The Impression Talks with Alessandro Dell’Acqua the Creative Director of N°21
By Dao Tran
Alessandro Dell’Acqua once again delivered a gorgeous collection for Numero Ventuno, which seduces the senses as it tickles the mind with its sexy detailing and clever tailoring. Dell’Acqua is known for his graceful celebration of femininity with delicate garments in a pretty color palette incorporating a bespoke knowledge of lingerie and knitwear, as well as playful deconstruction that proposes a contemporary twist on classic wardrobe staples through subtle subversions and novel constructions. This signature aesthetic met with instant acclaim and success from the beginning: Dell’Acqua presented his first prêt-à-porter collection in 1996, added menswear in 1998, footwear in 2000, fragrance in 2001, eyewear in 2003, and won Best New Women’s Designer in 2002, followed by Best Designer of the New Femininity in 2004.
However, following this quick growth, he put out a press release in June 2009 that the upcoming collections were produced without his approval and exited his eponymous label. Not one to be easily defeated, Dell’Acqua then started his independent label Numero Ventuno which debuted the following year, in 2010, to the same critical success and fan base support. We didn’t manage to meet Dell’Acqua in Milan during Fashion Week with everybody’s appointments and busy schedule, but spoke over Zoom afterwards with the gracious translation assistance of his Head of Communication, Simona Carchia. He talks shop about his first crush, the learnings from losing his brand, the additional responsibilities of a creative director nowadays, cultivating young talent, the normalcy of plus sizes and gender fluid dressing and more.
Dao Tran: Hi, nice to meet you!
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: Hi, how are you?
Dao Tran: Good! Thank you so much for that show – I love your clothes and that was super beautiful, so I’m really glad we get a chance to talk. Actually, we met shortly after the show in 2020, your 10 year anniversary and also right before the first Covid lockdown.
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: It’s a long time.
Dao Tran: Yes, a lot has happened in between. It’s great to talk because The Impression is all about celebrating creative and sharing learning, so thank you for making the time.
So, when did your passion for fashion begin?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: So, my passion for fashion started when I was 18 years old. My first crush was with the cinema. I always went to the cinema and started to love fashion, I was attracted by the actresses, watching all the old movies from the 60s and 50s and also the 40s. I started to be passionate about fashion when I discovered Adrian [Adolph Greenberg], the famous American costume designer from the 40s movies. That was my first crush on fashion. Then I moved to Milan and started looking for a job in the fashion industry.
Dao Tran: One can see that influence and aesthetic in the clothes, clearly. But how do you feel about contemporary cinema today and which actresses would you like to dress?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: I like independent directors from Europe and the US. I really like all the young actresses like Zendaya and Emma Corrin, for example. But I also like Italian cinema, Italian movies.
Dao Tran: You had a really meteoric rise and experienced immediate success with Alessandro Dell’Acqua. How did that all come about and who opened these doors to you, what kind of opportunities did that pose, and was that growing a little too fast?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: The secret of one of the successful people who helped to develop my business was Franca Sozzani, who supported me since my beginning with the Alessandro Dell’Acqua collection. She was very supportive of me and it was a real help in order to find the way to develop my own business. It was really fast at the beginning, but at one time, it was not really easy because I lost my own brand. So the success was really fast, but not really easy to manage at the end because of my partner, and I lost my own business. And then I had to restart with Numero Ventuno, which was also quickly successful. But the beginning, the real help came from Franca Sozzani, she really believed in me since the beginning and she was a real guide for me, not just in terms of image, but also in terms of business.
Dao Tran: With your experience of losing the name and the brand, can you go into that a little bit in order to maybe help young designers today avoid that problem?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: It was really difficult and it’s difficult to say what the best way is. I can say that we have to pay close attention when you sign partnerships, but it’s not like the work of a Creative Director or an Artistic Director, it’s very difficult to say. It’s better to allocate this business, the attention to a very good legal office because it’s really difficult to manage all these parts because it’s not the work of a fashion designer. It’s a big risk every time. Be very careful when you sign or choose partnerships with others.
