Romeo Gigli


The Man Who Won’t Be Photographed walks into Gigli HQ and insists his is a simple story.

“I see my friends, I go to the country, I read. A normal life, you know ? I’m interested in Modern Art, movies, literature, the country. I don’t like the city. I’m a country boy, ha-ha-ha.”


Except of course, in Milan’s fashion world – that fast, flash, world of glamour and clamour, shallow snobbery, slick insincerity, extravagant sycophancy, one-upmanship, all that fashionable fuss – simple is different. Simple is strange. Simple is complex.

Romeo Gigli (pronounced ‘Jee-lee’ – not, sadly, as some people do ‘Jiggly’) notoriously will not be photographed with the clothes he designs. He will not be photographed with anything, anyway or how. He does not go to flashly fashionable, fashion-filled, restaurants, openings, and parties. He does not read the fash mags, appear on television, and will not say ‘yes’ to having a line of shops bearing his name. He does not have a big head or a big mouth. He does not like catwalks, cat-fights, or shoulder pads. He does not ‘take the applause’ after a show. (Even Rei Kawakubo does that.)

Above all, famously – or rather, notoriously – he does not talk. So they say.

This simple Gigli legend that has been happily splashed across the Fashion pages in everything from the Glasgow Herald to II Piccolo di Trieste is that Romeo Gigli is “shy and mysterious” so does not do interviews.

Publications attempting to go beyond “shy and mysterious” have ventured that he is “a shrinking violet”, “a withdrawn recluse”, “a prima donna”, “a Garbo figure”, and “a Ghandi figure.”

One outrageously cheeky, ridiculous, rag/mag even went so far as to suggest that all the mirrors in Gigli’s country house were “blacked out.”

And yet The Man Who Will Not Talk walks into Gigli HQ – a sleekly modern, open-plan, showroom above a grubby Renault garage in a staunchly unfashionable part of Milan – and greets me with a fierce handshake, calm confidence, effusive charm, warmly congratulating me on the brevity of my time living in Milan last year like someone hearing I had become a father. 

Softly spoken with soft teddy-bear eyes, Romeo Gigli has a big, round, grinning, face and an easy, relaxed, manner that is instantly likeable. Which is all very admirable, not to mention something of a relief when you expect to be interviewing someone “shy and mysterious” and certainly kills off any idea that this might be because he is some sort of disfigured, paranoid, socially inept leper.

Dark, unshaven, with closely cropped hair, he is in fact notably, almost classically, good-looking.

Obviously expecting more dreaded questions about hemlines and polka dots, after a few elementary questions about what he likes about his job and what he wanted when he was young etc, he looks at me and with a huge grin says: “this is a very serious interview !”

It occurs to me that perhaps no-one ever bothered asked him anything about himself rather than his clothes before.

Romeo Gigli is pretty much like the clothes he makes – just like Westwood, Gaultier, Versace, any great fashion designer. And, like them, his clothes are easily identifiable.

All the cliches about them are true. They are: subtle, sober, simple, demure, naive, spare, romantic, understated, constrained, fragile.

His clothes are functional but casually elegant, almost always in soft, muted, shades, drawn to a tumbling silhouette, in highly distinctive colours that invariably have fashion writers from Moda or the Daily Telegraph racing not (for once) to the Thesaurus but to their recipe books and nature encyclopaedias.

‘Deep prune’, ‘dusted rose’, ‘bitter chocolate’, ‘burgundy’, ‘biscuit’, ‘tangerine’, ‘apricot’, ‘mustard’, ‘cobalt’, ‘indigo’, ‘aubergine’, ‘oyster’, ‘mushroom’, ‘thyme’, ’chestnut’… 

His most noted colours, though, have been colours like sand, mud, stone, ink blue, dark grey, and bottle green.

His press is equally liberally sprinkled with phrases like “delicious little cardigans.”

Gigli is the fashion writers’ sweetest boy.

Even when he recently began to move towards stranger, bolder, shapes such as the heart/floral curves (commenting “a woman is like a flower”- that particular collection’s only quote), there were no ruffles or bows or minis, no shoulder pads or high heels, no gloss or gaudy flash, no aggressive sexy trimmings.

Subtlety and, above all, simplicity prevailed.

For him, it’s still simply “just my work.”

At 38, Gigli is easily the youngest of Italy’s star designers, an elite club of which he is now, presumably, a permanent member.

An only child, he was born and raised in a small village outside Bologna. His father and grandfather were antiquarian booksellers (his father’s library at home consists of over 20,000 books) and he was brought up in a highly refined, cultural, environment. 

