September 21, 2016
MFF - The Interview: N°21 - Alessandro Dell’Acqua
A slight hint of a tan points to Alessandro Dell'Acqua's relaxed state of mind. Colour created by the sun on a recent trip, in a collision between a nocturnal world and the heat of the day. And these two different aspects narrate Alessandro Dell’Acqua’s evolution. 20 years ago exactly, in 1996, the range carrying his name made its debut, with its unmistakable sensual style. An airy black and flesh-coloured array of beauty armour featuring lace, chiffon and transparent materials. Stylish, but also a gilded cage. Then came the dawn of N°21, a new style adventure forged alone, devoted to daywear with a new, more free femininity. Free both creatively and from corporate excesses. A more focused and intelligent lightness, ready to digest all the different elements and changes that characterise the world of fashion with subtle attention. Pleasantly fashionable in its design, yet bright, informed and practical. A vision that begins from the brand itself, his date of birth, which Alessandro Dell’Acqua himself describes as “a new life”.
Have you finally shaken off the label of the emerging Italian designer? How many years did you have it?
Since I started with my range, in 1996, I think. And perhaps also when I started N°21. Now probably people realise that I've been working for 30 years, and that I have some experience behind me. Recently it was getting on my nerves a little - it became a burden. Nor did I think it was fair on young designers, people who were actually emerging.
Which of the new names do you like?
Gosha (Ed.: Rubchinskiy), because I feel he is different from the others. Vetements is doing some interesting things. I like this new generation from Eastern Europe that is emerging in a new movement. And then there is Sacai, which has a good mix of a Japanese mood and something more commercial.
All strong identities…
I like designers with a consistent style. Something precise that does not change every season. I’m drawn to that.
And how about you? Do you change every season? You have been very good at launching stylish items and pairings…
I try to remain consistent with all the work I have done over the years. However, I get bored quickly, and I have to keep things moving. I have to change, take risks in certain situations, and enjoy my work. That said, it is very important that people recognise my clothes and my style. Then I can work on the styling, and pair things in different ways. When you see the items in the showroom, however, you can tell that they are mine.
You have also been involved in lots of collaborations, including your ongoing partnership with Rochas. How do you manage to divide yourself up into these different roles?
That's why I like continuing to offer consulting. Because sometimes I get overcome by boredom, and when I get bored I start working on something else. It can even happen in the space of a single day. I might spend the morning on N°21, and then go on to other things in the afternoon, Rochas’ extremely lavish textiles, for example. I have kept the same staff for all my collections, because I want my colleagues to have this type of mentality. To be able to quickly move from one thing to another. I think it's important not to break up the team, but instead to work all together on the same projects. There's a lot of dialogue; we talk a lot. We also argue a lot. I don't have the boss-like attitude of “we’re doing it like that, and that's final”. I like to listen to the others to understand their points of view. Many of them are young people; I need to absorb a bit of young blood.
Have you ever come up against and argued with people over the years, and then realised they were right?
That happened with some of Sarah Mower’s criticisms when she was writing for Style.com, where she tore into me quite a lot every season. That stressed me out and made me angry, but after a couple of days I thought about it again and realised that what she was saying was not completely wrong. Later we cleared things up, and even became friends. The things she wrote wounded me deeply, but I understood later that actually it was helpful.
Over the years you have also had many “corporate” lives. What is it like starting over again?
After Alessandro Dell’Acqua, I consider N°21 a second career, a second part that I like much more. I have grown up and I am more mature and wise. I have experienced it in a different way, with fewer worries and more composure, and also from a greater distance. With Dell’Acqua, I had countless problems and endless worries, and utter recklessness at the start which can lead to making huge mistakes. I had to take a break for six months, to understand what I had done and what I wanted to do. This second career has taken 20 years off me, both physically and mentally. I wanted to start again.
You are quoted as saying "finally I can make daywear and not just eveningwear"…
At a certain point I felt like I was lost in a maze with Dell’Acqua. “You have to make cocktail dresses. No trousers, and no male looks, because people only want this certain thing from you”. I could no longer find the right path. I became tangled up in black and flesh-coloured materials, and this sensual woman wearing lace and chiffon became a nightmare. I couldn't take any more. You can still be sexy in a sweater and jeans. And then there's another important aspect: freedom. With N°21 I was a free man for the first time, without any shareholders.
How much does seeing a collection with your name that you did not design affect you?
A huge amount. It's something I can never get over. I am constantly talking on Instagram with people that tag me with that collection. And whilst there were some beautiful things that I like, in certain areas I would perhaps have taken another approach. 4-5 years have passed, and the pain still hasn't gone away.
And where did N°21 come from?
It’s my date of birth. Almost a new life.
How did you feel on your second debut?
Much more excited than the first one in 1996. When I started N°21 I was at my lowest ebb in fashion, and that was where the real excitement stemmed from, starting from scratch with everything I know now, despite the fear of taking an enormous risk, with many unknowns. I was struck by the fact that all the people I hoped to see again returned. People had not completely forgotten about me.
What do you make of the new pace of the world of fashion, where designers are constantly changing?
It is not good for fashion. Excessive change and repositioning confuses the end customer. And I don't like the fact that there is no attention given to young designers. Instead of hiring a new designer to relaunch a brand, the large groups should produce their own young designers and help them to grow, with one of the large companies they have at their disposal behind them. We need new names, and they require our support.
Have you ever said “no” to anyone and later regretted it?
Many years ago I was approached by Chloé. Phoebe Philo had just come out, and it was risky. I didn't even want to meet them. It is a brand I have always loved greatly, and I was upset to turn them down.
I'll give you one wish. You can design for anyone you want…
I would choose Versace. It's a fashion house that still has a lot to say. I am a huge fan of Donatella Versace - I have enormous respect and admiration for her, and she is a wonderful person. She is one of the people who, when I was going through a difficult time, invited me to lunch and asked me about my problems.
What is happening in Milan?
Gucci has provided a breath of fresh air, bringing back the press and high-level buyers. I like Alessandro Michele and the work he's doing; we think highly of one another. I agree with bringing together the men's and women's fashion shows, it makes sense to only show the products once. I loved it when Helmut Lang put both menswear and womenswear on the catwalk together, and I've always found it a very modern approach. I myself decided not to present menswear in the traditional manner, although it will be available in the showroom. Fashion had become formulaic, and Michele is breaking all the rules. You need it every so often, or you fall victim to boredom. The ‘See now, buy now’ trend should be seen as an attempt to discover something new in the system.
And the arrival of names like Demna Gsavalia is also a sign…
I'd never even heard of designers from the East before, and I am pleased that a generation is now emerging from somewhere that has never produced or experienced fashion before, with a different culture from ours. A friend of mine explained that the first outfit released by Vetements is identical to a Russian school uniform. This means you are offering a cultural message about your country, which certain people are unaware of. And then this Russian mood is creating extremely simple fashion, which is exactly what people want.
And what do you want?
Fashion should never be found in museums. We've already been there. In my opinion, it now needs to get out of the shops and onto the streets, otherwise it has not done its job. Clearly, you have to do it in your own way. People may criticise me. But we have reached a point where either fashion sells, or it's a failure.