How Marni designer Francesco Risso built the ultimate fashion playground

May 19, 2024

Creativity knows no bounds for the quirky Italian designer who was raised on a boat and designed his latest collection in a cave.

How Marni designer Francesco Risso built the ultimate fashion playground


hen Francesco Risso was in the early stages of designing his latest collection for Marni, the Italian fashion house where he serves as creative director, he entered a sort of primal state. It began when he covered every surface of his Milan design studio in paper, from the floor to walls to the tables and chairs. He wanted to “cancel all information around us,” so that he and his dozen or so design colleagues could “make things instinctively.” He had essentially turned part of the studio into a cave.

Guests were bemused by the whole thing. “I don’t know how to explain it,” says frequent Marni collaborator Babak Radboy, an artistic director known for his work with Telfar Clemens. “It looked like a weird kind of cocoon.”

To more fully insulate the design grotto, Risso banished images from the premises. To say that’s an unusual arrangement is an understatement. Mood boards and reference images are the building blocks of contemporary fashion design. But there’s a method to Risso’s madness. “Fashion today feels like an overload of information,” he says. He had been inspired, he tells me, by an invitation Virginia Woolf once sent to a friend, beckoning her to visit the author’s country house. “Obviously, she wasn’t meaning to come naked,” Risso says. She was instead, he says, inviting her guests to shed the “constrictive structures of society” that dictated what they ought to wear. Risso found this interpretation deeply inspiring. “I thought, Wow, what does it mean for these structures that we have created in the way we design, in the way we sell things?” In the cave, his team would bring no clothes. There, they could make things “without expectations, without needs, without all these parameters that are imposed by numbers, by social media.”

“It’s been,” Risso tells me, “extremely interesting.”

In a way, the cave also served as a metaphor for Risso’s own eight-year journey to becoming one of the most captivating and irreverent creative voices in fashion.

Italian menswear is heavy with tradition, but since Risso joined Marni in 2016 he has built his own distinct—and highly unpredictable—universe. He has defied the commercial imperative of the modern luxury business, which increasingly dictates that the fantasy of fashion should take a backseat to the business of it. And by working with a sense of total freedom and unbridled imagination, he has turned a label that once lacked a strong identity into a thriving clubhouse for the fashion world’s eccentrics, rebels, and misfits.

For Risso, it all starts with a uniquely organic process. “The way he runs the studio, it feels like a workshop at a radical art school or something,” says Radboy. “There’s a real social element to it.” Like his creative-director peers, Risso is the figurehead of a brand, but Marni feels styled more like a collective, or maybe an extended friend group, one that DIYs clothes that eventually come out as collections four times a year.

At their best these clothes achieve Risso’s ultimate ideal, which is that they express something as human, intimate, and emotional as the people behind them. Like Marni’s now-ubiquitous Muppet-hued mohair sweaters, developed to convey “tenderness and love,” these garments are often bright enough to stop traffic, and awash in clown-y stripes, acid plaids, and a botanical garden’s worth of florals. (Risso adores stripes so much that he and Marni chief marketing officer Chungaiz Khan Mumtaz have had “trademark discussions” about them.)

The collective extends well beyond the tight-knit design studio; in fact, the house that started as a family business now includes Risso’s chosen family like Radboy; the musician Dev Hynes, who composes the brand’s sonic identity; the stylist Carlos Nazario; and the creative strategist Alex Sossah, his close adviser. When Risso first took the brand on the road for a series of three runway shows, new members of the community boarded Marni’s Ken Kesey bus as it rolled through Brooklyn, Tokyo, and Paris, from skaters and artists who now model in every show—Marni’s runway cast is as freakish and wonderful as the clothing—to Erykah Badu, who designed a capsule collection with Marni and went to the Met Gala with Risso in 2022.

“I don’t care to work for the sake of a solo expression of creativity,” Risso says. “It’s an adventure that I make with the people that I love.” Over and over again on planet Marni, I hear different and equally compelling versions of the same credo. “Francesco is not privileging the outcome over the process,” says Radboy. “What starts off as a sketch does not evolve from the sketch,” says Mumtaz. “The sketch is what’s important.”

Perhaps the wackiest thing about Risso’s unconventional approach is that though Marni feels like an experimental project, it sells like a juggernaut. In fact, Risso is delivering the sort of eye-popping growth figures that make retailers and bankers breathe heavily. With a 29 percent increase in business from 2021 to 2023, Marni is a crown jewel of OTB Group, the fashion conglomerate that also owns Jil Sander and Maison Margiela.

Risso is, I think, pleased by the success of the business, but numbers are clearly not top of mind. (Mumtaz says that menswear is 25 percent of Marni’s business and growing.) “I don’t think I would know how to do it differently,” Risso says of his strange and fascinating methods. “It gives me joy, the idea that we are making not just some random product for stores around the world, but that this living organism can influence people that are going to touch these clothes, and feel these emotions.”

