PARIS, France — “I’ve never had to knock on clients’ doors for a job, thank God!” says Etienne Russo, knocking on the wooden table in front of him. But what might be construed as overconfidence is simply proof of an incredible success story. After more than 20 years in the industry, Russo is something of a rock star, producing perfectly executed fashion shows for some of the biggest names in the business, including Lanvin, Miu Miu, Céline, Hermès, Dries van Noten and Chanel.
The spectacular flashmob at Grand Central Station for Moncler Autumn/Winter 2011? That was Russo. The elaborate and theatrical Thom Browne shows? Russo again. In total, Etienne Russo has produced more than 800 fashion shows.
But what exactly does he do?
“I’m kind of a usurper, I don’t have a title,” he says. But in truth his role varies greatly depending on who he’s working with. For some, like Moncler, he looks after every last detail of a show, from how the models walk to the set, the lights and the music — even the temperature at the venue. Russo’s biggest responsibility, however, is making sure that the designer’s message comes across as precisely and clearly as possible. “I need to make sure technique doesn’t overwhelm the aesthetics.”
Born in Belgium to Italian parents, Russo’s love affair with fashion first began when a friend asked him to model in a show he was styling. Russo reluctantly agreed. “On the set I was more interested in what was happening around me, the styling, the make-up, the hair, the lights,” he recalls. And although he later went on to work as an international model, it was always the production that affected him most deeply.
Russo was also involved in Brussels nightlife, working as a bartender at the trendy Mirano nightclub, where he later became artistic director. “There were fantastic parties with huge sets, performers, things you don’t see very often nowadays,” he explains. And indeed, it was working at the club that opened new doors for Russo.
“There were these totally unknown young designers that we later called ‘the Antwerp Six,’” he recalls, referring to an influential group of designers who graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts between 1980 and 1981. “I started working with them; Walter [van Beirendonck] and a little bit with [Dirk] Bikkembergs and Dries [van Noten].” Indeed, for the fifth anniversary of the Mirano, Russo arranged what was his best event yet, featuring artists, musicians, performers — and five of the Antwerp Six.
In what would later prove to be a critical career move, Russo eventually deepened his collaboration with Dries van Noten. “After doing small photoshoots with them, I went on the road to work on sales.” Each season, Russo, van Noten and his sales director would drive all the way from Antwerp to Florence for the Pitti tradeshow, before heading onwards to the Milan and Paris fashion weeks. “We would build the presentation set ourselves, take it down and then transform it into a showroom,” remembers Russo fondly. “I even cooked for Dries!”
But the turning point came in 1991 when van Noten approached Russo and said: “‘You know what? I’m going to do my first show in Paris, do you want to do it?’” recalls Russo. “I’ve been thanking him for 21 years now,” he adds.
The first Dries van Noten show took place in the basement of the St James and Albany hotel on rue de Rivoli. Twenty minutes before the show, paralysed with fear, Russo locked himself in a bathroom. But it was the first in a series of impressive shows he staged with the designer. “I was just helping him,” says Russo with trademark modesty. “It was like a table tennis match of ideas.”
In 1995, Russo established his own events and show production company, Villa Eugénie, continuing to work with van Noten, as well as other young Belgian designers A.F. Vandervorst, Olivier Theyskens and Angelo Figus. And soon, Russo scored his first major client, one of the most prestigious brands in the industry: Hermès. Russo was originally asked to work on show casting, but established a great working relationship with Hermès menswear designer Véronique Nichanian and, a few seasons later, began doing full-scale production for the brand.
In another coup, only minutes before seeing his first haute couture show, sound designer Michel Gaubert introduced Russo to Virginie Viard, studio director at Chanel and a few months later the brand called him in for a meeting.
“I thought that I wouldn’t get the job, but at least Chanel was aware of my existence,” he recalls. To his surprise, at the end of the meeting, he was told that Chanel wanted to work with him on their next haute couture show, a revelation that Russo considers to be the defining moment of his career. To this day, Russo has a long-standing and rewarding partnership with Chanel, doing scenography for the brand's elaborate shows. “The Chanel shows are always challenging the boundaries of fantasy. I have a virtual photo album in my head and, believe me, there’s a lot to see,” he says with a radiant smile.
Does Russo have any dream clients? “Alexander McQueen,” he says, while bowing in respect. “I’ve never done anything so that he could know of my existence, but for me it was…” He stops there, visibly emotional.
In recent seasons, as the rise of digital media has reshaped fashion week in ways both big and small, some have questioned the logic of doing traditional runway shows. Russo doesn’t see the Internet replacing live events anytime soon. “You can’t top the live experience,” he argues. “The live experience can’t be streamed on the Internet. Maybe we’ll be able to do it one day, but as for now, it’s simply impossible.” Russo also underscores the continued importance of celebrities and other front row attendees, who “participate in the brand’s construction.”
But he does see tremendous opportunity in leveraging new technologies to extend the reach of the shows. “I think [the Internet] is an amazing form of media that allows hundreds of thousands of people, who are ultimately the end consumers, to have access." A few weeks ago, Russo was in Beijing working with Hugo Boss on a fashion spectacle which was live-streamed in 3-D and for which Russo and his team helped develop a highly telegenic set with extra depth and dimension.
And for those aspiring to break into the business of show production in today’s fashion world, Russo advises: “Take drawing lessons, architecture, interior design, history of art, photography, lighting, piano and painting classes,” he says. “Work with your heart, your head and your guts and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Julien Neuville is an Associate Contributor at The Business of Fashion.
Editor's Note: This article was revised on 2 August, 2012. An earlier version of this article misstated that Etienne Russo was responsible for the 265-ton iceberg that provided the centrepiece for Chanel’s Autumn/Winter 2010 show. He was not. The article also suggested that Russo was responsible for the entire production of Chanel's fashion shows. He is not. Russo's responsibilities are focused on scenography.