Dao Tran: It feels like today, the job of a creative director is not just to be a designer, but to be a consummate businessman and communicator as well – for example, with Virgil Abloh and Pharrell. How do you view that today, because that’s something that changed very much? How do you communicate and grow your community and reach your audience?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: Today, it’s very difficult to just be a creative director or a designer, especially because we are an independent brand, so I have to be an entrepreneur, the commercial director, the marketing director, too, I have to control 360°. My role in the past was focused on the collections and just on the collection, but now I have to be on top of all the activities and doing strategies in every department – from business to marketing to communication to, of course, the designing team. Especially here, since we are a small, independent brand without any group behind us. So I need to be on top of all the activities and control everything, and it’s not easy to manage. My days are very busy.
Dao Tran: Is it a matter of growing the team, bringing people on board that you can trust who are specialized in each field to help you and support you in each different sector, because they’re very different, as you just explained?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: It’s really important to have people around that work with me on every single aspect and it’s important to have people I trust and they trust me. I usually spend most of the time in the style office working on different collections. We just finished a show and we’ve already started working again on the pre-collections. I prefer to stay with them or the press office. I also have to work with the commercial department and managers in order to do strategies, but it’s not my favorite role because it’s confusing because they speak about numbers or big strategies and I just want to be like a real designer and stay in the middle of creativity, but I also have to do the other things.
Dao Tran: I find it incredible because you don’t do that much advertising, but you have a big social media presence and following and it seems to work, so the clothes must speak for themselves?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: For me, it’s a pleasure because they usually like us very much and I think the clothes are the key because I have a real public that really loves the brand, but first of all, the clothes, we have had a very honest and loyal public since Alessandro Dell’Acqua. They trust me and I think it’s all about the clothes, first, and I think it’s about the honesty and the coherence of these past years in fashion. It’s always Alessandro Dell’Acqua in the authentic way. I like to do clothes for, first of all, women, and then we also have menswear, of course, but it’s a small part of our business. I think that women love dresses and what I do through the collection first, it is not about myself, it is first of all about the clothes.
Dao Tran: I wanted to really commend you on this integrity of vision, because instead of jumping on all the trends like everybody else, I think you have a very clear signature aesthetic with this beautiful tailoring and color palette, it speaks to your name and your brand. The question is: How do you manage to stay constantly relevant and new without jumping on the trends that come and go?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: I’m always starting from the house DNA, our codes, what happens around me. I’m always really curious, also through young people and also through social media, for example. I’m always looking for something new, but stay always focused on my codes. And then add something that is very contemporary, so it’s a mix of present and past, but the starting point is always my own codes, then I add something that is very in the present. Maybe that’s why it stays relevant, also if it works with my DNA, and not looking at the trends.
Dao Tran: To speak the trends again because you mentioned the men’s. A lot of people are doing gender fluid – so I was wondering whether you consider styling in a way that integrates a little more this kind of different opportunity for a gender independent way to wear things, perhaps. Because that’s how a lot of people are presenting nowadays.
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: For me, the menswear collection is just about an essential wardrobe for men. It’s fashion, but not too much. I’m always looking for something that I can wear, too. Sometimes, we use the same fabrics from the womenswear collection, but it’s not about genderless or not, it’s just about a simple wardrobe to propose for the season for menswear, something really easy to wear. Fashion in a few pieces, but not like a stylish proposal for menswear. It’s a good collection, very essential.
Dao Tran: I was rather asking about maybe putting a male model in the womenswear because nowadays that’s how people dress, and that would just give people an opportunity to see, oh, yes, that also works.
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: I put a few guys, for example, in the last Spring/Summer 2023 collection in female dresses. It’s like normal because a lot of guys wear women’s clothes nowadays. It’s just about the freedom of choosing something that can represent themselves. It’s the present now. When we go around in the streets, we see guys dressing in female things, so for me, it’s like normal.
Dao Tran: That leads into my question about the collaboration with Elena Miro, the plus size designer, and wondering why that doesn’t get reflected in the casting of the shows.
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: It was a very interesting experience. In the past, I’ve done a consultancy for Marina Rinaldi, too, so it was not my first time working on a plus size collection. I worked for Marina Rinaldi more than 15 years ago, before people were really talking about it. It was a very interesting experience and it was a free way to interpret my codes. I chose Lara Stone, who is not a real plus size, but she’s curvy and not the “typical” model size. It was between all the different sizes of women, so it was about looking like a real woman, who can first of all interpret the collection. It’s not just about the clothes, but about how one wears the clothes, so it’s about character, always, for me. It’s not a question of size, because we have a lot of actresses wearing our clothes who are not “model size.” So, for me, it is not a question.
