusual calm permeates the air. With less than two days until the brand presents its next collection, Francesco Risso (Sardinia, 41 years old), its artistic director, chats animatedly with models as he fits them into garments and makes final adjustments. Most of them have worked with him throughout the six years he has been with the brand, which is also quite uncommon. “Here, everything is an exchange. I wouldn’t be who I am or do what I do without the people who work with me. Not just the models or the design team. Here, we even compose music together,” explains the designer, who, in addition to playing the cello at one of his recent shows, has been working closely with musician Dev Hynes for several seasons to compose avant-garde soundtracks. Artistic director Babak Radboy, the agent behind the viral success of the New York brand Telfar, and choreographer Sharleen Chidiac are also responsible for making Marni one of the most creatively radical brands on the scene today. But Risso doesn’t like to talk about community: “It’s a word that is being overused in fashion; it even sounds like a business meeting now,” he says. “We are real people here, who discuss and debate to get things done.”

Indeed, Risso has always sought that kind of creative commune through which to express himself. His early years were spent with his family living on a boat and traveling the world; he then settled in Genoa with his grandmother, parents, and four siblings, from his parents’ two previous marriages: “We were a very noisy family and we were always welcoming people into our home. But my siblings are much older than me, so I sought my own world in those years.” His grandmother Licha, a renowned Genoese seamstress, taught him how to sew. “From a young age, I started making my own clothes. I didn’t even want to be a designer, but that was my way of facing the world,” he recalls. Gradually, he built his identity through the pieces he designed, customized, or bought second-hand. “As a child, I was already very feminine, but outside my home, where we have always been very free, I was surrounded by a somewhat conservative environment. It was very difficult for me to adapt to society, so I shaped my own world, my own way of expressing myself. Gradually, I met people like me, people who helped me become who I am, some of whom are now part of Marni,” he explains.

Risso’s Creative Journey at Marni: From Criticism to Success

After working for several Italian brands, Risso began his journey at Prada in 2005. There, he oversaw women’s collections and special projects, where work “mixed brain with hand.” Since Renzo Rosso, the owner of OTB (the holding company that owns Marni, Margiela, Jil Sander, and Diesel, among others), chose him as artistic director of Marni in 2016, Risso and his collective have been able to unleash creativity that transcends trends and market dynamics. He admits that his wardrobe barely contains garments that he hasn’t customized himself, and it is this spirit that he has been embodying at the brand for eight years now: “Here we don’t sew, we mend. We don’t print, we paint, paste, staple… It’s a way of returning purity to what we do, and a practical way of generating ideas together. In fact, for the collection they are preparing at the time of this interview, he and his team have whitewashed walls and windows and removed any elements from the offices that could contaminate the creative process. “It’s an attempt not to be influenced by anything, to start from scratch, leave behind structures and tired ideas and try out what comes from a place where there are no references.”

Risso’s first show in 2017 was heavily criticized. It was to be expected. Almost since its creation in 1994, Marni became a cult brand, and its founder, Consuelo de Castiglioni, a global influencer almost on par with Miuccia Prada. Her primary-colored garments, bold pattern mixes, and geometric accessories were (and are) the wardrobe staples of the intellectual bourgeoisie. It has been difficult for Risso to shake off that past. “I’m a big fan of Consuelo, but it’s true that the aesthetic was very much linked to a certain type of people, yes. I want to think that now it’s for anyone who wants to wear it, that it means different things to different people. It has been a long and very interesting journey, we have explored different creative fields, dance, music…, to turn it into a kind of creative and diverse collective,” he opines. The colors and geometric patterns are still there, but not always. Unlike most of his peers, he is not interested in a specific style, but in a specific garment. “I have a large collection of vintage clothing, not luxury clothing, but garments I have bought, have been given by friends, or have had since I was a child. I keep them and use them because for me they tell stories, they have a life of their own. That’s the real power of fashion: using certain outfits almost like a shield because they mean something to the wearer, whatever the garment may be. That’s why at Marni we like to get our hands dirty, cut fabric, use glue… We want it to mean something to someone. I don’t want my designs to be in museums, I want them to be on the streets.” And, apparently, he is succeeding. Although OTB is not obliged to break down the turnover of its brands one by one, when the group’s results were presented in 2023, earlier this year, Renzo Rosso stated that Marni had grown by 8.6% compared to the previous year. In the last 12 months alone, they have opened 16 points of sale, more than half of them in Asia, and have just renewed their agreement with Coty for 20 years to produce fragrances.

Francesco Risso’s nomadic brand journey

Risso’s travels are paying off, perhaps because they are not just mental but also physical.

After the pandemic, the designer decided to move with his entourage of musicians, artists, dancers and models to the different capitals that represent the brand’s main markets. They have left Milan (which they have only returned to for this season, marking the firm’s 30th anniversary) to show in New York, Tokyo or, more recently, Paris.

“I like the idea of being a nomadic brand. We don’t just use cities as a backdrop, we try to do something that has to do with their culture, that connects with the idiosyncrasy of their people. If we chose Paris for the last collection it was also for a practical reason. Many guests can’t go to the rest of the sites, but they always go there for the shows, although we will continue traveling next season. In May, for example, we will do an event in Shanghai,” he explains.

But the pragmatism of showing in Paris, with clients and press gathered, did not take away a single ounce of romanticism from the proposal.

The collection was presented at Karl Lagerfeld’s former residence on the Rue de l’Université, because as a teenager, the designer had encountered the German creative looking out the window of his house. On that same trip, visiting a friend, Risso fell in love for the first time at a party, and wandered the streets of the city looking for that boy, of whom he now only remembers his smell.

“That led me to think about the flâneurs, the Parisian strollers. From there I moved on to the city’s long tradition of taking to the streets to fight for their rights. And at the same time I realized that in Paris there are always mysterious things happening behind closed doors, in those incredible houses in the center that only open for small circles. So that contrast led me to mix the idea of the urban uniform with that of craftsmanship,” he says.

Striped and checkered suits that are not printed but hand-woven coexist with garments in which three-dimensional flowers seem to continue to open with movement; there are disproportionate volumes that approach sculpture and flowing pieces that stick to the body.

For four years now, Risso has not presented separate gendered shows. Although the men’s line has become increasingly important, he prefers not to distinguish between the proposals. The idea, and almost the clothes, is the same. He himself does not distinguish between them in his wardrobe.

“Marni is a way of expressing yourself, whoever you are. I like to see it as a language,” he says.

Diversity is not even questioned here.

“It’s another word that’s overused today. This is simply my reality, the one I grew up with and the one my people have grown up with,” he says. These people who continue to paint with their hands and play with every object they find, because, although they now work for a major fashion brand, their talent lies in the fact that they don’t want to stop being children.