Left: NO.21 shirts. Right: NO.21 pinafore, dress, and socks; stylist’s own shoes (worn throughout); model’s own earrings (worn throughout).Shop
Left: NO.21 dress. Right: NO.21 top, shirt and skirt.Shop
NO.21 pinafore, dresses and socks.Shop
NO.21 vest, skirts and jumpsuit.Shop
Nostalgia looks slightly different for everyone. For me it looks a lot like the late 90s, when I was new to the grown-up world and it all seemed so beguiling and dangerously close to my fingertips. Like just about every decade in the 20th century, it was a time of cultural change – art, music, cinema, fashion were once again on the move and by the mid 90s, seemingly overnight, everything again felt vastly different. A fresh wave of unfathomably cool muses stormed the fashion scene – girls who embodied a new aesthetic, a new attitude, and a whole new way of interpreting fashion. Kate Moss, Erin O’Connor, Devon Aoki, Carmen Kass, Stella Tennant – these were women who appealed to girls like me, a waifish flat-chested teen with a misguided punk attitude. These were the kind of girls who could wear a wisp of gauze, completely sheer, with what underneath? Nothing really. Tiny silken slips that were once, in another era, called negligees, hanging so loose they might slide off to nowhere at any moment, and who would mind? Not them. The kind of girls who could wear a designer like Alessandro Dell’Acqua, exactly like I wanted to: gangly limbs, thrown-back hair, no bra, no care. These were the girls of the time, and Dell’Acqua was the guy who knew how to dress them. In reimagining the romanticism of cinematic nostalgia for a contemporary milieu by incorporating elements of the androgynous, minimalist and nouveau punk sensibilities that were emerging at the time, Dell’Acqua helped define an era and a new kind of femininity.
After surrendering his eponymous label, founded in 1996, Dell’Acqua took on creative roles at various fashion houses including Les Copains and Brioni, until in 2013 he was approached by iconic French fashion house Rochas to take the helm. Alongside his work with other labels, Dell’Acqua also commenced a project entirely his own: No. 21. It’s his lucky number, and it really must be because within moments No. 21 outgrew the small factory in Bergamo, Italy, where it began in 2010, and now finds itself in major stores and online retailers around the world, with flagships in Tokyo and Milan. It’s the passion project – the comeback tour if you will – that sees Dell’Acqua once again speaking to a new generation of unfathomably cool fashion renegades.
Your new label No. 21 has gone from strength to strength since its inception in 2010. Tell me about what inspired it and how it came into being.
In a moment of my life where I was forced to make a change, I decided to create a brand that was able to make me create something completely new with respect to the past but without losing my DNA. That’s how No. 21 was born. As creative director, I decided to concentrate all my energy on a new project reinventing my vision [with] a clothing line that mixes up my experience as designer, especially for knitwear, with a new approach towards a contemporary and wearable ready-to-wear collection. The No. 21 DNA is feminine and sexy but with a strong contemporary attitude, even during the day. With No. 21, in fact, I really wanted to develop the daywear, which is an important part of the whole collection.
You’re also head designer at Rochas as of 2013. Is it challenging designing for two very different labels, and how do you creatively navigate the design process of both?
For Rochas, I always had the idea of high quality and luxury through all the collections. Even if the first collections were seen as very sporty, it didn’t take anything away from the high luxury silhouette Marcel Rochas was proposing. This new adventure is one of the most important work recognitions of my life. After a long career, I was really surprised and pleased to be approached for this position. The Rochas woman is self-confident, passionate (for arts, inspirations, travels…), she loves the freshness of chic sportswear, and at the same time she can be more feminine and sophisticated for eveningwear. In terms of resources I work on the two labels with the same team of designers. I switch my mind and my days in two sides.
How does the ethos and style of each label differ?
My signature in terms of unexpected matches is the same. What makes the difference is the idea of the woman behind each brand. The Rochas woman is definitely more eccentric: the finest and richest design and fabrics, that belong to a couture heritage, are worn with an easy-wear attitude. The No. 21 woman is practical yet seductive at the same time: the collection reflects every woman’s unique and individual will and overlaps today’s many forms of femininity.
You’ve had a long and prolific career as a designer. What were some of the major turning points in your journey – the moments that have had the most profound impact on you?
After collaborating with major Italian brands I finally had the chance to launch my own label in 1996. I decided to name it after myself because I wanted it to perfectly match my own taste. Once my dream was to create the perfect collection for the perfect catwalk. Nowadays I am satisfied with my job when I realise that so many people enjoy wearing my clothes, despite having my name on labels or shop doors. The most profound impact on me was when I lost my label Alessandro Dell’Acqua. I was really depressed because it felt like losing my own identity. I looked for help from other companies but no one wanted to invest in a new label without my name. I had to wait more than six months before launching No. 21. For a long time I suffered from seeing a collection with my name that had nothing to do with me.
How does No. 21 represent where you’re at as a designer now? To be honest I am really happy about the success of No. 21 and the respective link with my creative direction for the brand. This is a very important time for No. 21, as in January 2016 it [opened] its first flagship in Italy, at Via Santo Spirito 14 in Milan ... The impressive new location is part of the business development plan that No. 21 set in motion in 2014 with the opening initially of a flagship in Tokyo and subsequently of three in-store shops in South Korea.
In your opinion, what is the key element of great design?
To me it’s always important to be true to my signature.
What inspires you creatively?
When I’m designing I’m not so much inspired by a specific muse, artist or an art expression, it’s more about atmospheres and sensations. Everything that surrounds me is constantly inspiring my work. The web and the social networks are also a good source of inspiration.
Who has influenced you most in your life?
How do you think the fashion industry has changed over the course of your career, for better and worse?
The standard of beauty has changed over the years: the woman in the 90s was more about essentials, with clean lines – now women need to feel more special. The contemporary standard of beauty is a reflection of our era and I love creating something that makes women feel unique and beautiful. Also, I believe that the last economic crisis has changed fashion foundations. Everything today is more wearable.
Where would you like to see it go in the future?
I think it is important that the fashion system and its protagonists come back to dictate the style trends all over the world. I would like the Milan Fashion Week to be stronger and more effective as in the past. I would also like to see young talents be able to make their way and share their ideas in the worldwide system.
Aside from No. 21, what would be your dream creative project?
I’d like to measure myself as a director of a short/long film. Since I was a child I have always been fascinated by the film industry. My grandfather took me to the cinema almost every day. One day I would like to challenge myself and put into practice what I have learnt from the filmmakers of the Golden Age of Italian cinema.
WORDS Anna Harrison
PHOTOGRAPHY Sam Hendel
FASHION Bridie Gilbert
MODEL Iben Sund @ Oui Management
HAIR Kota Suizu @ Caren using Bumble and bumble
MAKEUP Florrie White @ D+V Management using Clinique
FLOWERS Simone Gooch @ Fjura
STYLIST’S ASSISTANT Lexie Miles