Russo claims he was prepared well for this line of work as a teenager, thanks to an apprenticeship in the kitchen of a fancy restaurant in Belgium, where his Sicilian parents had immigrated before he was born. “They’d make me peel 50 or 100 kilos of potatoes all day long,” he says. “Only when I knew how to do that could I move on to onions. Every day they’d be kicking our asses! Nowadays they could probably get sued for that. But I say thanks to those people, because after 35 years, I haven’t forgotten a single lesson I learned.” Next came tending bar at the club Mirano Continental in Brussels and modeling for designers, including Dries Van Noten. “But I didn’t really like having my picture taken,” Russo explains, so he started helping Van Noten with other aspects of his business—from schlepping the collection in a tiny truck to trade shows around Europe, to cooking for buyers, to eventually producing Van Noten’s first ever show, in 1991. “Of course I said yes without even thinking about it. But 20 minutes before it started, I was locked in the toilet, shaking,” he remembers. That was when Russo discovered that, deprived of soil, fresh grass turns brown even before you can get a model dressed to tread upon it. “But you go buy some green paint, and you airbrush it, and this is how you learn,” he says.
Since then, Russo has mastered a lot of other things most of us will never have the occasion to, such as how to suspend 80-ton, 300-foot-long blocks of ice from a set of railroad tracks in 95-degree heat in Berlin, as he did for a Hugo Boss event in 2003. (Answer: drilling and chains.) Or what to do when you can’t simply chuck another giant block of ice into the Hudson River to melt after the Y-3 2008 show on Chelsea Piers’ Pier 40. (Answer: You truck it back to upstate New York, where it came from, and let someone else worry about it.) Or how to make it look like a dancer is trapped behind a huge wrinkled immobile white curtain at the party for Maison Martin Margiela’s collaboration with H&M in October in New York. (Answer: plaster casting.)
“Impossible is not Etienne,” Russo said to the air during a rehearsal for Lanvin’s spring show when the designer, Alber Elbaz, decided at 11:30 p.m. that the industrial-looking set needed a touch of romance. “We will find a solution.” That meant getting a florist in the middle of the night—in Paris, a city where “overtime” is not part of anyone’s vocabulary—to weave several thousand red roses into a massive garland that would frame the door to the runway. “We’ve thrown him a lot of curveballs,” recalled Humberto Leon, one of Kenzo’s creative directors, before their presentation. “And he’s never said no. We said we wanted fresh-baked Magnolia Bakery cupcakes at one of our shows here in Paris, and he was like, ‘Okay, let’s fly the people out and figure out a kitchen.’ This time, it’s cookies from Momofuku—and what do you know? Someone is making them as we speak.”