Dao Tran: So, you design shoes as well, and I was wondering whether you start from the bottom up, or top down? In other words, do you start with the clothes and design the shoes to go with it, or do you start with the shoes and build the collection around that?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: It starts from the total look, then I think about the shoes that can be added to this total look.
Dao Tran: So, I had the impression that your 10-year anniversary collection felt like it was built around the pinstripe shirt, with all the different variations, proportions, and tailoring and layering and styling of it. This last collection, there is the back to front inversion and the idea of déshabillé, the different states of undressing and taking your clothes off. What was your inspiration this season?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: I started working around two female actresses – Monica Vitti and Jeanne Moreau – and I started from the Michelangelo Antonioni movies like Red Desert and The Night. I was working around these two characters and their dissatisfaction in that period, mixed with the sensuality and their erotic way to move in those movies.
Dao Tran: And what was the significance with the scorpion?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: It started from the Italian bourgeois, they always wear big brooches on their clothes, especially coats and jackets, and they usually had animal brooches. I chose the scorpion because it is a sensual animal and also a dangerous animal at the same time. So it represents perfidy.
Dao Tran: So, you’ve done knitwear and lingerie, and you’ve been Creative Director at all these different brands like Rochas, Brioni, Malo, La Perla. Would you recommend a young designer to gain this wide range of experience as well?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: I suggest to young designers to do a lot of collaborations like I did and am still doing because for me, it is a real good experience because you always have to change your thinking working for a different brand. For example, I did Numero Ventuno and Rochas and once also Tod’s, too, at the same time, and those were three different brands so I needed to change my thinking, working and focusing on each of them. So I would suggest to young designers to do more consultancy because it’s helpful and it’s like “a gym for the mind.”
Dao Tran: Yes, and I see you work out a lot! So, what work really excited you?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: Moltissimo! A lot!
[Simona adds] He’s a hard worker, he’s always at work.
Dao Tran: I see that your next appointment is with the Istituto Marangoni about the New Neorealism Mentorship Program. Can you speak to that?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: We just had the brief today. I will be the mentor to Masters students and the theme is the New Neorealism and the kickoff is today. We will expect the new collections in a few months.
Dao Tran: I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with the project. Can you explain?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: I will be the teacher for this Masters program. I just gave the students this theme because I am looking for something new. I started with the New Neorealism Italiano from the cinema, so the mentorship means I can share my experiences with the students. I think that is very important. And the other thing is that I am looking for something new, I am looking to see what the young students come up with in terms of New Neorealism.
Dao Tran: I also saw mention about the Tomorrow Project. What is that about?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: We started during the lockdown with two brands, Nensi Dojaka and AC9. One is a British brand and the other one is an Italian brand. Together with Tomorrow Ltd., which is a multibrand showroom. They are also our commercial partners. We started a mentorship program where I consulted them on their design and image while Tomorrow consulted them on the commerce side. We guided them for 2 years. They sold their resulting collections here at Garage Ventuno, which is our commercial showroom, and they did very well. They even sent models down the catwalk, so we were very happy to be beside them. For now, we have paused it because it takes a lot of time to mentor them and we needed to be focused on Numero Ventuno and our business after lockdown. But we are thinking about the next step for this project – maybe next season. And they are still working on it.
Dao Tran: I love that you’re giving back to the next generation and cultivating young talent. Since you just mentioned Covid and lockdown, Covid was a big disruptor – how did you weather that storm and coming out of it the other side, how do you see the industry and the markets having changed?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: I think that there has not been real change because we were supposed to be better, but in a way, it’s the same as pre-Covid or not better, but worse. Most of the big brands came back running to keep the markets, the frenzy is worse than before the pre-Covid period. It’s not better than before. Something changed, but not in a good way.
Dao Tran: On that note, what are you looking forward to next?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: I live day by day because I changed my mind when I lost my own brand. So, from Numero Ventuno on, in terms of business, I live day by day. Everything will be good, and I’m open to evaluate every single occasion.
Dao Tran: Is it therefore also important to you to stay independent?
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: Absolutely. It’s important and I hope it will always be good because it’s really difficult. We are in the middle of big companies, so it’s difficult to stay alive.
Dao Tran: That’s why it’s super special and, again, your integrity of design and your independent vision are things that we very much admire.
Alessandro Dell’Acqua: Thank you so much.
Dao Tran: Thank you for your time.