Designer Salvatore Rizza’s Des Phemmes brand creates perfect party wear
The embroidery is worked alone on a Women garment may take up to three days. Embellishments are hand sewn onto each piece and many styles are hand dyed. The designs are the product of the brand’s commitment to meticulous Italian craftsmanship, and they demand a commensurate level of attention: mini crystals glisten in the sun, sumptuous velvet fabric gleams under the club lights. Designer Salvo Rizza has dedicated his heart, soul and the past few years to bringing his pieces to the world, overcoming the ill-fated launch of his first collection in March 2020 to eventually strike retail partnerships with powerhouses like Operating mode and famous fans such as Doua Lipa.
But even though every item is considered a work of art, Rizza wants her customers to put some wear into her clothes. In fact, it gives you permission to totally ruin them.
“I don’t want to do something that you buy and keep as some sort of ‘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 must live there! You know what I mean?”
Rizza describes the brand as a love letter to the people in her life. “Every time I see a piece, it brings back memories of someone,” he says. Going through a rack of his clothes Spring/Summer 2023 collection, Madly in Love, he shares details about each other’s stories: here’s a pair of hot pink cropped shorts inspired by a boyfriend, there’s an intricate beaded skirt based on his grandmother’s personal style.
On the overcast November morning of our conversation, the clothes are a bright spot in the middle of the darkness. Embellishments on a tie-dye top catch some of the natural light in the downtown New York showroom as Rizza flips the garment over in her hands. “It’s just a T-shirt“, he says of the ornate piece, which is really just a t-shirt. But Rizza’s playful approach transforms the staple into something more. “If you see the shape from Des Phemmes, it’s always very simple, he explains. No revolutionary geometric cuts, no avant-garde silhouettes. “It’s like a man’s shirt, a miniskirt, a T-shirt. Then I work a lot on the surfaces, but the starting part is always very clean, since we put a lot on it.
The name Des Phemmes is the result of a Rizza-like brilliance on a fairly common term. He wanted to incorporate French into the brand name to honor his time working at Giambattista Valli in Paris, where he started his professional career. But it needed a little twist, a layered plot. “In French, you write it with an ‘f’ like ‘women’,” he says. “I was like, let’s create a word that looks like French but isn’t, so put the ‘ph’ in front. “Phemmes” is not a word in any language; it sounds like French, but it’s not. The ‘ph’ could [look] English, but it is not. “Des” means “about”. Translation? Des Phemmes = About women.
“It’s about my women, it’s about all women,” he says. “Because women are the strength of the world. Can I tell you, [life] without women? The designer stops to make a shivering noise. “You can not do it.” The name is a tribute to the women who helped make Rizza the person he is today: “My girlfriends, my mother, all the women around me who brought me here.”
It was the Disney princesses in their ball gowns that first sparked Rizza’s interest in fashion, her designs of their big balloon skirts the very beginnings of design sketches. At 10, he tore the pages of vogue and QG, imagining his own creations mixing different collections. By the time he graduated from high school, he knew he was interested in design as a career. His parents were initially unsure of the choice, encouraging him to take up the family construction business. But his heart took him from their home in Sicily to study fashion in Milan, where he flourished. His Giambattista Valli internship came straight out of college. Working alongside industry vets provided a stronger education than any university program could hope to provide.
“It was the real school,” says Rizza. “There is really an idea of the details, the colors, the proportions. It’s not just clothes. His focus was on Haute couture: the pieces were handmade and attention to detail was paramount. “It’s a huge, huge job. And when you see a garment itself, you don’t really realize how much work there is.
He gives the example of the Des Phemmes T-shirt to show how important a single piece of clothing is. “Even as a simple piece like this tie-dye shirt, it’s hand-dyed, one by one,” says Rizza. “All the clothes you see, they are all handmade. This means that each piece you buy from Des Phemmes, the color will always be slightly different.
It’s this kind of built-in individuality that appeals to the designer. The type of craftsmanship seen in haute couture, carefully stitched embroideries and handmade embellishments. The initial concept behind Des Phemmes was to bridge Rizza’s background, the luxury world of couture, and the real world. “The difference with couture is that it’s very expensive, but it’s unique,” he says. “My idea was like, I want something unique but affordable. Something that you buy and wear a thousand times.
Rizza’s first collection for Des Phemmes was mounted in a Milan showroom precisely at the start of the pandemic, which he says was the worst time ever. “That first season was without orders,” he says. “And then everything started to change in July of last year.” The creator was undeterred by the setback and continued to push for creating and publishing lines, albeit with a tight budget. As an Aries, he says, he was laser-focused on “taking the boat through the storm.” Some star-powered seals of approval helped get him on the right track. Entrepreneur extraordinaire Chiara Ferragni and Dua Lipa both snapped photos of themselves looking stunning in Rizza’s sparkling summer 2021 clothes, and from there, he says, “it just blew up.”
The traction the brand has achieved over the past year has allowed Rizza to continue to evolve with the brand and take it to new heights. The presentation of her Madly in Love collection showcased her latest concept of using the body as a field of conversation between two people. At her September show in Milan, which was presented as projections on a blank wall, models swapped pieces as they walked down the catwalk. Each craft created a whole new look. It’s an expression of the feeling Rizza loves so much about fashion, that ability to wrap herself in the clothes of her loved ones and tell a new story. “I give you a piece of my wardrobe and you wear it as you want, and you take me with you,” he explains.
In Rizza’s show and in the lookbook of her latest creations (which will be available for purchase in January), both women and men carry his parts. The easy fluidity of their mid-track exchanges is a testament to the fact that these garments, although officially billed as women’s wear, can truly be enjoyed by anyone.
Rizza chafes at terms like “menswear” and “womenswear,” which seem like outdated and unnecessary distinctions for a brand like hers. He wears his own parts enough to know that they belong to any body. “Whatever piece you like, you wear it,” he says. “Anyone can wear them how they want. Who am I to say these pants look bad on him and look good on him? It aims to incorporate pieces with more traditionally masculine elements into the label over time.
Indeed, the creator resists confinement. As much as it seeks to break out of any perceived gender binary mindset for the brand, it seeks to obliterate any notion 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 morning to night, not just to go out for a cocktail.”
But at the end of the day, the Des Phemmes consumer is a real party girl – or boy – at heart. For anyone who wears Rizza’s designs, however, you can bring that festive mood to anything from running errands around town to dancing the night away. Whatever the activity, one thing is certain: in Des Phemmes’ bright colors and glittering embellishments, you’ll shine like a disco ball.