How Marni designer Francesco Risso built the ultimate fashion playground

To me, the brand feels outside of the fashion scheme, a box with a big question mark where you are extremely intrigued about what’s inside, and you open it and there’s another box inside with another question mark, and on and on. – Francesco Risso, creative director of Marni, the Italian fashion house

It might not surprise you to learn that Francesco Risso was born on a boat. “Luckily, I don’t remember anything,” he jokes. It was December 1982, and the small sailboat on which his parents lived was rocking in a winter storm off of Sardinia. Dad was a lawyer from an aristocratic Genovese family and mom was in the real estate business; Risso gets his punk streak from his father, who presumably shocked his clan when he decided to hit the high seas. “He had a very funny way of living,” says Risso, who spent his first five years on the modest craft. It was challenging—Risso remembers being lashed to the deck by ropes so he wouldn’t fall overboard during an “extreme situation.” But with time he’s come to appreciate his childhood, during which he felt a sense of total freedom. “It really imprinted who I am,” he says. “You really are born out of a wave and you just flow with it.”

Once his parents moved back to the dry land of Genoa, Risso was the youngest in a sprawling extended family that for a time all lived under one large roof. He didn’t talk much, he recalls: “They were all so loud.” A young Francesco instead expressed himself through the language of design, creating clothing out of any fabric he could find. “I was making my own clothes in order to talk, I guess, to be a presence in that family,” he says. His first creation represented a shout. “I think it was a disruption between two of my sisters’ skirts—I probably tried to make pants out of them. I remember my sisters being really upset.” From then, Risso says, he would “surf around their closets,” pilfering garments that would later reappear in different forms.

“So that was equally my talent and my curse,” he says.

Thanks to his life at sea, Risso has always found it easy to move from one port of call to another. At 16, he moved to Florence for school, before transferring to FIT in New York, and then continuing on to London to complete an MA in fashion design at Central Saint Martins with famed instructor Louise Wilson. But his real education happened in Milan, where he spent eight years working intimately with Miuccia Prada at her namesake brand, first as a knitwear designer and eventually as a womenswear specialist.

At Prada, Risso says, “The creativity was pushed to the maximum and then equally filtered to the maximum.” It was where he learned how to translate his psychedelic ideas into products that could fly off of shelves—and that by relentlessly pursuing the former, the latter would take care of itself. Risso’s fingerprints appear all over one season in particular, the women’s spring-summer 2011 collection, which features hand-painted graphics of bananas and monkeys and bands of colorful stripes power-clashing together. “The way we made that collection was mesmerizing, from the way we painted the bananas, to the drawings, to the clothes,” he says. “At Prada,” he continues, “each moment had its own dream. It was always, always from a different point of view.”

Risso jumped ship in 2016 when Consuelo Castiglioni, the designer of Marni who founded the brand in 1994, retired from the business, which had recently been acquired by OTB. Marni was one of those rare unpolished gems in the fashion world, a recognizable but relatively undefined name. “It was a customer-driven brand, not an image-driven brand,” says Radboy. Risso’s pitch to OTB honcho Renzo Rosso, what he calls his “Marnifesto,” was that Marni represented a mystery box. “To me, the brand feels outside of the fashion scheme, a box with a big question mark where you are extremely intrigued about what’s inside, and you open it and there’s another box inside with another question mark, and on and on.”

With the fall-winter 2024 collection, Risso’s workshop unboxed something truly unexpected. The day before the show, I found him sitting on a chair in the middle of a well-lit studio, dressed kind of like the Hamburglar:

He wore a T-shirt that matched his striped trousers, and designer clown shoes. (Designed, of course, by him.) Later, I looked over and he had donned a striped corduroy top hat.

Risso was quietly observing model fittings with Sossah and Nazario, but periodically leapt up to pin a hem or swap out an accessory. I quickly realized that about half of the collection is all black, with not a stripe or flower in sight. It is very un-Marni. Which, in a way, is the most Marni thing of all. In the cave, Risso explained, “we realized that the departure from references kind of allowed instinct to be alive. That even colors were not needed.” They instead found Marni’s signature exuberance elsewhere. In shape, tailoring spongy wool suits that clung to the body and dresses that swoop away from it like a kite. And, most trippily, in texture, with hairy, Lorax-like outerwear and bags, and a series of surreal flocked-velour garments that looked like they were made with large sheets of pen-scribbled paper. For the finale, the studio had covered everything in a thick impasto of paint, compulsive brushstrokes turning leather pants and hairy coats into what can only be described as masterpieces of Marn-pressionism. Quite literally, the sketch had not evolved. The sketch would now be on the runway.

Before Risso got back to fittings, I asked him about those tattoos I had first seen on video. He showed me his palms; both are covered with inky sketches of a moon. Risso explained that the previous summer he’d had a dream about two moons. Before bed that night, he’d been thinking about a dear friend—a member of the extended Marni family. “All night I was thinking, I have to write to my friend. I didn’t do it. I went to sleep,” he said. In the morning he woke up to a long text from that same friend, a message about creativity and all the work they had done together. It was a jolt. “I saw that actually my existence as a designer and what I do, it really stands because I do it with the people that I work with, and the people that surround me,” Risso recalled. So he went and got the two celestial bodies etched on his hands, the part of his body he uses to make things at Marni. The pain was torturous. But Risso did it “to remind myself every day,” he said, “what this is all about.”

– Courtesy: GQ

How Marni designer Francesco Risso built the ultimate fashion playground