He studied architecture for two years – a highly fashionable reference which he has wrecked by saying it bears no resemblance to his work, saying his major influence was the years he spent travelling in China, Japan, Asia, Peru, India, and America.

The colours and textures of ethnic costume have had a deep influence over his designs with his accessories for the Callaghan line including Afghan, Persian, and Turkish jewellery.

His calm, philosophical nature is explained by his extensive studies of Eastern philosophy, and his lack of concern for the glamour and clamour of the fashion world – clearly considering it all superficial nonsense – is genuine.

Inevitably then he is not exploding with happy anecdotes and crazy tales. He is serious and introspective, earnest, rational, very modest, but neither shy nor mysterious. On the contrary, he laughs loudly and talks freely.

Gigli’s version of his entry into the fashion world seems apocryphal, evendisingenuously simplified. But it isn’t. It’s simply the way it was.

“I never thought about fashion in my life, you know? It happened purely by chance. I travelled a lot and on these trips – to the Orient, Asia, America – I would buy something to take back, like everyone else. I would take these things back for my girlfriends, who told me I had good taste for these things. This became my work when my dearest friend, who was making clothes, asked me to get specific things for her. I began to notice improvements, say ‘wouldn’t that look better if it was like this?’ At 28,1 decided this could be my work – I was doing nothing. I became a fashion consultant, became an assistant (for Dimitri)and had my first collection five years ago. Otherwise? I would have continued my father’s work, that was the plan, but my life took another turn.”

What sort of upbringing did you have?

“We lived in the country. My mother was a very elegant woman, dressed with French haute couture. Dior, Balenciaga, many dresses, many hats, many shoes… everything many ! This was my education. My father was very elegant too. It was a very traditional Italian family – beautiful house, beautiful books… I always paid attention to these things. I was very lucky, very spoilt. I had all the toys. I had a pony who was my best friend. I liked to fish, walk in the countryside. I read. When I was very young I read Jules Verne, everything. By the time I was 10, I had read all the Russians – Dostoevsky, Tolstoy – because of my father’s collection… They made a big impact on me. I was quite isolated because until I was nine, I didn’t go to school, I had a tutor and we lived in a very isolated house. So I had a lot of time to myself, yes, but I never had problems with other children. I had friends.”

And do you find it difficult to cope with being known?

“It is difficult yes, but it’s not traumatic or anything. It was very gratifying for me to find people liked my work and were interested in me, but it has its negative side. My response to it is I don’t change anything about the way I live. I live exactly the way I lived before. I live a very quiet life, away from parties, discos, restaurants. I’m a very private person, so I don’t display myself in the way the others do.”

It has been suggested you have made this your image, in contrast to the others, to expectations… That you’ve exaggerated it. Like Bertolucci’s idea that shyness is just a form of exhibitionism.

“No, no, I don’t think so. Not for myself, certainly. You see, I don’t have problems with other people. I’m not shy – a little bit, maybe. It’s just that I’m not the life and soul of the party, somebody who embraces everybody, and maybe I don’t talk a lot. I’m thinking about other things. Maybe it comes from the fact that I’ve been by myself a lot when I was growing up. It’s not really shyness. This thing about not coming out to take the applause after a show… It’s my choice. It’s not that I’m afraid, ha-ha, that’s ridiculous. It’s not my problem ! What does it mean if I do, anyway? I don’t understand the motive for such an obligation. Such a formality. Then when I don’t do it, everybody says I’m ‘shy and mysterious’.” (This is as close to aggression as he gets, and even then it’s only really exasperation.)

Your refusal to be photographed could look like calculation, merely being different.

“Well, my clothes are there, my designs. Because I make clothes, why should I be photographed? My photo has come out, it’s just something I would rather avoid. I don’t like them. So don’t print them! Ha-ha ! People are interested in my work, not my face. It’s stressing, yes.”

What’s the world you’re in like, the international fashion world?

He sighs.

“To be honest, I don’t know it. I don’t concern myself with it. I finish my work here, I go home, take a shower, see my friends, I read. You know, that’s it. It’s over. I’m not out and about every evening round Milan. As for the others – Armani, Versace, Ferre – I don’t know anything about them, I don’t know them. I don’t know what more I can say to you…”

And the business side? (Newsweek reported Gigli’s turnover had grown from $2 million in 1984 to $16million in 1986.)

“I leave it to other people. They have to suffer that for me, ha-ha. And I’m very happy about it too, I don’t want to know anything about it. Ha-ha. It’s the same thing with this notion of rivalry. I try to do what I do well – it’s my work, my self-expression. But I was born uncompetitive. I don’t like competition, in anything. If we play cards and you win. I’m glad, because you’re my friend. This would make me as happy as if I won, maybe more ha-ha. Am I curious about them? No, I have no interest in what they are doing really.”

