Ask any creative what they attribute their success to, and there’s a very good chance “just follow your gut” will be their reply. That’s all well and good, but what happens when your gut gets you fired?
During his storied career in the fashion industry, Nicola Formichetti has been the former creative director at Mugler and artistic director at Diesel. He has been Lady Gaga’s design director and stylist for almost a decade. He is currently Uniqlo’s creative fashion director—in addition to being the force behind his own label Nicopanda. His success, he says, comes from trusting his instinct. But early in his career, he might have done well to trust others’ input as well.
“I was a bit of a brat and I just did what I what I wanted to do,” Formichetti admits on the latest episode of Fast Company‘s Creative Conversation podcast. “I didn’t listen to clients. I thought I was the shit. I was telling all these big houses in Milan they should do this and that, and they all fired me straight away.”
In this episode of Creative Conversation, Formichetti explains how he’s learned from his mistakes and grown into being a creative and a businessman.
Trusting your gut, but not blindly
Born to a Japanese mother and Italian father, Formichetti split his time growing up in both countries, but by high school he had his sights set on London. Magazines like i-D, Dazed & Confused, and The Face became his bibles of art and fashion. So for college, he enrolled in an architecture program in London as a ruse to please his parents while he soaked up the nightlife.
“It completely opened my world,” says the 41-year-old designer. “I just loved everything that was around London culture: fashion, music, art, and pop culture. That was my school.”
In 1997, Formichetti started working at The Pineal Eye, the now defunct London boutique that became a launching pad for designers like Jeremy Scott and Olivier Theyskens. It was a veritable playground for Formichetti’s creativity and served as the catalyst for his career in fashion when he took on the role of head buyer.
“Because I didn’t know anything about it, I just did it,” he says. “Now that I look back, it felt really fresh because no one told me what to do, so I just did it with my gut feeling with friends.”
His work at The Pineal Eye soon led to bigger opportunities, from positions at magazines including Arena Homme and Dazed & Confused to styling and consulting gigs at European fashion houses. “I didn’t know what a stylist or consultant’s job was,” he says. “So I would go into a company, and I would just take over the whole thing.” Which led to him getting fired left and right. “I had to learn how you basically take on their DNA and modernize it.”
Learning to say no to yourself
In 2011, Formichetti launched Nicopanda, a streetwear-inspired line that hearkens back to the fashion and art of his London days. Steering his own ship for the first time proved to be a sharp learning curve. Suddenly, he had to work his creative magic and be a businessman.
“Through the first year, I had to learn that the DNA of the brand, it had to be very, very focused,” Formichetti says. “Normally I’m always coming up with a thousand different ideas, but for an outsider, the brand became very confusing. So a year in, I had to basically say, ‘Let’s slow down, let’s be focused.'”
And that opened his eyes to the importance of team building.
“At one point it became a little bit too crazy because I would hire people for no reason, like because they looked cool. There was no plan. I just wanted to have a gang around,” he says. “It was an amazing time, but as a business it didn’t work. We have such a small team now and everyone is doing their best at their thing.”
Reuniting with Lady Gaga (and all her magic and mystique)
What started as a chance meeting at a V Magazine shoot in 2009 has turned into one of the most enduring partnerships in Formichetti’s career. Together, he and Gaga came up with some of her most iconic looks, from her music video for “Bad Romance” to her infamous meat dress at the MTV Video Music Awards.
“It’s really strange because when me and Gaga get together, it’s very special. We’re very in sync. I become more open maybe with certain type of people,” Formichetti says. “So for me it’s very important to choose the collaborators. You’re expanding your conscious or something. I can’t really explain it.”
Or rather, he won’t.
“Oh, it’s a secret. With her, it’s entertainment. It’s performance art. So we don’t really like to reveal things,” he says. “But I can tell you that we study a lot. We research a lot. We put a lot of energy into it. And then on the day we destroy it. We put it upside down.”
Formichetti and Gaga put their partnership on hiatus when he accepted his job at Mugler in 2010. But the two have recently linked up again for Gaga’s upcoming residency in Las Vegas, which has presented them with the challenge of rediscovering a new collaborative rhythm, eight years later.
“I did my own thing for a couple of years and she also did. So now we can look at the whole thing from the outside and really start working on it,” Formichetti says. “We just felt like it’s time to collaborate again properly. We need her for the culture.”