The embroidery work alone on a Des Phemmes garment could take up to three days. Embellishments are hand-sewn on each piece, and many styles are hand-dyed. The designs are the products of the brand’s commitment to meticulous Italian craftsmanship, and they command a commensurate level of attention: mini crystals shimmer in the sun, sumptuous velvet fabric glows under club lights. Designer Salvo Rizza has poured his heart, soul, and the past few years into getting his pieces out in front of the world, overcoming the ill-fated March 2020 launch of his first collection to eventually land retail partnerships with powerhouses like Moda Operandi and celebrity fans such as Dua Lipa.
But even if each item qualifies as a piece of art, Rizza wants his customers to put wear and tear into his clothes. In fact, he gives you permission to totally ruin them.
“I don’t want to make something that you buy and keep as a sort of a ‘museum’ piece that you can't use, like ‘Oh no, I'm going to destroy it,’” he says. “No; you have to destroy it. You need to live in it! You know what I mean?”
Rizza describes the brand as a love letter to the people in his life. “Every time I see a piece, it brings me memories of someone,” he says. Scanning through a rack of garments from his Spring/Summer 2023 collection, Madly in Love, he shares details about the backstories of each: here’s a pair of hot pink short shorts inspired by a boyfriend, there’s an intricately beaded skirt based on his grandmother’s personal style.
On the overcast November morning of our chat, the clothes are a bright spot amid the gloom. The embellishments on a tie-dyed top catch some of the natural light in the downtown New York showroom as Rizza turns the garment over in his hands. “It’s just a T-shirt,” he says of the ornate piece, which is, in fact, just a T-shirt. But Rizza’s playful approach turns the basic staple into something more. “If you see the shape of Des Phemmes, it’s always very simple,” he explains. No groundbreaking geometric cuts, no avant-garde silhouettes. “It's like a man's shirt, a mini skirt, a T-shirt. Then I work a lot on surfaces, but the starting part is always very clean, since we put a lot on top.”
The name Des Phemmes is the result of a Rizza-style sparkle on a common enough term. He wanted to incorporate French into the brand’s name to honor his time working at Giambattista Valli in Paris, where he started his professional career. But it needed a little twist, some intrigue layered on top. “In French, you write it with an ‘f’ like, ‘femmes,’” he says. “I was like, let's create a word that sounds like French but it’s not, so put the ‘ph’ in front. ‘Phemmes’ is a word in no language; it sounds like French, but it's not. The ‘ph’ could [look] English, but it's not.” “Des” means “about.” Translation? Des Phemmes = About Women.
“It's about my women, it’s about all the women,” he says. “Because women are the force in the world. Can I tell you, [life] without women?” The designer pauses to make a shuddering sound. “You can’t do it.” The name is a tribute to the women who have helped make Rizza the person that he is today: “My girlfriends, my mom, all the women around me that brought me here.”
It was Disney princesses in their ballgowns that first sparked Rizza’s interest in fashion, his drawings of their big balloon skirts the very beginnings of design sketches. At 10 years old, he was tearing through the pages of Vogue and GQ, dreaming up his own creations that blended different collections together. By the time he graduated high school, he knew he was interested in design as a career. His parents were uncertain about the choice at first, encouraging him to go into the family business of construction. But his heart led him from their home in Sicily to study fashion in Milan, where he flourished. His Giambattista Valli internship came directly out of college. Working alongside industry vets provided a more robust education than any university curriculum could hope to offer.
“It was the real school,” Rizza says. “There's really an idea of details, of colors, of proportions. It’s not just simple garments.” His focus was in Haute Couture: the pieces were handmade and attention to detail was crucial. “It's a huge, huge, work. And when you see a garment itself, you don’t really get how much work there is.”
He offers the example of the Des Phemmes T-shirt as a way of demonstrating just how much goes into a single garment. “Even like a simple piece like that tie-dyed shirt, it’s hand tie-dyed, one by one,” Rizza says. “All the garments you see, they are all done by hand. That means that every piece you buy from Des Phemmes, the color’s always going to be always slightly different.”
It’s that kind of built-in individuality that appeals to the designer. The type of craftwork seen in high fashion, carefully stitched embroidery and embellishments done by hand. The initial concept behind Des Phemmes was bridging Rizza’s background, the luxe world of couture design, with the real world. “The difference with couture is that it is very expensive, but it's unique,” he says. “My idea was like, I want something unique but affordable. Something that you buy and you’re going to wear it thousands of times.”
Rizza’s first collection for Des Phemmes went up in a Milan showroom precisely at the start of the pandemic, which he acknowledges was the worst timing ever. “That first season was zero orders,” he says. “And then everything started to change July of last year.” The designer was undeterred by the setback and continued to press on creating and releasing lines, albeit on a controlled budget. As an Aries, he says, he was laser-focused on “taking the boat through the storm.” Some star-powered seals of approval helped to set him on the right course. Influencer-entrepreneur extraordinaire Chiara Ferragni and Dua Lipa both snapped pics of themselves resplendent in Rizza’s sparkling garments summer of 2021, and from there, he says, “it exploded.”
The traction the brand has achieved over the past year has allowed Rizza to continue to evolve with the label and take it to new heights. The presentation for his Madly in Love collection was the showcase for his latest concept of using the body as a conversation field between two persons. At his September show in Milan, which was presented as projections onto a blank wall, models exchanged pieces with each other as they came down the runway. Each trade created an entirely new look. It’s an expression of the sentiment that Rizza so loves about fashion, that ability to wrap yourself in garments from loved ones and tell a new story. “I'm giving you a piece of my wardrobe and you wear it the way you want, and you're carrying me with you,” he explains.
In Rizza’s show and in the lookbook for his latest offerings (which will be shoppable in January), both men and women wear his pieces. The easy fluidity of their mid-runway exchanges speaks to the fact that these garments, though officially billed as womenswear, can really be enjoyed by anyone.
Rizza chafes at terms like “menswear” and “womenswear,” which feel antiquated and unnecessary distinctions for a brand like his. He wears his own pieces enough to know they belong on any body. “Whatever piece you like, you wear it,” he says. “Everyone can wear it the way they want. Who am I to say that these pants are wrong on him and are right on her?” He aims to integrate pieces with more traditionally masculine elements into the label over time.
Indeed, the designer resists being boxed in. As much as he seeks to break out of any perceived gender binary mindset for the brand, he’s also looking to dash any notions that the pieces are exclusive to evening events. “I would like to experiment more with daywear, while keeping the clothes in the DNA of the brand,” he says. “I want you to know that you can wear Des Phemmes from the morning into the evening, not just to go for cocktails.”
But at the end of the day, the Des Phemmes consumer is a true party girl — or boy — at heart. For anyone wearing Rizza’s creations, though, you can bring that celebratory state of mind to anything from running errands around town to dancing the night away. Whatever the activity, one thing is for certain: In Des Phemmes’ bold colors and glittering embellishments, you’ll be shining like a disco ball.