Francesco Risso, the newish creative director at Marni, has brought a skittish, almost feral eclecticism to the 24-year-old Italian house, which suits his own boyish charm – all messy hair, clashing prints and a big smile. Once known for hardworking, vaguely conceptual separates, rendered in off-beat prints and hues – and favoured by women who care as much about being taken seriously as a professional as they do about looking fashionable – Marni is now offering a more youthful, broken-down look. Think scraggy furs, baggy skate pants, frayed edges, dishevelled suiting. Show sets have featured metres and metres of scaffolding, while invitations have come with fabric and thread. The message? This is a work in progress.

Tellingly, Risso began his design journey customising clothes. ‘I never liked to wear things as they were, I had to somehow cut a piece out of it or change it. I still do that,’ he says over coffee in Milan, where he lives. ‘My boyfriend sometimes finds cut-up pieces at home, or hems on the floor, sleeves discarded. I can never feel comfortable unless I have made something my own. I was always like that – there was a time where I also attacked my family’s wardrobes, tearing up my sisters’ clothes and my mother’s clothes.’

Some saw his appointment at Marni as a similar act of destruction. There were disgruntled whispers about the fate of founder Consuelo Castiglioni, who left the house in late 2016, and the decision of Renzo Rosso, president of the OTB Group, which owns Marni, to bring in an outsider from Prada to disrupt one of fashion’s best-loved family businesses. Reviews so far have been mixed. ‘I had some strange criticism at the beginning, but I think it is honourable,’ says Risso. ‘This family has kept this thing going in a successful way for so many years, so it’s honourable for people to stand up for it.’

A cheerful soul, who is as obsessed with stories as he is clothes, Risso has no desire to flip the house on its head with an aesthetic U-turn. To most, Marni is synonymous with ‘intellectual’ fashion. Risso is keen that this shouldn’t change. ‘Consuelo was trying to make pieces of clothing that would stand out from common stereotypes – this is as important to me. My method starts from a narrative, and with any narrative there are meanings and layers of meaning. It can be naïve but at the same time really conceptual. For example, for S/S18 menswear, the title of the collection was Lost and Found, and it was talking about this boy finding himself through finding objects in a metropolitan environment – in that sense, it’s intellectual.’

A rail of Marni S/S18 looks is evidence of Risso’s whimsical and youthful approach. Photography: Francesco Nazardo

As the ‘Lost Boys’ story suggests, Risso favours whimsical inspirations. That menswear show all began with a photo he spotted on Instagram of a 1930s young man, with scrawled writing over it reading, ‘A rich boy falling off the hill’. It got him thinking about narcolepsy and Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho – he thought of River Phoenix’s character suffering episodes and waking up on the street wearing a new piece of clothing that someone had put over him, hence the layered, mismatched mood.

The S/S womenswear collection, his fourth runway collection for the house, was similarly esoteric. ‘I wanted to really connect with beauty and the appreciation of how things are made. I was trying to tell a story about this woman who would find objects in a house and would appreciate things that came from different generations and then she would unravel them and put that on herself.’

The focus on beauty and craft was something of a backlash against the casual mood of current fashion; the ‘extraordinary ordinary’, as he calls it. He’s adamant that people, especially younger generations, want something tangible, and he’s keen for Marni to provide that. ‘I see in kids the need for connection – something more than being social media-connected. They want to have an experience. They want something real. Marni has this incredible story with the Marni markets [travelling pop-ups with cross-generational products] and that has brought about incredible social interactions – with people and families and kids. I would love to find new projects that allow each space we have to generate that kind of interaction.’

It’s a good moment for Italian fashion, given the buzz around new appointments and rebooted houses. ‘Five years ago, Milan was the most boring place in the world,’ Risso says. ‘There is a great new energy. The city has really made a big change in terms of what art is offering, what creativity is offering. It seems that people would rather come here than Paris or London.’

It’s a turning point in Milan as well as at Marni, I volunteer. ‘Yes,’ he smiles. To Risso, fashion is all about the new and the fresh – ideas unhindered by planning or questioning. ‘Almost like a Dadaist, where everything was put together through intuition,’ he says. ‘I like the playfulness of Marni. And I like the idea of seeing things through the eye of a younger person – sometimes even the eye of a child – it makes the objects simpler, and more naïve, and more alive.’

As originally featured in the March 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*228)