You’re not curious?

“Never, ha-ha-ha-ha!”

Gigli finds this suggestion very funny indeed.

Gigli’s only complaint is that with his vast success, he has less time to travel, less time to read, less time in the country. Always these three things.

“It’s becoming very stressing, the pressure. It’s like every six months is a kind of exam. It’s draining. You see. I’m not always trying to come up with something different every time. It’s an evolution. The bonuses of success are having the resources to express what I have in my mind, express my ideas with more detail, more finesse. I have more possibilities now – for colour, texture, material.”

What’s the best part of your work?

“It’s the moment when I think of a design, an idea… It just comes at any moment, it’s the best way because it’s always possible. It’s the most stimulating way.”

Asked if he ever feels he is losing his innocence, he says: “No, because there is always something of a dream which I visualise. My favourite ever piece? It was this one, in this Summer Catalogue ’86.” 

He shows me a photo of a classic Gigli dress – a soft, tumbling silhouette.

“I made it for my love. It was like a dream for me, you know? It was for a party, for her. Then I put it in my collection for the next year. To see it on her was a dream.”

What do you think we learn about your personality from your clothes?

“Well, they reflect everything, everything. They are my mirror. All my emotions are there, my style, my way of thinking, of seeing and doing things. I have a very instinctive way of thinking and working.”

Is there a philosophy?

“My philosophy is my way of life, really. The way I live. I respect the things I like, I love. That’s very important for me. But I’m old now, so I know myself very well. When I was young, it wasn’t like this. I have tried everything that I was able to try: I never accepted limits, you know… I mean, I never said: ‘No, I won’t try that.’ Because knowledge is a fundamental thing. It comes from experience.”

(This includes the notorious story of Gigli’s involvement in a high-speed car-crash in which he was thrown from the car before it ploughed into a tree.)

“Style? For me, style is when you respect your own mind. I will not change, I know myself. Style is when a person focuses on what he likes, then he has style, because he has made a selection of those things, that’s his way, his style.”

What’s the purpose of clothes for you?

“They should underline the personality of the person who’s wearing them, visibly underline it. That’s the most they can be. The opposite? When they are too constructed, too obvious, too showy, too rich. When you no longer feel yourself, when the clothes overwhelm your presence. I want any woman to be able to look graceful in my clothes, that is my aim.”

Should they make you feel sexy?

Sensual. It’s more subtle. It’s better, ha-ha. Elegance should be discreet, subtle.”

How important is fashion?

“It’s important because it’s the mirror of the age. It’s important because women love clothes. Otherwise, it’s not that important. It’s not art. It’s not as important as writing, painting, sculpture… For me, it is self-expression, yes. But these pieces, when they are like dreams to me, are rarer. I can design things because I know they will sell. I love these designs, but I know they’re good for my collection. Of two hundred clothes I design in my show, maybe fifty are really like dreams for me. When an artist paints, it’s always real expression, I think.”

Can it change anything?

“Fashion hasn’t really created any great changes in the last ten years. From fifty years ago, maybe. Society influences fashion, not the other way round. There is always a precedent when there is a change. Everything in art is a continuation, even when you have something supposedly shocking, against consumerism, ‘subversive’, it’s born of something already in society… Even Pop Art or something was not ‘new’. The English are very good at that: they do what they want. They have a creativity without restrictions. I like this. It’s not revolutionary, though.”

Gigli’s personal life is more or less his own. He says there are “too manythings” when I ask him about his own personal taste, although he mentions Galliano, Gaultier, Rei Kawakubo (“We design for the same woman: young, modern…”), Fellini, Beuys, the Italian writer Sciasci, and the Hungarian Hamil Rahbahal.

But his life in the future will revolve around travel, literature, the country.

“A quiet life. I could lose this knack – of having ideas – tomorrow. It wouldn’t worry me. I would just change jobs. It takes a lot out of me, this job. When it becomes too much, I’ll stop. I like my work, but I’m detached. I could leave it tomorrow.”


“Seriously. There are lots of things I want to do with my life. It’s not so important for me, this work. I love it, but I love travelling, the countryside, reading. These things are just as important for me. I am not obsessed by fashion. It’s not my mission or anything like that. For me, when I do something, I do it as well as I can, even if it is mediocre, but I can also always walk away from it.”

Romeo Gigli is that rare thing in fashion: the man who could walk away. And there’s always something admirable about that.