Bat Gio, she of the superhero Instagram moniker (737K followers and rising ), arrives at our shoot in London having had little sleep. No matter. She is as irrepressible as her leopard-print trouser suit which, naturally, she posted in a 5am selfie (#myfavouritecolourisanimalia). A street- style phenomenon, designer muse and a fashion editor for W and Japanese Vogue, she lives between New York, Stockholm and, most recently, a pile in the Oxfordshire countryside. Married to Swedish property developer Oscar Engelbert, the word ‘glamorous’ doesn’t even cover it, but what she’s not is a show-off – it’s never, as she puts it, ‘Ah, look at that beetch in those expensive clothes!’ –more, this is who I am and what I love so if you like it, come along for the ride.
Currently in the middle of her global book tour for Gio-graphy: Fun In The Wild World Of Fashion, a 288-page glossy tome that is one part style guide (what to wear to recover from a hangover) to three parts hilarious romp through her adventures in fashion (from attending a White House State dinner to a Dolce & Gabbana gown meltdown at the Met gala). She looks like Audrey Hepburn, laughs like a drain and her personal style – on display 24/7 – is wildly colourful, infectiously optimistic and passionately devoted to fashion. So, who is the real woman behind the fantasy fashion life?
Giovanna Battaglia Engelbert, 38, grew up in a creative hothouse. Born and raised in Milan, the heart of Italian fashion, her father is a painter and her mother teaches sculpture at the Brera Fine Arts Academy, where Giovanna also studied sculpture and art history. ‘It’s that beautiful, very grand building, you know it, where Bottega Veneta held their last show,’ she explains – a typical Milanese trait, whereby your local knowledge is nothing if you can’t name the grand building according to which designer most recently showed in it. She is the second child of four equally artistic siblings; her eldest brother Antonio runs an art gallery in Milan, her sister Sara is a fashion designer and her younger brother Luigi constructs set designs for fashion shoots. ‘We are all very strong personalities and have many friends in common, so when we all turn up to parties together, they say: “Oh, you guys are like the Kardashians of Milan. There are so many of you!”’
Despite her early obsession with clothes and supermodels, her ambition was to become a scenographer at the opera – there was also a moment, at high school, when she considered going into politics – but both plans were averted once she started modelling and, by 1997, the penny had dropped that a career in fashion might be a whole lot more entertaining. She thought, ‘You know what? If I can’t change the world then I’m just going to make it look better.’
‘I was not a good model,’ she confesses. ‘First of all, I was far too opinionated and restless, it was not like I could stay still for a long time, and second, I just didn’t have the drive to be good at it. I remember Gisele (Bündchen) would walk in a room and you felt the energy, she was a like a goddess with endless charisma. And I knew I wasn’t that.’
But modelling gave her the opportunity to be independent and earn her own money – which she promptly blew on clothes: ‘Oh crazy, crazy, crazy stuff that my mum would never buy me, like plastic skirts, weird tops, funny boots and, oh, I remember, that T-shirt Kate Moss wore in the Gucci campaign, when it was [under the creative direction of ] Tom Ford. It was a fortune! Obviously, my mum was horrifed that I was spending my money on Gucci, not books or a painting.’
Picturing the young Giovanna, the gazelle model with a career in fashion only a heartbeat away, living with her fabulous family, having an apparently perfect life, I wonder how she dealt with the inevitable jealousy that must have been triggered – and is still triggered today? ‘I tend not to acknowledge jealousy, I pretend it doesn’t exist, so I can actually live,’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘And anyway, we had our problems like any other family, my parents are divorced. It wasn’t always fairy tales, let’s say. We went through a very tough time, like many people do and this makes me how I am, you know, an up and down roller coaster.’
Her first fashion gig was with a magazine called Pig, located in a garage in Milan’s Brera district. ‘Hey, I’m a stylist, can I make a story for you?’ she said, reeling off her considerable contacts that she’d made through modelling. ‘They said yes, but I paid for every mistake,’ she said, which meant using her own money to ship everything via UPS to and from the shoot in Paris. While Giovanna never had to endure being a lowly fashion intern slavishly toiling away in a windowless fashion cupboard, it took her three years to convince fashion editors that she was
serious about styling. Her first break was working for the now-legendary Anna Dello Russo who was the fashion editor of L’Uomo Vogue at the time. When she asked Giovanna how she felt about styling menswear, she replied: ‘“Anna, I would do dogswear, anything”, because, you know, she was this major fashion guru in Milan.’ Working with ADR was the dream that prompted many a Devil-Wears-Prada moment, such as preventing 40 models, togged out in heavy winter clothes, from fainting in the scorching heat in southern Italy, or from freezing to death in bikinis on a glacier. ‘I was always on location, always at war with the weather because, of course, you shoot the seasons back to front. What you have to understand is that with Anna and Franca (Sozzani, the late editor of Italian Vogue), they always wanted to bring a shock to the shoot. So, I soon learned that there is no problem, only a solution. And the word “impossible” does not exist. It was like a constant fashion emergency!’
In 2011, she moved to New York. ‘It was a huge deal for me leaving my home city and my family, I’m an Italian girl and family is everything, but I wanted to have more independence, a bigger playground’. Her career took off. It wasn’t just the job she landed at W, it was her extraordinarily joyous personal style captured by the pioneering street-style lensman Scott Schuman on his then startup blog, The Sartorialist. That, and the confluence of the social media uprising, meant that it was only a matter of time before Giovanna became Bat Gio Global Street Style Superstar. ‘And then it kind of grew exponentially and sort of miraculously, I was becoming bigger because of this online thing. It was flattering and fun, but also a bit of a shock that all anybody wanted to know about was what I was wearing!’
Then came Peacockgate – when the fashion journalist Suzy Menkes penned a seminal piece in 2013 for T, the New York Times’ style magazine, complaining that the international catwalk shows had turned ‘into a zoo: the cattle market of show-off people waiting to be chosen or rejected by the photographers’. The fashion doyenne never singled out Giovanna personally – a true fashion professional as opposed to the army of upstart bloggers who were merely turning up in ever more outrageous outfits for the sole purpose of being photographed – but the article caught the mood of the moment and unsettled even her: ‘I thought, “Should I just wear black to go to the shows?” But, you know what? I never wore black my whole life. Why should I limit myself ? It’s an extension of my personality so I refused to change because of what people might think. I don’t understand what is so difficult about a fashion person who loves fashion and who wants to dress up for a fashion show!’
For someone who is photographed every hour, every day of the four-week long show marathon, it must require military organisation, I suggest? She hoots: ‘Every season I say I’m going to be so organised; I’m going to take pictures of myself wearing everything I have and I’m only going to pack those outfits. Six suitcases later,’ she laughs, ‘I just bring everything I have, ev-ery-thing!’ Still, she is surely inundated with clothes from savvy designers who must view her as a priceless walking billboard? ‘They are very generous,’ she confirms, ‘but when I think about my most regrammed outfits, it’s always the things that I remix with my own clothes. Not head-to-toe designer outfits, it almost brings me no luck, it’s strange. Let’s say, what you see, is 80 per cent mine.’
I wonder if it sometimes gets on her nerves being photographed constantly when she’s rushing from show to show? Not at all. She’s shrewd; she knows it’s a two-way street: ‘You know what? These kids, they make all their money taking pictures during the shows and they have to survive for the next six months! And they are so respectful and cute, “Giovanna, please! Giovanna!” How can I not stop for them? Even if some days you’re exhausted and want to curl up and sleep.’
So how much does she spend on clothes? ‘No comment, hahaha! Let’s just say I give back to the industry, a lot!’ What about people following her on Instagram who can’t afford to emulate her look, does she ever worry she’s representing a luxury ideal that is unattainable to most? She says it’s all about inspiring people, ‘Nowadays you can be creative with so much – look at H&M, look at Zara. Yes, my Burberry coat is expensive, but you can recreate that with vintage,’ she pauses. ‘If you want to dream and you want to follow me, do it, and if I get on your nerves then unfollow me. If jealousy kicks in, which I believe is a disease that is very common, especially with women, then just don’t look. I’m not forcing anybody.’
Her wedding to property mogul Oscar was no normal human’s wedding, but the most extravagant three-day production that resembled one long lavish couture location shoot in Capri, played out on Instagram for all to see. With not one but five fabulous bespoke designer dresses: Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen for the ceremony (‘She’s so kind, so humble, a genius, I could write a love letter about Sarah Burton’) to her good friend Giambattista Valli (to party in the night of the wedding), to Miuccia Prada (for the following night’s disco) to Valentino and Thom Browne for her civil ceremony. ‘I was always, like, “I’m not going to get married”. But I happened to meet this incredible man, so I decided to marry and I thought, “For once, it’s for me, not a magazine, let’s go! Let’s make this fun!”’ (Although, of course, it was featured in many magazines – this one included.)
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Her joie de vivre knows no bounds. ‘I want to have people around me having a good time, it makes me feel better, even if it takes me being the clown for them to be happy, not to be centre stage just, you know, for fun,’ she laughs, dancing in a sparkly Saint Laurent shift while performing karate high kicks in crystal thigh-high boots, and then: ‘I developed this, erm, ow you call it, armour? Like a positive defence thing because it’s not always so easy, life, the world. It can be really sad and tough, everyone has their problems and tragedies even, so I think I use fashion as a thing to escape.’
Complaining is not in her vocabulary. On our shoot, the proposed six shots turns into 12 – her idea – and, boy, does she work it. But as she always tells herself: ‘There is no other chance than here, today, so just shut up and go. Like, there is no option, plan B does not exist. So, yes, I’m very like that.’ And off she goes, taking us with her on another magical fashion ride.
Giovanna’s book Gio-graphy: Serious Fun In The Wild World Of Fashion (£29.95, Rizzoli) is out now